The Diana Claitor interview

Interview information

Date of interview: October 4, 2011
Location: ADAPT of Texas office, 1640 East Second Street, Austin, Texas
Interviewer: Layla Fry
Videographer: Shannon Elizondo
Equipment: Flip digital camera
Recorded on: Drive within the camera (no cassette)
Transcriber: Virginia Marie Raymond
Given to narrator for review: January 10, 2012
Narrator changes or corrections: Yes, incorporated in this version of the transcript.
Other restrictions: None
Consent for web publication granted? Yes, pursuant to Diana Claitor’s to Virginia Raymond e-mail of January 10, 2012

Transcription of “Listen for a Change” interview with Diana Claitor

Layla Fry: Well, thank you for being here, Diana. I’m very excited to hear about your story. You mentioned a little bit about the Texas Jail Project, and specifically the Listening Project, and I’d love to hear more about that.

Diana Claitor: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Layla Fry: Tell me more.

Diana Claitor: The “Listening Project” was — is — a fancy name for stories from inmates and former inmates. It started up as soon as we started the Texas Jail Project about four years ago, because we thought that one of the most powerful ways we could communicate to the public, and win sympathy for inmates, was by having real life stories rather than statistics or just another exposé of a bad jail, or things like that.

So we – mostly I – have asked people, every time I’ve heard from a family member or an inmate when they get out of jail, I say, would you please consider telling us your story about your experience in that Dallas County Jail or in the Comal County Jail, or when you were in San Antonio.

Most of the time people want to forget it. Most of the time I don’t hear from people after whatever crisis, situation, is going on is over. And that’s totally understandable.

But every once in a while – this is interesting in itself that those few people who want to do it, a lot of times they’ll even volunteer – there’s a gentleman over in Montgomery County, for instance, Al, who had a very bad experience. He went in for D.U.I. He thought as a regular middle-class white guy turning himself in he’d be treated with a – you know, as someone who hasn’t done that big a deal, and as someone who has turned himself in, and is there to do their time. And he was rapidly taught the lesson that he was scum, just like the worst scum that was in there, and his family was scum when they came to visit. And he was heartbroken and traumatized by all the things he experienced in that three months, and his first impulse when he came out was to tell that story, and he was online looking for somebody that cared to know about this terrible experience when he came on our website. And he said, the first thing I saw was your description of what you wanted to do was help the mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, and children of people because these were real people, and they deserved to be heard and treated well when they were incarcerated.

And he said he just looked at it and almost burst out crying. He said, I, for the first time saw that there was somebody out there that cared what hell people go through in Texas county jails. And he said, could I write down my story and tell you what it was like from “Day One.”

So this was kind of intriguing. There was that aspect and then there was me asking people for – could I interview you, could I talk to you? And also, could our volunteers, because I wanted volunteers to get interested in it and find out what this was like. So several times I would give a person’s name and number to a volunteer and they would talk to them on the phone – it’s an imperfect way – but they would do a nice interview and then we would write it up and put it under inmate stories.

And then the reaction was all that we hoped for. The first thing you notice when you go to Google analytics and look at our website, is how many visitors read those Inmate Stories. Of course people go for information too, for specific problems.

Like they need advice on how to make a complaint, how to get help for an inmate who’s suffering in some bad circumstances. They need a medical release form because the jail won’t tell them anything about their inmate and the medical care the inmate is getting, and yet the jail won’t explain that all they need is a medical release. So we got a medical release; we put it on there. So those two things are pretty cut-and-dried, they happen over and over and over. Sometimes they’re very tragic when people are sick and they’re not being cared for.

But, the other thing is that people — the public, lawyers, everyone, other inmates, ex-inmates, families – go to “inmates stories,” and they read those stories and they write comments. And that’s what really gets people here [gestures toward her heart] and I think can begin to influence the public into a different way of thinking about incarceration.

These are small steps, but it’s powerful when you hear someone say, My God! I never knew that that would happen to a woman – that she wouldn’t be given Tampex or Kotex and sit on a concrete bench and not be able to move because she was so ashamed because she was menstruating, and they wouldn’t give her anything. And to hear that person tell it in their own words and – you know, other gruesome examples.

But also some heartening things, how people work together in jail, that sort of thing. The impact of that on the ordinary reader is, I think, powerful. So I wanted to do more histories of people and more, get a better sense of how to do oral histories, and thought this class, this workshop, would be good.

Layla Fry: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve learned so far? What’s made an impression on you?

Diana Claitor: Well, some of it is simply kind of bringing out in me things that I sensed that I was doing wrong, it’s finding out that, yes, I talk too much. Or yes, I react too much. We [at the Texas Jail Project] haven’t been doing videos where it’s much more dicey and you have to keep that in mind, but it’s still real important not to make it something about yourself, and not to interrupt too much, and so I think that the “Listening Project” idea is great. I just need to learn more techniques on listening. [Laughs] And also try to build into our website, and in other ways get the word out that we’re looking for stories. I think we need to do that more carefully. More energetically.

And I think that videotaped oral histories would be so powerful, and they would add so much to our project, and to any issue or project that you’d be working on. I think the video is very powerful.

In looking at the Texas After Violence Project videos, they’re just enormously engrossing and you think about them for hours and days afterwards. I still think about one in particular. I’ll never forget it. And that probably wouldn’t have happened with just the audio or just the written, although those can be very powerful.

So I think I’ve learned that – what else have I learned? I’ve learned, re-learned, stuff that I learned along time ago, like putting the camera near the person who’s asking the question. [Laughs] And having silence.

I was once in a long T.V. interview, present during a long T.V. interview, Bill Moyers interviewing John Henry Faulk, who was a performer and progressive leader here in Austin and in New York. And when we started the interview, he said, we’re going have to turn off all the air-conditioning. I’ll never forget that ‘cause it was very hot and it got very still. And John Henry liked to talk and it went on and on and on and two and a half hours, the sweat pouring off of everyone [laughs, moves hand down her face]. So every sound is very important. And I had kind of forgotten that aspect.

And of course many philosophical things that we’ve been talking about are important.

Setting up expectations. That is particularly important if we’re going to do criminal justice, inmate interviews, because just like answering a letter or talking to a person can set up expectations with people who’ve been wronged by the criminal justice system. They’re filled with such outrage and such anger and such disbelief in what has happened to them, that when someone starts listening to them, they think, Oh, Thank God, somebody is going to do something.

So I’ve actually been told that the reason why some people were so hesitant to talk to me in one town, in Abilene, was because they had had a very kind of embittering experience of having A.C.L.U. come there and talk to them all. And they thought something was going to happen, and nothing happened, and they took it very personally. They felt disrespected and very wronged. I don’t think they were misled, I just think they completely misinterpreted what was going on.

And so when we came there, they were suspicious and not sure. And luckily, just by sheer accident, I was emphasizing what we could and couldn’t do, and what we were trying to do, and then they understood that. And they gathered around us. And they still write us and we still have a relationship with that town.

So, there’s a lot to learn. Those are some of the things I’ve learned.

Layla Fry: Wonderful. So, before we close, is there anything else you’d like to say?

Diana Claitor: No, I don’t think so. I think I’ve run on quite enough! [Laughs]

Layla Fry: Thank you so much.

Copyright Diana Claitor, 2012. Used with permission.