Another world…

Posted: August 28, 2008 in prisoner writing, teaching

When I pull into the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex I have to stop at a speaker box to announce myself.  I silence my radio, afraid perhaps that my worthiness as a volunteer will somehow be judged by any music I might be listening to. I wait for a guard in a tower several hundred feet away to welcome me to the prison and ask how he can help me. The most I ever ask is for him to tell me where to park. I can’t help but wonder if he has to keep a firearm of some kind sighted on me — just in case.

As I pull away from the speaker box and the guard’s invisible voice there is no doubt I’m leaving one world to enter another. Here my vehicle and person can be searched. Here I have to exchange my driver’s license for a red prison badge with my photo (some potential volunteers have apparently not been able to make it passed this point — having their picture and name so visible to the prisoners), which hangs vertically as opposed to horizontally as the prisoners’ do (theortically this makes me easier to identify in case of an “emergency”). I have to lock away my keys, pass through a metal detector, have my hand stamped with invisible ink which I must show to the guard at the third doors I have to be buzzed through and sit in a room trying to help facilitate a workshop while guards monitor everything we do on video camera.

There’s no doubt who is in control in prison. It’s definitely not me.

Yet I keep going back. I go back because the men in the workshop keep coming back. They come despite the fact that they have limited or no access to computers, so they have to hand write their pages. They come back despite sharing an 8×10 cell with another man who may insist on having the television on all the time so there is no quiet time to write. They come back despite silence from their family. They come back despite violence. They come back to try and understand how they can see the story of their lives differently, not only as a convicted man who has harmed others, but also as a hero on a journey over which he can have some control, if he so chooses.

These men are poets, essayists, fiction writers and memoir writers. If you ask them though most will try to tell you they are anything but a writer, and they are certainly not heros. Yet as a writer I know that it takes great acts of courage to write when no one is applauding your efforts, when the “system” (whatever it might be, we all live in one or another) does not reward the sweat of creativity and when there is no promise of any reward greater than to have the words out of your head onto paper.

  1. Katie C. says:

    A hero over a journey? Did you really just compare criminals to “heros?” I’m liberal but jeez…that’s a stretch.

    • islandwriter says:

      Thank you for your honest comment.

      The goal of our work at MCC is to try and provide a different framework for the men there to think about their lives — both before coming to prison, while there and, perhaps most importantly, upon their release. Our aim is not to define them as heroes in an attempt to excuse their crime (and for what’s it’s worth none of the men in our particular program deny that they are guilty of their crimes), but rather to give them an opportunity to see their “story” in a different way, a way that may help them to better examine how they ended up where they are and give them something to consider when they are no longer incarcerated.

      To define them as criminals and criminals only does not do much to forward the mission of rehabilitation, which our correctional systems profess to strive toward. And to not attempt to rehabilitate (as most of these men will one day be released) does not keep us, the non-criminals, safe – also a primary goal of the correctional system.

      Do I think that all men in all prisons ought to be seen as heroes? No. Do I think some men benefit from being a giving an alternative context in which to reflect on their lives? Yes. That is our aim.

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