Archive for September, 2008

This weekend I read the guys’ writing in preparation for going back up to Monroe on Wednesday. One man had given me two pieces of writing. The first is a collection of three prose pieces and two poems about arriving in prison for the first time. The second, a story he had written for his son about a young boy and his dog that save a queen bee from an evil bear (it’s adorable and I’ll try to get permission to post excerpts of it). I read the pieces about his experience in prison first. Then the story he had written for his son. Then the rest of the night I spent thinking about how one man can be so many things – a prisoner and a father are only two parts of this man. What other stories could he tell? What else has he seen? Experienced? Considered? He holds within himself both the ability to survive prison and the ability to love and care for his son. Multi-faceted. Complex. These are not words often associated with inmates, yet there it is, in the writing that I carry around with me each week, reminding me to always remember that each person I meet is more than I will ever be able to know about him.


Imagine how many stories are held at Monroe. The walls must vibrate with them.


Posted: September 24, 2008 in prison, general, teaching

My sister dropped off the most recent edition of Harper’s Magazine so I could read a hilarious exchange between Giles Coren, restaurant critic for the London Times Magazine, and his subeditors over their removal of an indefinite article in one of his articles. For those of you who are word snobs or editing snobs or simply like to see the two go at it I highly suggest reading it. In the same issue, however, I also read exerpts from Joshua Casteel’s collection, Letters from Abu Ghraib, which is a gathering of emails he sent while he worked as an interrogator at the infamous prison. In an email dated July 24 he writes about learning that the “results” of one of his interogations has netted “valuable information”. He writes about his method for getting the “information” from the detainee:

“That was a big boost of confidence [learning he had gotten valuable information], since the best thing I did was simply to respect him and talk to him as if I had not idea of his past crimes — which were unbelieavable — and, apparently, valuable information was gleaned. Listening goes so much further than speaking. Listening to the cues of a person who does not want to come right out and say something is not only what interrogation is about, it’s what being a decent human being is about. Listening to them tell their own stories is what I value, and now so do the ‘higher-ups.” I think this is God’s answer to prayer, a little bit of sense in this madness.” (Harper’s, October 2008, 23)

Now, I certainly don’t claim that my work with the men at Monroe is the same as Casteel’s work with the men at Abu Ghraib. It is not my “job” to get the men at Monroe to tell me their story so I can obtain information that may or may not save thousands of lives elsewhere in the world. Yet, what Casteel writes about the power of listening to story still applies. As a volunteer it is sometimes easy to walk into some place like Monroe and assume you are going to have a lot to teach the people there, that they will want to listen to you. What Casteel reminds me is that sometimes, a truly gifted teacher, knows when to stay silent and let the student tell you what he knows. Indeed, my experiences thus far at Monroe, have taught me that I know far less than I ever thought I did.

And to listen is “what being a decent human being is about”. To be able to remain silent about yourself, thus giving space, unfilled space, to another to share his story, is perhaps a perfect definition of decency. Not to mention compassion and empathy.


Posted: September 20, 2008 in prison, general


Fall equinox is in only a few days. Already the late summer light is disappearing earlier, and despite the early September sunshine we have been blessed with here in the northwest (after a particularly dismal late August) the days are growing cooler, the leaves continue to turn and the first of the Christmas catalogs (!) have begun to arrive. Since our summer here was scarce to say the least, I am a bit more reluctant than usual to face the coming change of season. Yet, tonight I read a note I had scribbled during an evening at Monroe a few weeks ago – “there’s no air conditioning here” – and I am reminded that I know of a few men who must be terribly relieved to see the arrival of fall. Now I have to ask them if there is any heat in their cell in the dead of winter?

A week off

Posted: September 17, 2008 in prison, general, prisoner writing, teaching

We aren’t going to Monroe tomorrow night. Volunteers can only go into the prison if the program has a sponsor, and for another month our program only has one sponsor, Gloria. So, if Gloria can’t make it, no one can go in. I’m signed up to take the sponsor training in October, which clearly does us no good for tomorrow night. Being a sponsor means you assume responsibility for the program’s volunteers and for the program. It’s not a small responsibility, and when Gloria first asked me I admit to hesitating. Shouldn’t I have to be involved for a year? At least? I was scared to think of running the group by myself. It still scares me a little, to be honest. Prison, for all it’s rules and procedures, never quite loses the feeling of being an intensely unpredictable place. Yet, now that I’ve been involved in the program for several months I know how important it is to the guys and to me that we are there on a regular schedule. I don’t want to miss a Wednesday. I know how important it is to the guys that we don’t miss one either.

In October it will be remedied and I’ll have my badge of sponsorship, which ultimately only means that if something goes wrong I’m the one the prison will hold responsible. No pressure!

Truthfully, it’s hard to miss a night at the prison. It means we aren’t there for a month, and a lot can happen in a month. New guys can come in. Others might be released. Fights. Illnesses. Trials. Divorces. What I like to imagine is that all of the guys in our group have found a quiet place to write and are inspired to bring us as many pages of new work as they possibly can by October 1st. What I know is that it is hard to stay motivated when the deadline is so far away — even for those of us on the outside. What I know is that like the rest of us, men in prison can have stressful weeks, weeks that get away from them. Life can pile up. Letters from family can cause distraction. A new cellmate can cause chaos. Violence elsewhere in the prison can cause the whole place to be locked down. Extra energy? Extra time? Who has it? We all need someone standing over our shoulder telling us to keep putting pen to paper, to cheer us on. I feel like that’s part of what we do for these guys, and I take it seriously. I want their words to hit that paper often, and I worry about how their writing will slow when we are not there.

In the meantime, I have work from the guys to critique, and so I will spend time with their words one way or another tomorrow night.

It is probably safe to say that generally the prisoners see the prison guards as enemies and the prison guards see the prisoners as enemies. To be allies would make life on the inside impossible. How can a prisoner appreciate those who maintain his imprisonment? How can a guard respect a man he is trained to dehumanize in order to successfully and safely do his job? If they do not describe one another as enemies, I doubt they use the word ally.


I was thinking this morning though of the guard who checks us volunteers in every Wednesday we go to Monroe. How to us he is an ally. He has to be. Even if he wasn’t likeable (which he is) we have to make him our friend. Frustrate the guards and you may suddenly find your program out of the prison. These guys are often working double shifts, not making nearly enough money for the crap they have to put up with on a daily basis and if you can try to imagine the psychological state one must put himself in to work in a correctional institution (really, close your eyes and imagine being surrounded by men you have been trained to believe would kill you if they could). As volunteers we are only one more extraneous thing the guards have to deal with during their already too long and too stressful day.


Guards are gatekeepers to programs such as ours. In terms relatable to work with the hero’s journey, the guards are the threshold guardians, the last one standing between the free world and the world inside prison. When it comes to threshold guardians the hero has to find a way around him in order to continue on with the journey. The way “around” the prison guards?


Play by the rules.

Be on time.

Do whatever you can to make the check in process smooth (i.e. wear clothes with little metal that will get through the metal detector, don’t wear jewelry, wear shoes that are easy to take on and off, only try to bring in what you know you have permission to, etc.).

Say thank you.


One of the tricks to working inside a prison is you have to see everyone as a potential ally – guards and inmates.


Enemies, allies and tests

Posted: September 6, 2008 in prison, general

This week we talked with the guys about the stage of the journey when the hero has crossed over the thresold from the ordinary world to the new world where he will finally begin his adventure. Upon arriving in this new world the hero has to as quickly as possible orient himself to the ways of the new world, assess new people he meets as to whether they are friend or foe and then face many new tests as he begins his journey in this new place. Chris Vogler writes of this phase of the journey, “here the hero is a freshman all over again in this new world.”

I wrote in the previous post that I feel prison is a good example of crossing a threshold into a new world. These men literally walk through a set of doors and are surrounded by new rules, new expectations and new people. No one knows who is a friend or who is an enemy. New prisoners come and go. Guards rotate assignments frequently. There is order and there is chaos all at the same time. It is important to find your allies. It’s also important to identify your enemies. There are the prison rules and then there are the prisoner rules. Don’t cut in the chow line, for example, is an offense punishable by violence.

Much like being a freshman these guys have to try and establish their place within the prison hierarchy. Power is as important on the inside as it is on the outside. Having the right kind of power can keep you safe and make the time easier. Not having power makes you vulnerable and a target.

I’ve been thinking since Wednesday about how so many of us look forward to new adventures, leaving our old worlds behind and striking out on our own to do something new. Prison is clearly not that sort of adventure, yet some who find themselves behind the walls learn just as much, if not more, than those of us who have the freedom to choose our next path (and yes, I understand that in some way the men do choose prison by making the choice to commit a crime). It’s not all the men who struggle to come out better than they went in. I’m even willing to admit it’s probably a small percentage of the prison population. But I can’t get over the fact that the men who come to our group come because they are trying to answer the questions how the hell did I get here? and how the hell do I make sure I never have to come back? And isn’t that what we on the outside want them to be asking? Aren’t those the questions we want to encourage? If so, then someone has to be there to listen and to encourage them to keep asking. Just keep asking.

From the ferry: 9/3/08

Posted: September 4, 2008 in from the ferry

My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.


Here’s what is sitting with me on the ferry ride home tonight:


This morning I was distracted and caught only a bit of a story on the radio about a penitentiary locked down over the weekend. I thought it was Monroe (it wasn’t, it was Walla Walla) and it was strange to notice that my first thought was worry for the guys in our group. What if one of them was hurt? Or worse perhaps, what if one of them was a part of the violence and I found out? How many people are out there who worry about the men on the inside? How many people can see a face when they hear on the radio that units have been locked down, that men spent the weekend in their cells or that inmates were hurt? I can.


In the group tonight I am worried at first because two of our “regulars” had not shown up. They arrived an hour late, much to my relief. I realize that the more I get to know these guys the more it matters to me that they are doing the best they can on the inside, that they are at least safe from week to week. I see them working so hard in the group and I get to know them beyond their crime and it is difficult for me to imagine the rest of their daily life, how quickly it can change and how little control they have over any of it.


I asked one of the group members if I could share on here what he said tonight. He has an eight-year-old son and he didn’t know how to write to him from prison. “What do I write? The food sucked, again?” So, he’s been writing him stories, stories about a ten-year-old boy who lives on a farm with his dog, Dakota. He’s written five of these stories so far, the last one for his son’s birthday last week. The gift of story.


Tonight we talked about the hero, having crossed the threshold from his ordinary world to his new world, encountering new allies and enemies and facing new tests. You can’t help but imagine prison as a new world where you must learn new rules (quickly) and you better figure out who your friends and enemies are fast and the tests never stop coming. The biggest test, as one of our group members said a few months ago, “You gotta work damn hard to come out of here better than you came in.”


I may be naïve, but I feel like the guys in this group are working so damn hard, both on their writing and simply to survive.