Archive for October, 2008

Ken Lamberton writes in Beyond Prison Walls: Essays from Prison, “Visiting your wife erases your fences but raises hers. When you’re with her you understand what it means to be touch-deprived. Her eyes look past you; her kiss is perfunctory” (97). Reading this passage from Lamberton’s essay “first time” on my bus ride home from work this afternoon got me thinking once again about the volunteer training I attended at Monroe this past weekend. The portion of the training that covers physical contact with the inmates was not different from the previous volunteer training I had gone through, but somehow it struck me as more complicated this time around. I’m certain the complication comes from the fact that I have gotten to know the men in the group by now, and I have been reading the writing of prisoners in nearly all my spare time and those two things combined have increased my understanding of their humanity and their struggle to maintain it behind the walls. Perhaps these “rules” and “policies” of the correctional system (a term that ought to be used loosely, I think) are not ones, in their entirety, that I believe in now that I am a part of the system to which they apply.


I have been struggling with whether to write about this topic of touch in prison or not, and if to write about it, then how. The trainers go through such efforts to make volunteers afraid of any physical contact with an inmate that you begin to second guess yourself. Did the guard see me touch that man on the shoulder as I encouraged him in the paragraph he was writing? Am I sitting too close to this man? Should I not have smiled? Is my praise of his writing too easily misconstrued as flirting? They are alarmist enough that all weekend I have even been thinking – can I write this?


There’s a reality about being a female working with male inmates. I get that. For months, years, sometimes even decades these guys are allowed no intimate contact with women (or very limited contact depending on certain privileges earned or, in a worst case scenario, via inappropriate relationships with guards or volunteers). So, I get that their enthusiasm to see me from week to week may not only come from their enthusiasm for our program, but also from the simple fact that I am not another man. I get that it’s a bonus for them that most of the volunteers in our program are female. Helen Elaine Lee, my mentor this semester, has asked me to consider this fact, even write about in my essay. How do I feel about being a female working with a male inmate population? In some ways I feel safer than I do in a bar full of strange men, any one of which could follow me home. In some ways I feel like it’s no different than any relationship between any male and any female (or for that matter between any two adults of either sex – come on, it is the 21st century) where one or the other may feel an attraction that the other doesn’t share and like adults you have to appropriately work it out. Ultimately, however, I feel like it’s my job to recognize the particular circumstances of prison and the reality of those circumstances on these men. Severe deprivation of any kind, plus the significant amount of time they have to think about all that they are deprived of while on the inside means they likely do think about, even dream about, the females who are in their lives – the guards and volunteers. Can you blame them? Given this reality, must I consider then the men primal and dangerous in all cases and thus fear them? Must I persecute them for the fact that they experience the most basic human need for physical contact, just as I do? I simply cannot fear them in this way. One, because such fear would get in the way of the work I am trying to do with them. Two, I’m in the rare position of knowing these men as more than their crimes. I don’t excuse their crimes, but neither can I, at this point in the experience, toss out their humanity because they committed them either.


The trainers go to great lengths to dramatize the handshake you are allowed to give an inmate – a handshake being the only approved physical contact between volunteer and inmate. Imagine that – a handshake as your only form of allowed physical contact. A handshake to get you through the months and years of your sentence. What is it I am supposed to be afraid of conveying exactly if I touch a man on his shoulder, or policy forbid, give a man a hug who I might have known for years when I learn that he has finally won release, or even succeeded at something smaller, such as publishing his first piece of writing. Our goal is to help rehabilitate these men, but we are not to treat them as human?


Even with their own families there are strict rules around physical contact — one kiss from a family member, on the cheek, at the beginning and at the end of a visit. That’s it. You can’t even sit for a half hour and hold hands with your wife. Imagine.


How then to respond to this policy of no physical contact? Like with all things in prison – big sigh here — you follow the rules regardless. This doesn’t mean you have to like it, or agree with it, and it doesn’t mean I won’t continue to write about my differing opinions with the system here, but at the end of the day, if I want to keep going to Monroe, I will sign the piece of paper that says I understand and will abide by the rules about physical contact.


It’s complicated. I get it. Is it fair to hug a man who has had no physical contact for so long? Maybe not. But is it fair for a man to walk out of prison after years of being deprived of healthy, compassionate, responsible physical interactions and expect him to easily succeed in his relationships, even in his daily, mundane interactions? During the training I kept thinking about all the ways I experience physical contact in my daily life – a vast majority of it not sexual in nature. I hug a friend to say hello. I kiss my father on his forehead when I leave after a family dinner. I touch a friend’s hand when she cries. It is one way to show a connection to others. Imagine being deprived of that, of having only a stiff handshake to communicate joy, admiration, sorrow, empathy or any other emotion. Isn’t it true that infants, deprived of touch, do not thrive? Why would we think this only applies to infancy? The policy doesn’t speak of rehabilitation to me.


To be touch-deprived, as Lamberton calls it, seems to only take an inmate further from the very society he is expected to one day integrate back into. Does one then have to ultimately face the question – does society actually want these men back? I think so.

This weekend I began watching Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, a series of interviews conducted by Bill Moyers with the Joseph Campbell. At one point Moyers asked Campbell about evil. How one should respond to the existence of evil? What purpose does evil serve, if any, in living a conscious life? Moyers pointed out that in many western religious traditions it is important to reject evil or sin, to actively work against it or to deny it altogether.


Campbell’s response was “who are we to judge the world?” He added, “It is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain.” As he and Moyers continued to discuss this topic it became clear that in Campbell’s opinion evil certainly exists and because it exists it is naïve to act as if it doesn’t. Even more so, it is naïve to act as if it does not serve a purpose both in the individual life and in the world as a whole. Campbell’s advice seemed to be not to work against evil because it is a function of the universe, and who are we to disrupt that precious and sacred balance?


Campbell’s advice to Moyers, when Moyers pressed him on holding a pacifist attitude, was that people should get involved, participate in the evil. By that I did not take him to mean that one should go out and knowingly commit acts of evil, but rather, participate by not shying away or walking away from it. Participate by acknowledging evil’s existence. Try to learn from it. Perhaps even appreciate it for what it is capable of shining light on. Get mired in the complexity of evil, how the closer you get to it the less clear it becomes who is right and who is wrong (particularly when you look back over the course of history sometimes).


Campbell said during the interview, “Horror can be the foreground of a wonder.” I feel the validity of this statement when I am working with the guys up at Monroe. The horror of whatever acts they have committed has brought them to their confinements. Now confined (perhaps also a horror), there is an opportunity for great personal transformations, an opportunity to pause for a moment and experience the wonder of looking back over their lives from a place that is set apart from their ordinary lives, as well as the wonder of realizing there are changes they can make to do it better next time (if they are lucky enough to be granted another opportunity on the outside).


Listening to Campbell made me realize that one of the things I appreciate about the experience at Monroe is that there is no argument over the existence of evil. Up there it is clear that every man in the room is capable of hurting someone else. We can all stop pretending. And if we don’t have to pretend that we are all good, kind and well-behaved all the time then we can actually get down to talking about what it is to try and live this human life – what it is to have an authentic human experience with all its bliss and all its horror. Campbell said that he thinks the fourth function of myth is to show us how to live a human life under any circumstances. In prison that is the ultimate challenge – to hold on to your humanity. Perhaps prison then, is indeed, a modern mythic journey. Perhaps it is even a journey for all of us — whether we find ourselves on the inside or the outside.


We all have bars

Posted: October 15, 2008 in prison, general
Tags: , , ,

It’s always amazing to me when someone points out a connection between two significant things in my life, which I never saw before. In this case, being a cancer survivor and working with prisoners.

Last week I was at my first retreat for cancer survivors. Not typically one for those sorts of group-hug, make-yourself-vulnerable sort of experiences I came close to cancelling my reservation a half-dozen times. If one of the coordinators hadn’t included one of my favorite poems at the bottom of one of her emails I probably would have cancelled. But, like a good writer, I took the poem as a sign and went.

It was during the opening circle (see it even sounds group-huggy!) one man said that he worked with prisoners and realized that those dealing with cancer and those living behind bars share some similiar experiences. The one he identified in the short time he spoke was that he found prisoners, like cancer patients, are capable of being brutally honest. Perhaps it is the realization by both groups that time, free time, is precious and so we don’t see the point in wasting it by talking about the same old, expected, comfortable b.s. We’ve got big questions to ask. Who am I? Who do I want to be? What’s the point of my life? We want to talk with others who aren’t afraid to ask those questions.

A cancer diagnosis thrusts a person right up against her mortality. Prison does the same. Perhaps that is why I find my time at Monroe so rich. I constantly find myself saying to others, “The guys are just so honest. I can’t find that on the outside.” 

As I thought about what the man in the group said over the past week I would add to his observations that both cancer and prison preclude ever going back to “normal” — whatever that was. Before the doctor gives you the diagnosis you are one person, afterward you are another. The men at Monroe will always be prisoners, even when they are released. You go to prison and the outside world will never be the same. What’s more, you will never be the same in it. You know something about life that so many others never will. You have survived something that many others will never even have to think about.

I think most cancer survivors can relate. I know more than once since my diagnosis I have felt like I was looking at the world from some place outside of the normal world. From my own box, with my own walls and bars. I felt handed a sentence. I felt the responsibility of it, as well as the resistence to it. And until you’ve been in there, you just can’t know what it’s like. You can’t imagine. I realized, being at this retreat, that it is important for me to connect with other cancer survivors. It’s like connecting with other writers. They speak my language, they get my humor, they share my fears, my anger, my questions and my joy.

Doing time, I suppose, isn’t only restricted to those guys up at Monroe. I wonder if it’s possible that my cancer diagnosis helped to do away with my fear of going to Monroe to do the work I’ve been wanting to do for so long. What do I have to fear? Really? My only real fear now is that I’ll waste what time I have, and I refuse to do that. So I go where there is real, honest conversation. I go where people have been to or at the edge.

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.




As I travel to Monroe this afternoon I’m thinking about the question, why prisoners? Mindy Hardwick and I talked about this over coffee and came to the vague answer of, because that’s where I feel called. But I understand that’s not very satisfying for others who want a concrete reason why I would choose to spend time with these men who have “made their choices” versus their victims who had no choices. Because is not a satisfying answer for me either, but it’s hard to come up with something coherent that doesn’t open me up to even more questions like, but why? Why? Why? So, I’m thinking about it.


In the introduction to Cell Count a collection of poetry by Christopher Bursk (recommended to me by Meg Kearney at the Solstice MFA Program and I highly recommend it to others) Frank A. Fink writes in the introduction:


Though he [the persona of the poems] may deplore their crimes and fear their lifestyles, he cannot reject these prisoners because he has come to know them as men and women. He wants the outside world (in this case, the world of comfortable readers of poetry) to see these men and women as individuals engaged in a very human struggle, not to excuse their crimes, but to acknowledge their lives and how they’ve lost them. The book is structured around the persona’s growing awareness of why he has become so connected to these students, why he has spent his life feeling compelled to draw attention to human suffering and its often unrecognizable dignity, and why he does so even though he may not believe he has made a difference.


As I wait for the ferry I think about the phrase, suffering and its often unrecognizable dignity. I will keep thinking about it while I am with the men tonight. I will continue to ask myself why these men? Not so much because I feel anyone on the outside deserves an answer, but because I feel like there is much to be learned about my own self by probing deeper into the question.


Coming home…


Tonight we shared our space (separated by the large glass wall in the visiting room) with an anger management/stress reduction class. Everything was running late because “mainline” (general population) was late leaving chow, and volunteers can’t move around on the prison grounds at the same time the prisoners do. What I was reminded of tonight is that nothing in prison is on your schedule. You show up when you’re told to show up and you wait when you’re told to wait. It’s a good lesson in patience, flexibility and recognition of how little control we have. Even having the other group “in our space” was an exercise in flexibility. Nice people – the anger management trainers (probably a requirement of the job), but still, the movie they were showing could be heard in muffled chatter through the wall, and as I happened to pick a seat with my back to them I had to get used to the idea of people being behind me when that’s not usually an issue. Twenty prisonerss in anger management class is not exactly the group I would choose to have at my back.


Tonight I also met my first “lifer”. He painted the large mural on the back wall of the room – the one of the dolphin and corral done in brilliant colors. It’s really quite amazing. Once again I am surprised about how many ways none of these guys fit the stereotypes. I realize I look at lifers differently. You have to respect it in a way – still showing up to participate in a program which has at its core an ultimate goal to assist in the rehabilitation process when you’ll never get outside the walls. What would keep you participating? More so than with any of the other men I’ve met in the group I caught myself wondering, what the hell did he do?


We laughed a lot about language tonight. The language of prison that we volunteers are still learning. Such as “cut-up”, which refers to a guy who is super muscular, and not someone who is literally cut up as all of us volunteers thought. And “oranges” – the prison overalls, not the fruit. And at one of the volunteers who didn’t know the phrase, “he thinks he’s all that.” “All what?” she asked. The guys thought that was hilarious.


Does anyone else out there know that before a guy at Monroe leaves a table at chow he knocks twice on the table? That’s their way of saying goodbye, I’m done with the conversation. As one guy said, “What else are we going to do, say, it’s been lovely dining with you gentleman? No, you just let them know you are done.”


One of our group members has to have his leg amputated. He fell off a cliff nine years ago and the bone continues to crack. He says he’s ready. That the amputation will take away the pain he’s been living with, but I have to wonder how you truly get ready for something like that – particularly in prison. The doctors tell him they can either destroy the amputated leg or freeze it so he can be buried with it someday. That is simply one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. What would I choose?


I had one thought as to why I go to prison – for the honesty. You don’t find it like this anywhere else on the outside. These guys will tell you the good and the bad of their lives and let you deal with sorting it out. Take them as they are – at least they’re trying. It makes me more wiling to risk vulnerability.


I’m full, emotionally, after tonight. Perhaps even a little overwhelmed. The more the men get to know us, the more they trust us, the more they tell us and the more I carry home with me.

Once again I’ve realized the importance of having a community to support the work I’m passionate about. Late last week I met with a Mindy Hardwick (see her website at and her blog at ), who has worked inside the Denney Juvenile JusticeCenter since 2003 guiding the kids in writing poetry. We met at a coffee shop just off the ferry and for the next two hours talked about what it’s like to teach on the inside. Much like getting together with my fellow writers, you never know how much you’ve been missing people who “get” you until you bump into one and get to have an animated conversation during which you speak a similar language, laugh about similar experiences (though the other patrons at the coffee shop who overheard our conversation probably thought we were crazy to be laughing about “ducking and covering” in case of riot) and share a free-flow exchange of ideas that manifests so organically it’s energizing for days.


I guess that’s all to say Mindy and I had a good conversation.


Here on Whidbey we have a relatively new juvenile detention center, and for a while I’ve wanted to talk with them about starting a writing program there for the kids. But here’s my secret – I’m a bit afraid of teenagers. Not safety-afraid, but afraid that I won’t know how to communicate with them, won’t know how to keep my patience, won’t know how to relate. Right now I ride our local public transit to and from work and sometimes I am “graced” by the company of several teenagers along for the ride. It is often all I can do to not throw my book at them (I know it’s terrible, but how many times can you use the word “like” in a single sentence without expecting something to be thrown at you? I ask you, like, truly?). So, I had a lot of questions for Mindy about her work, and when I confessed my fear of working with kids, she admitted she’d be afraid to go to Monroe and work with the men, which is funny because out of all the things that intimidate me about going to Monroe actually being in the room with the men is the least frightening (the guard towers with guards I can’t see, the drug-sniffing dogs, the abundance of weaponry – all those things intimidate me). I suppose Mindy feels something similar about working with the kids. They don’t scare her.


I still want to try someday working with the kids in the juvenile detention center here on Whidbey. For no other reason than I feel like it is important to do work in my own backyard, so to speak. To do work at the detention center would take me far outside my comfort zone – and that’s taking into consideration that my comfort zone has expanded since I started the work at Monroe. But if I got into the work with kids and found someday I couldn’t relate to them – that I wasn’t doing a good job – then I hope I have the wisdom to leave and do my work elsewhere. Fear is a hard place to do good work from, and just like the men at Monroe deserve someone who can stand in their space with them, the kids at the juvenile detention center certainly deserve the same. They deserve someone like Mindy, someone who can see their potential, someone who can believe in their ability to do better.