From the ferry: 10/1/08

Posted: October 2, 2008 in from the ferry
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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.

  1. Yes…Why Prisoners?

    I was pondering this question as I reconnected with the juvie kids after taking the summer months off, and what I found myself telling them was that I chose to volunteer every week because of what I believe about why I write. If someone asked me why is writing important to me, I would tell them that I believe writing can heal…heal those places we keep secret and heal our losses. I believe that by writing we can find ways out of trauma. When the juvie kids and I write poetry together each week, it reminds me of this very center, the very core of why I write..for healing.

  2. islandwriter says:

    Thank you so much for expanding on this conversation about why you work with prisoners. It’s particularly helpful as I continue to think about some of the work read last night in the group. Indeed, storytelling is healing, as it validates the human experience, and often some of our deepest human needs — to be heard and seen. Your comment has helped me to continue to think on this question more deeply. Thanks. Erika

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