From the ferry: 11/5/08

Posted: November 6, 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.


There’s a young man in the group this evening who doesn’t say much. At one point I actually decided, he’s just here to get out of being in his cell. It was hard to tell if he was paying attention or if he even cared. Then, at the end of the evening, he brings me his notebook and tells me that he’s been working to catch up with the group and he’s got 33 pages he wants me to take home and read. 33 handwritten pages. I guess my lesson is to never assume that I know who is listening and who is not. Never assume someone isn’t hearing what’s being said in the group, isn’t taking it in. Never assume someone isn’t back in his cell working hard to put his words on a page.


Almost all of the guys tonight brought me something to take home and critique. That has never happened before. I’ve even got one guy writing me responses to my critique. I am humbled by their trust, as well as overwhelmed by it. I recognize that earning their trust is a feat (it’s only taken a mere eight months), and yet now I also feel the responsibility of it.


I think of the young man with the 33 pages. He gave me his entire notebook. I don’t know that I would ever do that. Turn over my handwritten work to a near stranger to keep for two weeks. I don’t think I could. Except what if I had no other choice? What if turning my work over to a stranger was the only way to get the feedback I craved or the encouragement I needed? What if it wasn’t a leap of faith, but of necessity given the reality of a life in prison? It’s not the same on the inside. I am reminded over and over again of this fact.


The guys congratulated and teased me tonight on becoming a sponsor. The title of sponsor gives me the ability to take the volunteers into the prison. It makes me responsible for what happens in our group. It gives me power, which is a tricky thing in prison where every interaction with guards and inmates is about power on one level or another. The guys teased me, but I also feel like I’m proving to them bit by bit that I’m here to stay.


Finally, I can’t think of any place I’d rather have gone the day after Obama won the election than to Monroe. Obama inspires me to take action to change my world. Up at Monroe I’m doing that. It might be small changes, and sometimes slow and almost always uphill, but it’s good work. One of the guys tells me his unit held a mock vote and Obama won. Another guy tells me how he hates that his voice, his vote does not get to be represented in our democracy anymore. “I’m still a citizen,” he tells me. I have to agree. These guys might have more at stake every time power changes hands in this country than most of us. I believe when I cast my vote I cast it in part for these men, who, whether some like it or not, are still a part of our society, and maybe the fact that they have to sit outside of it as punishment for their crimes gives them unique perspectives that could be vital to our national conversation. We can never understand the whole story of a nation when so many are so silenced.


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