Archive for December, 2008

Here is an link to an interesting story on the BBC World News. Prisoners and yoga. Now there’s a unique and genuine approach to rehabilitation.

Christmas. I spent the night with my parents last night. My sister made a delicious bean soup for dinner. This morning Mom made our traditional Christmas morning breakfast — egg casserole, orange rolls and mimosas. We opened gifts. We watched a movie. We told some stories. Laughed. Rested.  I drove my sister home and now I’m sitting quietly, the house to myself, the holiday coming to an end, and I’m thinking about the guys up at Monroe.

Sometimes I worry that I appear too sentimental. Too — think of these men, alone in their cells for the holiday, sad, depressed, lonely. I wonder how many people feel that  I cut the guys too much slack, am too naive, forget that they are also criminals. How many people think I would better serve the world by helping a different group — the homeless, victims of violence or disenfrancised teens. Didn’t these guys get their chance? Shouldn’t they be punshished?

Yes. They should be. And I guess part of my goal here is to remind people that they are being punished. They are alone, in their cells, tonight. Without family. Perhaps without gifts, or even a letter. They are alone, free only to think about how they got there, how they might have made better, different decisions that would have made it possible to still be home with their families, perhaps celebrating Christmas. And the guys in our group, the guys I have gotten to know, I know are missing their families tonight. I know they feel the loss. I know they feel the isolation. I know they understand all they have lost.

I can believe they need to be punished. I can believe they need to be right where they are. I can say they deserve the time they are serving.

I can also believe in their humanity.

People will have to believe that I can hold both truthes at once.

And I believe in the valuable perspective that my witness and knowledge of their humanity gives me. As I manage my anxiety about gift shopping, holiday travel and extended periods of time with my family this time of year it’s good to remember mine is still a blessed life. We all need something that reminds us of the ways in which we got lucky.

It’s an easy time of year to get sentimental, but it’s not my goal to be sentimental about these guys. If people were to read this and think that I don’t get that some men commit evil acts for which they should be punished they wouldn’t get why I even bother to do this work, why I even bother to write these words. I bother because I don’t believe you can lock people away and forget about them and somehow expect that will fix all that is scary and troubling about the world. It won’t. It’s all more complicated than that. Perhaps those who believe that are system of incarcertaion in this country serves it’s stated purpose — to keep us safe and to rehabalitate those who would cause us harm — are the sentimental ones.

I’m thinking about the guys tonight. I’m wishing them peace. Peace in their hearts. Peace in their minds. Peace in their dreams. I wish this for the guys in their cells tonight. And at the risk of sounding sentimental — being capable of extending the holiday spirit to those who might not actually deserve it — is what this season is about.

This morning on NPR’s Morning Edition came the story of a landscaper in Chicago and one of her employees, an ex-con. Take a listen (about 5 minutes). It’s always different to hear the story from the person who has served time directly. I often find myself thinking — he doesn’t sound anything like I imagined he would. And that’s because you can’t actually imagine one man’s time on the inside. Only he has served it. Only he can tell how it has shaped his life.

And hat’s off to the woman who hired him, who gave him a chance. One of the biggest struggles for an ex-con is to actually reestablish a life upon release.  It is society’s expectation that he will come out and be “productive”. It is society’s reality that no one wants to ex-con in their office, living in their neighborhood, eating at their restaurants.

Stereotypes are used by a speaker to position others within a particular storyline. — Perry R. Hinton, Stereotypes, Cognition and Culture

Nine months ago prisoners, prison and teaching on the inside were not a part of my personal story. My particular story line up until March, 2007 included many things — being a doctor’s daughter, a graduate student, a female, a writer and a cancer survivor. It was already a full life. Then I went and made it more complicated by taking something that I could keep simple if I chose — namely my ideas about who was good and who was bad — and making those ideas more ambiguous, making them something I had to reconsider, reflect on and incorporate into a new personal narrative.

In Hinton’s book she writes about how one of the only ways to change a stereotype is to bring two different groups together and have them interact. The basic premise, I think, is once you’ve looked someone in the eye it’s harder to look away again. And once you’ve heard his story, even if it includes terrible and/or criminal things there’s no turning back from the fact that they’ve become human, less a stereotype and more an individual.

This is a good thing, right? Most days.

Somedays, however, I think it might have been easier if I had chose to keep my story more simple.

But then I think of the cancer. Some experiences we choose to add to our story and some we do not. Regardless, we change. You survive cancer, but you don’t go back to life before cancer. I may someday not work with prisoners, but there’s no going back to not knowing who they are, not being able to imagine a man in a cell alone with his transgressions and the pain that can cause for some. For enough of them.

When people find out I have had cancer they think they know certain things about me. They assume they know a part of my story. But they don’t. Not until they sit with me and listen. Then, I’m not a cancer survivor, I am me, with my experience of cancer, which is different than any other’s cancer story. These men in prisoner, they are not a “they”. They are individual men with individual stories. The stories aren’t the easiest to hear or the easiest with which to make peace, but then what good stories, what good life, gets to claim it was easy?

Winter has come to the northwest. Not a typical winter, which is usually dark, wet days with temperatures hovering in the low thirties or forties, but a real winter, with several inches of snow and temperatures in the teens (with notes on that say things like “feels like 6 degrees”). I haven’t been to work since last Tuesday (thank goodness for telecommuting) and even thinking about the fact that I have to try and get out on the roads today, which are a thick sheet of compact ice and snow (non of that New England stuff that moves out of your way when you drive) makes me want to crawl back into bed with my book and stay there.

It’s interesting though that even this reality of being house bound, stuck by the snow, imprisoned by Mother Nature, is still comes with its freedoms. If I wanted I could bundle up, get on some real boots and trudge my way by foot to wherever I wanted to go. I’ve seen people walking along the side of the road the last couple of days just to carry home a 12-pack fo beer. Ah, priorities. If I wanted I could take the car and risk putting it in the ditch. Someone would come and help me, eventually. Even here in the house, I have my choice of activities: read, write, get caught up on some homework, watch a little Sunday football, sit quietly and watch the snow, take (another) nap, go for a short walk just to enjoy the silence of my rural surroundings when everything is muted by snow cover.

I’m thinking about all this because for a moment this morning when I peeked out of the curtains and saw that indeed we had gotten more snowfall during the night, I dared to feel sorry for myself. I’m stuck here. It’s like being in prison. Can’t go anywhere. Can’t do anything. I’m on nature’s schedule. Subject to what she will allow me to do or not do. But the truth is, this isn’t prison. My day is still full of liberties and freedoms. And I don’t have to compete for a few moments of silence to wonder at the beauty of snow covered evergreens with my cellmate who won’t turn off the tv. And I can make hot cocoa (or another round of coffee) whenever I choose. And if I wanted I could go join the kids on the hill and do a little sledding, rushing down the now slick track they’ve made, the cold air stinging my cheeks, free to laugh and play.

I have been working with one man in the group at Monroe to try and infuse his essay on his efforts to become a teacher’s aide and receive a bachelors degree while serving time with more emotion. He freely admits to having a hard time including emotion in his writing. Easier to report it as just the facts, just the facts…less he should have to actually experience some of the pain his journey has caused him. I think about writing teachers who have told me, you have to write directly into the hard, dark places. But, of course none of us want to go into those places. Better to skirt around the outside of the story and hope no one notices what you are not saying. The only problem with this is, of course, the story that people really want to read, the story that people need to read, is the one where the emotion rests.  This is what I have been saying to this man in our group as I dutifully and willingly read various versions of the essay he is working on. He’s a strong writer, but a scared writer.

Of course, then he surprised me, as I suppose students are in the habit of doing to their teachers.

Recently he gave me a revised version of the essay, and asked me if I would type it for him, which is something I’ve offered to do for those guys who are willing to do some honest to goodness revision work (alas, like many beginning writers, most of the guys still consider revision to be changing a word here or there and calling it done). As I was working on typing his essay this weekend, I came to the end and this paragraph, all of which is new writing.

“To them [his family] I have become like a phantom character in Isabelle Allende’s House of the Spirits, a world “in which appartitions sat at the table with human beings, and the past and future formed part of a single unit and the reality of the present was a kaleidscope of jumbled mirrors.” In that sense I visualize my grown children as they graduate, play sports, appear in musicals, teach in China or serve in the USCG in Alaska. I attend my father’s memorial at the American Legion with my brother and sister and their spouses. I hear my son sing at his sister’s wedding in his kilt, wish my former wife well. I randomly drift in and out of the narrative, speaking words only they can hear. Separate and together, fading and reappearing, all woven into a larger story we co-author to pass on. Though my future is uncertain as I write, I must focus on who I am becoming, not what will become of me.”

When I give his essay back to him this coming Wednesday I will tell him, thank you, your story moved me. Not just informed me, but moved me.


I am reading Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin. In the final paragraph of his essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” he writes, “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.”


This got me thinking about the new guy in the group last week – the one who talked about his therapy and his victims. The one I wrote about in my last “From the Ferry” piece. I think this man was experiencing exactly what Baldwin was writing about. Not only was he having to face the humanity of his victims, perhaps for the first time, but in doing so he was also having to face his own humanity, which, if you’ve been denying it for a while, operating on a (violent) autopilot, disconnected from your emotions and relationships, I must imagine comes at you like a large ocean wave, washing over you and pulling you under all at the same time. I suppose, in actuality, it is not fair to assume what this guy was going through, but by the way his hands trembled and his voice shook I have to believe that the humanity of his victims took him by surprise, and now that he’s acknowledged their right to an existence free of his violence and how he took that (and so much more from them) he has to sit and contemplate, and feel, what that means about his as a human being. Remember, too, that this is a man who was himself abused as a child. Someone taught him that his humanity, his spirit, was not of importance. Imagine finally coming to a place in life, even if it is in prison, where you begin to undo that believe and examine your life from a different perspective – from the perspective of “in the face of one’s victim, one see’s oneself.” Imagine seeing what you have become and grieving, both for your victims and for yourself.


To face oneself is the hardest thing. As I continue to consider why I go to Monroe I think this fact has something to do with my developing response. I think of prison as one of those rare circumstances in life where you can’t run anymore, where life has caught up with you. Certainly there are ways for prisoners to ignore what they ought to be considering while serving time, but if they choose to look, if they choose to reflect and to learn, then I believe they can grow at an amazing pace in prison. Because once they look back at their lives, their victims, their own childhoods, there is no where to run. Once they crack open those doors and allow themselves to reconsider their lives then they are alone with what comes, sequestered in their cells and in the day-to-day routine of the prison with the reality of who they have become and who they have hurt to get there. If they can survive this process of self-reflection (and I don’t know that all of them do…I don’t know that I would) then there’s a chance they might be able to take advantage of that “second chance” offered upon release (if, of course, those of us on the outside can ever find it in ourselves to forgiven their transgressions…which may have something to do with forgiving our own, especially those we haven’t served time for – just a working theory).

At Monroe last Wednesday our first hour with guys was appropriately called by Gloria at a certain point, a family meeting. What started as an innocent (always an interesting word when used to describe anything pertaining to prisons or prisoners) conversation about awarding the guys certificates at the end of the program developed into a discussion of why not only the men come to our program, but also why do we, the volunteers come. The question of, why do you come?, was posed to us by one of the more eclectic men of the group. A man who calls himself Motor, which fits his ADHD personality and propensity for talking for too long about matters, which, often don’t clearly relate to the topic at hand. But we love him because he’s aware of his struggles for focus and clarity and allows us to cut him off, keep him on track and joke with him about his circular thinking. The other guys in the group are incredibly patient with him, even encouraging at times.


Back to his question. Why? It is one thing to sit with Gloria at dinner before going up the prison and discuss this very question. Or to talk about it with my workmates, or fellow writers, or guests at pre-Thanksgiving dinner who were brave enough to ask and listen to my response. It’s another thing to have it asked by the men while sitting in front of the men. Let me explain the difference. When I talk to people on the “outside” I have to do a lot of explaining. Explaining about prison, about the men, about their crimes, about my theories (most of which are still developing daily) about the nature of violence as it pertains to humanity and society and so on and so on. I have to paint my audience a picture of prison that does not necessarily meet their expectations. I have push against their beliefs, their own backgrounds and personal traumas and their own fears. Speaking to someone on the “outside” I am on aware of my role of emissary. I speak, to the best of my ability, for the men on the “inside”, not for myself. For their humanity. Not in defense of their crimes, but in defense of their efforts to not check out entirely from life. I speak to shed some light, offer a different perspective and, perhaps, create a small measure of doubt in the mind of my audience about their beliefs on what it means to be an inmate in the US today. I don’t, in reflection, talk much about what I get, personally, out of going to Monroe.


But when it is the men asking and they are all sitting there, quietly, listening for our response, they don’t need to be told who they are and who they are working to become. They know. When they ask, why do you come here? they are asking us to respond from our heart, not from our head. They are not looking for an academic answer, they are looking for an honest answer (and there is a difference). They want to know why them? Of all the people I could be out helping on a given night, why them? What do we get out of it? And implied in that is the undeniable truth that we must get something from it.


This is what I said.


Up here, with you guys, there is not bullshit. Out there, there is so much bullshit. Everyone is pretending, and so for three hours on a Wednesday it is a relief to me to come here and talk with minimal pretense. Up here, you guys don’t pretend you are something you’re not, and that lessens my need to pretend that I am something other than what I am. I appreciate the heart in this group. I appreciate the honesty. I appreciate that we can get to what counts, what matters, what is real. I appreciate that up here there is no argument about the fact that nobody is perfect. We are all gray matter – doing our best to stay more toward the good side of the scale than the bad, but able to recognize that everyone falters – including me.

From the ferry: 12/3/08

Posted: December 5, 2008 in from the ferry
Tags: ,

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.

Tonight I am struck with the image of the newcomer to the group who disclosed that he is at the point in his therapy in prsion where he is learning to empathize with his victims, to try and understand what he put them (and he does say there were several) through. As he speaks he is trembling and fighting back tears, clearly the full weight of his crimes are pressing down on him. Later he discloses that he was also a victim of multiple forms of abuse as a child and teen. I am overwhelmed by his ability to even show up…for any of it…let alone our group.

There is so much more from this evening, but feel like this image is enough for this ride home.