Archive for April, 2009

I’ve added a new page to the blog (see the column to the right). There I will post journal entries sent to me by a former member of our Hero’s Journey Writing Group up at Monroe. He has served his prison time and is now embarking on the next step of his sentence — probation.

He and I have discussed that he is taking a risk by posting here. While overwhelmingly readers of this blog are considerate in their opinions even if they disagree with me, I recognize that allowing an inmate to speak for himself might be difficult for some. Without me to filter the experience of being up at Monroe, what you are left with is the raw reality — what it is like on the inside and the outside. Better Man, as he’ll go by here, will chronicle, for as long as he feels up to it, what life is like for an inmate recently released from prison. Given that his crime requires he now register as a sex offender, you can imagine that the “outside” is not the easiest place to be. I note that he is a registered sex offender here in this posting because I am sensitive to the fact that some readers might want to choose to not read Better Man’s postings. That said, I hope most readers will choose to read on as I think you will be surprised and intrigued by the story he has to tell.

Posting Better Man’s writings here is in many ways the ultimate goal of my work at Monroe — to bring the stories of those on the outside and the stories of those who are serving or who have served time together. We don’t have to forgive Better Man, or even have sympathy for him, but we can read his postings and try to understand a little better, try to expand our own thinking, question our own beliefs, check in with ourselves when we find his words troubling. He is an honest writer, one of the best writers we had in the group.

I’ll be monitoring comments left on Better Man’s postings and will allow most to post, even if they disagree or take issue with something he has written. I will not however, allow hateful, intimidating or unnecessarily explicit comments. He is here to tell his story, and the only battle I want him to worry about winning is building a safe and productive life for himself. Questions? Ask them. Stories of your own to tell? Tell them. I will also, at times, write my own responses to things Better Man writes. This is how we come to understand one another — by talking.

That said, welcome, Better Man. I, for one, am glad you are here to add to this conversation. And thank you to my readers for taking this risk with me and him.

From the ferry: 4/15/09

Posted: April 16, 2009 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.

This was perhaps the first night that I didn’t want to go up to Monroe. I’m frustrated over the revision work to be done on one of my stories, feeling lost with it and all consumed by thinking about it. I’m tired. I felt as if I’d have nothing to give. How can I go up there and try to teach others how to write, even encourage them to write, when I am feeling inadequate and discouraged?

I went only because I said I’d be there. It’s important to the guys, to keeping their trust and their respect, that you are there when you say you’ll be there and I had said I’d be there.

One of the men started off the group by thanking us for coming. “It’s like a visit,” he said. “I really appreciate that you are here.” Visits mean everything to these guys. Brief hours of contact with family and friends. I know that when we are there it’s about so much more than the work on the page, but tonight it was particularly important that I be reminded.

And it turns out I can still teach even when I’m frustrated with my own writing. Perhaps I’m even a better teacher because at that moment I am one of them. I’m just a beginner all over again trying to figure it out. I have been humbled. I can teach, but I also know I have a long ways to go. I can speak about craft and at the same time try to hear my own words, try to teach myself along with them.

Tonight one of the other volunteers read two children’s stories. The guys loved it. I loved it. Like being back in first grade and having story time. We talked about the elements of the hero’s journey as they appeared in the stories, but truly, the best part was listening to the volunteer read and having her hold the book so that we could all see the pictures. Everyone needs a good story to be read to them every now and then. I’d forgotten that.

We’ve got a new guy. He can write.

It was different without M- there tonight. The guys don’t seem to want to talk about him much. Is it hard for them to think about those who are now on the outside? I imagine.

I’m still tired. I’m still weary from the difficulties with this story I have yet to get right. But I’m glad I went tonight. To be around other writers. To teach. To listen. To wonder. To get away from my desk and my computer and my brooding and just be present for a few hours with these men – exactly what I needed.

I wrote this Sunday night, to post yesterday, but now it is today and I’m just getting it posted. Soon I must connect the internet at my new apartment…

My sister and I watch the Muppets Christmas Carol ad nausea over the holidays. We have since we were kids. And our favorite phrase, which we still use despite the fact that we are in our late twenties, is “two more sleeps ‘ill Christmas”. We still say it to each other as Christmas nears each year. We say it when we are anticipating a big trip, a significant life event. “Two more sleeps until graduation,” I’ll get to say this coming July. Two more sleeps. Three more sleeps. Marking time.

At Monroe last week, M-, the guy getting out tomorrow, tells me that in prison the phrase is “four more nights and a wake up.” Tonight, Sunday, is his final night. Tomorrow is his “wake up”. He tells me that custody process the guys out pretty quick in the morning. So, I imagine that by the time I have woken, had my coffee, showered, dressed and made it to work, he will have already been picked up by the folks who run the halfway house he will live at for the next year. His life post-prison will have begun. Puts the two meetings I have on Monday in context, for certain.

M- has a plan and systems of support on the outside. But it’s no guarantee. I imagine that most of the guys in our group would say that when they get out they are confident they will never come back. For some this will be true. For some. M- stands a good chance. He’s got a job waiting. The halfway house where he’ll be living will be supportive of his religious beliefs and is drug and alcohol free. He is preparing to apply for a PEL grant to go back to school. He has plans. But then, we all have plans, right? Then there is life and the unexpected challenges it throws at us.

So, tonight I am thinking of M- and hoping that tomorrow he enjoys the Dairy Queen softserv ice cream he has been craving for the last two years and that after the ice cream his path stays clear for a while. I wish for him a world that does not come at him too quick. A world that has some understanding and compassion. A world that is capable of a little forgiveness. To that world I have to say, there are bad men in prison. Men I would not want to see released. M- is not one of them. I promise. Give him the chance he deserves to do it right this time.

The conversation with Judy Lightfoot and seniors at the University of Washington on my local NPR station, KUOW, on working with the homeless struck a cord with me. Many of the things said about why Judy and her students work with homeless people are similar to many of my own reasons for working with prisoners. In particular, she noted that sometimes she feels selfish because she gets so much out of meeting and talking with the people she comes into contact with. I agree. Also, she noted how important it is to get out and meet people not like yourself. If I ever have kids of my own, I think this is the one piece of advice I will give them over and over.

Listen to the conversation, titled, Reaching Out to Homeless People, here: http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=17277

Additionally, you can read a post Lightfoot wrote on the subject of working with the homeless at: http://crosscut.com/blog/crosscut/18911/

And, finally, follow Lightfoot’s blog at: http://freestylevolunteer.wordpress.com.

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.

On Monday one of our group members will be released. So, tonight we said goodbye. It’s an interesting experience to goodbye in prison. To say, “we’ll miss you”, doesn’t seem quite right, even though it’s true. It’s not the same as saying goodbye to a coworker or a family member. You want the guys who deserve their release to be released, and yet in their release there is a loss, which you do not necessarily want to express as you do not want to come across as completely selfish. We are talking about getting out of prison. There should be no wish for a man who has served his time to stay soley for my sake. Soley so I don’t have to say goodbye.

You want to be excited for him, for the opportunities before him. You are nervous for him. Survival on the outside is tough, to say the least, for these guys. I realize I’ll miss him. This particular guy has been a great group member. He’s a good writer. He’s smart and funny and the other guys in the group respect him. It’ll be a different group without him.

Nonetheless, we all said our goodbyes. Several of the guys reminded him of what they’ve learned in our group. That one attribute of a hero is that a hero never gives up. A hero stays focused and keeps pushing. That’s what the group members reminded this man to do — never give up.

I had to wonder as well about the impact a release has on the guys who are staying behind. In his release, they see their own release date, no matter how far away it is. And, it must be hard to be left behind.

I realize that I won’t miss every guy who leaves our group. I probably won’t even feel good about some guys being released at all. But in this case, with this man, I will miss him. And I wish him the best. The possibility is high, I think, that he’ll make it on the outside. That won’t be the case for most. Here’s to hoping there’s such a thing as second chances. He deserves one.

Some recent stories from NPR related to the state of corrections in the US that I thought were worth posting. 1 in 31, for those who don’t know, refers to the number of individuals in the US currently in prison or on probation. 1 in 31. Think about it.

Additionally, I have noted that as the financial crisis in this country deepens there have been more and more stories on the state and cost of correctional institutions, particularly conversations related to the expense of housing inmates and how states are having to look at who they arrest for what crimes to determine if the cost is worth it in all cases. The answer is obviously no, but the conversations about alternative sentencing, how drug-related crimes ought to be handled and what do with with non-violent offenders is certainly engaging. I’ll try to be sure I post relevant stories here as often as possible. It would be a hidden blessing of the current economic troubles if thoughtful conversations about US prison policies were elevated in the national conversation.

Some stories:

Shrinking State Budgets May Spring Some Inmates:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102536945

Survivor Adds a Name, Face to Prison Rape:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102496048&ps=cprs

Author Examines the Effects of Solitary Confinement:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102486453