Archive for May, 2009

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.

A good night tonight at the prison. The guys were in a good mood. The guards were in a good mood. Pulling into the prison and stopping at the speaker that connects to the guard tower I was thanked me for volunteering after being asked if I had an firearms, explosives or pets in my car (no, I’m not particularly certain how pets fits into that list. I sometimes feel thrown back to childhood, watching Sesame Street when they do the skit, one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong). It’s nice to be thanked. Our normal custody officer processed us through the first security point and got us all squared away with our form, ensuring we had the right box checked this time so we wouldn’t be hassled further down the line. And we weren’t. We were late getting in because, well, because they were serving filet o’ salmon for dinner. We didn’t get any further explanation, but apparently it was slowing up chow, which was slowing up the guys getting to where they needed to be, which means we had to wait to go into the prison. What can you do but shrug your shoulders and say, okay, filet o’ salmon, sure, I get it, we’ll wait?

We talked about the archetype of the threshold guardian tonight. A seemingly small character in the course of the hero’s journey until you really start talking about it. Threshold guardians are the people who stand in front of us as we are about to make great change or embark on a new journey and test our resolve to see it through. Are we sure we don’t want to stay where it’s comfortable, familiar and safe? Are we sure we are ready? Wouldn’t it be easier to not go? Parents, police officers and teachers all serve this role often. Sometimes out of love. Sometimes out of fear. Often with our “best interests at heart.” And yet, we must still push past them if we wan to continue on.

I learned tonight that one of my favorite guys in the group has been down for seventeen years now for attempted homicide on his girlfriend. Not necessarily an easy thing to learn. I hadn’t pegged him for being in for so long, though I had suspected his crime was violent, mostly because I didn’t sense that he was a sex offender. They are talking about releasing him to “work camp”, which is like a holding pen before being released and he’s afraid to go. I would be too if I had spent seventeen years on the inside. I asked him if he thought he was still a threat to this woman and he said no. I believe him. I don’t know if I buy the whole story about his crime. He says he wasn’t trying to kill her, but the truth is if he could have then that’s probably bad enough. I don’t like having to think of him this way. He’s a funny man. And smart. A damn fine writer whether he’s ready to believe it or not. My background in working with domestic violence victims made me wonder what his girlfriend’s version of events would be and the terror she must have gone through. I wondered what her life has been like these past seventeen years. I’m fascinated by getting this “other” side to the story, the perpetrators side, and yet somehow the story still feels incomplete, like I still have to fill in the why and how. Now I wish I could talk with his girlfriend. But maybe that wouldn’t even be enough. Maybe this is part of the reason I write at all—I want to understand what makes people do what they do inside of relationships. What turns love into violence? How thin is the line between the two? And why?

Tonight I am prepping to go up to the prison on Wednesday. I’ll be presenting two archetypes found in a hero’s journey, the Threshold Guardian and the Shapeshifter. I’m chuckling about how both describe so well our encounter with the custody officer last time, the one who was so particular about our paperwork. As a guard, he is clearly a Threshold Guardian, a character who stands between the ordinary world and the special world of the hero’s journey, trying to convince the hero to turn back, give up, lose faith in his mission. As a Shapeshifter, he morphed from a guard who is typically welcoming and easy to work with to one who is controlling and penalizing, thus keeping us on our toes, adding tension to our story of being volunteers in the prison. It helps to be able to see the experience this way—as elements of a story. Wednesday night, when we return, we’ll know to be prepared for him to shift again. No experience is the same up there. No rule or procedure firm (as much as they’d like you to believe it is). It’s intriguing to consider that my own personality tends to be one that works to please, not make mistakes, follow the rules and receive praise for not being a trouble maker, so of course I was shook up by the guard’s dissatisfaction with our paperwork. And when our argument that “this is how we’ve always done it” failed (i.e.—reasoning with him failed) I felt as if I had personally failed. But it’s all a game. A constantly changing game. And, strangely, I think it’s good for me. Like the heroes our guys are trying to write about, like heroes who have walked this journey through the centuries, I have to learn to expect the unexpected, to be challenged just when I’m getting comfortable, to be knocked back when the road gets too easy and familiar. That’s tension. And tension is story.

It is time to start making plans to go up to the prison again this coming Wednesday. How do two weeks go by so quickly? At this moment, I am sitting outside, taking in some much anticipated sun and thinking, maybe I need to lock myself away for a few days. Disconnect from the constant hum that is my life as of late and have time and space to think, time to reflect on my evenings at Monroe, time read more books on the prisoner experience and time to work on my own essays about working with the guys at Monroe. It all feels so important and yet seems so impossible to get to. Perhaps this is just the typical whining of a writer — there’s never enough time. Or perhaps once I graduate in July I can truly reorganize my writing priorities and make a real decision about where the work at Monroe falls on the list. Perhaps I just put too much pressure on myself to be able to be everywhere and do it all. It is hard when I have a heightened awareness of the gifts my freedom grants me to feel at times like I am squandering those gifts. I read the postings by Better Man and think — what hell am I bitching about? You want struggle, Erika? Get locked up for two years and then try to survive your release. It’s all perspective, I know. And my experience with cancer taught me that you can’t really compare one person’s life to another’s. It is what it is, and right now mine is full and I don’t feel like I have 100% to give to the guys in our group and I am sorry for that. The work remains no less important to me. It’s just that no one seems to be willing to figure out how to get any more hours into the day, and so I must recognize my limits. Which is maybe one of the lessons of working at the prison. Learn what you can’t do and focus on what you can do.

Our last visit to the prison was frustrating. Or at least, getting in. Suddenly, it seems, we have been filling out our entry paperwork wrong and the guard at the second security station, who checks us through almost every week and knows exactly where we are going, almost refused to let us in because we had not checked one little box. It’s maddening sometimes how the rules change. And sometimes, it’s not even a rule but a particular officer who wants something done differently and apparently thinks you were supposed to read his mind and know it. The trick is, much like the inmates, volunteers are one down, at least, on the power ladder at a prison. If you argue with an officer he can easily tell the community services director that your group has become a problem and just like that your entire program can come to an end. If you don’t fill out your paperwork right (never mind that you’ve been filling it out the same way for a year and a half and no one, including this guard, has ever said a thing) they can deny you entry for the night or send you back to start the security process all over and thus delay your group. As a volunteer you have to make nice. If an officer says you filled out your paperwork wrong, you apologize. It’s frustrating. No one likes to feel stripped of their power, not me and not the guys in our group.

Gloria and I tried to let it the incident rolls off our backs, but there’s no denying we were upset. We work to do everything by the book because we know how the game is played and we want to be certain we can continue run our group. But if I had been anywhere else but in the prison and someone had treated me like that guard treated us I would have been asking to speak to his supervisor. When I read Better Man’s April 14th post in which he writes about the lights of a cop car and the panic attack he experienced simply trying to help a woman get directions I think of our incident last time with that officer. And then I think about safety vs. power and I wonder how much we sacrifice in order to have safety, or at least the illusion of it. Do I believe the officer that night was just trying to do his job? Yes. Do I believe he might have just been having a shitty day? Yes. And I also believe that with great power comes great responsibility (who said that?) and all too often I see those with power forgetting that their first job is to serve, then to protect.