Archive for October, 2009

Annual training today at the prison. I’ve heard the presentation three times now, and it doesn’t change much. Though the woman leading the training today, I thought, did so in a manner that was more true to reality, as well as more sanity and compassionate based than the others I’ve attended.

The first two trainings I attended seemed mostly to focus on scaring the shit out of volunteers. Maybe that’s a necessary step in the initiation process. First you fear them, then you understand how to work with them. It never worked like that for me. I don’t worry about the men manipulating me (though some of the trainers would say that’s a sign you are being manipulated). I don’t have irrational fears about the men finding me on the outside or asking their family or friends to find me. I don’t have nightmares about prison riots (though when they said today that our emergency contact would be the person they would call in case I a) had a heart attack while inside or 2) if a riot broke out — and I thought, crap, don’t call my mom if a riot breaks out!).

At these trainings manipulation by inmates is typically the topic we spend the most time on. Trainers go through a lengthy list of all the ways the men will try to manipulate us. First by befriending us. Second by being a star student, so as to garner our attention and admiration. Third by asking for favors. Fourth by asking to correspond with us outside of the program. And so on and so on. All of these things do, of course, happen. It can be difficult to know if an inmate is simply a good student or is in the process of trying to manipulate you. You never know, unless something obvious does happen (such as a request to call a family member and relay a message). Even if the obvious happens though, there’s a part of me that has always thought–can you blame these guys?

The prison culture is one of manipulation, power and control. That’s how you survive. It’s also how you entertain yourself in an extremely myopic universe. Their world on the inside is small. They have an abundant amount of time to think about what they want and how to get it. I never assume that any attempt to manipulate me is malicious or ill intended. I always assume this is how they have learned to survive (probably before they even arrived in prison). Which means it’s up to me to be clear about my boundaries.

Sometimes I think this issue of boundaries is part of my reason for working on the inside. I often struggle with boundaries on the outside. Saying yes to too many people. Rescuing friends and family in that way therapists always tell you not to do. Having too much empathy for people I barely even know. But on the inside I have no choice but to maintain boundaries of all kinds. It’s the professional way to run a program and to manage a classroom. Boundaries keep expectations and roles clear. I have to be able to say no at times, otherwise the guys would have me taking home entire novel manuscripts to read and critique and I don’t have that sort of time to offer. Boundaries let them know what I can do for them and what I can’t do for them. If I’m clear, then no one’s feelings get hurt, including my own. So far, it’s worked.

I’ve never wanted to rescue the men in prison. Maybe being a part of a program other than a religious group or AA makes that easier. I’m not out to redeem anyone’s soul, or forgive them their sins or cure of them of an addiction. I’m there to help them look at their life story and write it down. The work is their own and they can choose to do with our program what they will. Right now, for example, we have a guy who on the first night told us he was only there to watch (which basically means he’s trying to pass time, but isn’t all that interested. It’s happened before, we don’t mind). At the last meeting though (our third visit with this group) he was silent for almost the entire meeting and then, as another inmate discussed his story idea, this “silent” man was suddenly participating. Something had touched him and there he was giving feedback. We don’t make a big deal out of it in the group, but we certainly notice. It just works best to let them decide what they want from our program. While I hope that what they want is to re-examine their life and choices, putting them in a new context and thus experience some growth or enlightment about who they are (and can be) as human beings. I haven’t found it difficult to let go of any attachment I might have to that outcome for each of them. We are all a work in progress, right? And we are each on a journey. It’s not my job to rescue them from what they need to experience.

What I most appreciated about the trainer today was that she kept reminding us that manipulation is not a phenomenon unique to prison. People on the outside manipulate. None of the previous trainers ever pointed out this obvious fact, but in doing so she reminds us that inmates are human, using reliable survival skills that we all learn along the way. So, the message I took away today is, know yourself–both inside prison and outside. Know yourself and you will not compromise yourself or your program.

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.

I have a dark sense of humor. I always have. It has something to do with growing up with a doctor for a father, I think (we blame our parents for everything, right–so why not this as well?). Our dinner time conversations were often not like my friends’ dinner conversations. Early on I learned that human beings and their bodies are darkly humorous. At least you have to find a way laugh, otherwise it is often all just so terribly tragic. Sometimes my “darkness” surprises those who generally see me as an accommodating, motivating person.

But at the prison tonight, I discovered there is a dark sense of humor that even tops mine.

We had a great group. Everyone did their homework. Everyone is starting to flush out solid stories to work on. Everyone took notes when we started to teach a bit on opening scenes (as a teacher, I’m learning, there’s nothing I love more than watching a student write down something I’ve said–narcissistic? Perhaps. But it’s reassuring to think that I might have actually said something worth noting on paper.) At the end of our time I walked the hall back toward the front desk with Gloria and thought about how I’m settling into this new setting, these new guys.

And then, while waiting for the guys to finish movement (movement = the ten minutes the inmates have to move from programs back to their cells or units) so we could “safely” cross the yard and exit the prison, I saw it. A chalkboard hanging on the wall, which said: Welcome to WSR. Since we meet in the building where many volunteer programs are hosted I figured this “welcome” was meant for us volunteers, and I thought, well that’s nice. But then, in the corner of the board, written in relatively pretty, girly cursive, I saw the subheading: Come for a year, stay for a lifetime.

That’s not funny. Is it? I didn’t laugh. And I laughed when the kid in the backseat of the car in Pulp Fiction was accidentally shot by John Travolta (don’t judge me too harshly). All the way home I tried to find the humor in it, the dark, dark humor that I typically enjoy. Tried to imagine the custody officers and the inmates sharing a joke with one another about the reality of the situation. Tried to tell myself that it is always in the darkest of places that people must search the hardest to find a reason to laugh. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t laugh about the several men in our group who only refer to the length of time they’ve served as “I’ve been here a long time”. I couldn’t laugh about the man who said, “All my life I’ve been defined by my skin color or this place (prison).” I couldn’t laugh about the young kids who came in at eighteen and have known no other adult life then the one they have lived behind bars.

It’s not funny. A lifetime behind bars has no humor in it. And it surprised even me that I couldn’t get or take the joke.

Happy Day to All is what it reads on the sign in the lobby at the prison. I’ve written it down twice now in my notebook, as it has struck me as out of place on both of my first two visits to WSR. I wonder who the sign is directed toward? The staff? Perhaps it is meant to serve as an out-of-place sentiment to jar custody officers and prison staff out of the heaviness of their day-to-day efforts to earn a paycheck. Or maybe it is a hopeful wish that staff will carry a sense of happiness and possibility into their day, perhaps infecting the prison population, so to speak, with optimism. Did the person who placed the tiny white letters on the sign intend for the message to reach the general prison population? When the writer got to the “to all” part of the slogan did he actually pause and think of the men behind the bars? And if so, did he continue on with the sign out of a true sense of compassion or out of eagerness to mock the reality of bars, razor wire and guard towers?

Happy Day to All might be a sign that someone on the prison staff shares a not-too-shabby dark sense of humor. One that I can relate to. As in “happy day to all of you not stuck in here” or “happy day to all of you foolish enough to believe in happy days” or even, “happy day to all of you innocent, ignorant volunteers who think you understand prison life because you come in here once a week and spend time with the men when they are on their best behavior” (which actually makes the sign a big fuck you, and I sort of appreciate that).

What I imagine it is that the sign is one more contradiction of the prison system itself. A system that can’t seem to decide if its primary reason for existence is to punish or rehabilitate. So, happy day to all who read this post. Take from it what you will.

Face to Face

I was nervous to go back to the prison tonight. Nervous because of something I haven’t written about yet, but that has been heavy on my mind since our last visit, which was also our first visit with this new group of men.

There’s a man in our group who has been convicted of a terribly violent, brutal crime. Gloria recognized him immediately. I didn’t. And I debated whether or not to look him up on the internet (just his first name brings up all the hits you need). Additionally I debated about writing about it here. For two reasons, I think. One, I don’t want to sensationalize him or his presence in our group. I’m not excited to have a man of his criminal stature in our group. It makes things more difficult. So, I’m not trying to come across as bragging—look at me, I go into prison and work with the worst. That’s not it. Two, and the real reason I haven’t written about this until now, I don’t want to expose myself as having experienced any doubt about my ability to see past the crime to the human being that still exists underneath.

There, now I’m exposed.

I’ve been wondering if it would be better if I didn’t know his crime. If Gloria hadn’t told me, or if I hadn’t googled him? Perhaps this is the perfect example of a time it is better to be naïve than informed. Because I feel like knowing gets in the way of me being able to connect with him. But, perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps that’s a natural survival instinct, a survival skill, good intuition.

But I hate that. I hate not being able to connect. Feeling like I can’t seem him as fully human (is that the right way to say it?), as more monster than human. This is the first time this has ever happened to me at the prison. The men don’t typically scare me and their crimes don’t unnerve me. So why this man and this crime? I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I know a dear friend of mine sent me an email today that said, “those men [at the prison] need to be close to your soul. It will be good for them.” I thought in response, it might be true, but tonight I’m going up with my soul protected. Which is not how I like to be.

What I do know is that he is likeable enough. I can sit across the table from him and enjoy a moment of conversation, and then almost immediately I find myself thinking, I just laughed at something this man said—what does that say about me? Even in physical appearance he is not someone you would fear. You’d pass him on the street and probably not think twice about your personal safety. Yet he is capable, at least according to the courts, of being involved in the complete destruction of other human beings. As Gloria asked me tonight, how do we talk to a man like that about being a hero?

His presence in our group brings the experience of working on the inside to a whole new level for me. In sports speak I feel like these last two weeks have been gut check time for me. I found myself considering, for the first time ever, whether I could even go back. Maybe it is too much. Maybe I’ve found my limit. Maybe I’m not capable of keeping an open mind and heart about the potential for all men—even the worst. And if I can’t do that, do I even deserve to be there.

So I went back. To test myself. And I sat in the classroom, right across from him. I taught. I commented. I laughed. I shared bits and pieces about my own writing life and writing experience. And the truth is I felt safe. Aware of the complexities. Aware of the contradictions and the hypocrisies, but safe none the less. To be safe and in a space where you can test your limits, challenge your beliefs, question and revisit who you think you are on a gut level is an amazing experience. In the end, I’m not willing to give it up. Not for one man. Not for one crime.