Archive for February, 2010

Continuing to experiment with fiction based on my work with inmates. This piece was inspired by a series of statistics I recently found.

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The United States lock up almost a quarter of the prisoners in the entire world. In fact, if all our prisoners were confined in one city, that city would be the fourth largest in the country.” – Alexander, Elizabeth, “Michigan Breaks the Political Logjam: A New Model for Reducing Prison Populations,” American Civil Liberties Union (November 2009), p. 3.

Released to the city. Freedom is redefined when you live surrounded by men who know you too well. We tick in a way we can all hear. The beating of our hearts keeping us up some nights, as bad as those infernal car alarms that no one heeds. In a city of thieves what is the purpose of alarms? We were an experiment. An attempt to prove left to our own nature we would rape, pillage and plunder an entire city into ruins. Animals will, in the end, be animals. When the project was announced the president declared, “When rapists only have each other to rape, we will see if they wouldn’t prefer to get a job.” They built tall concrete walls around what used to be Denver. No one knows where the people of Denver went. Nashville, perhaps. We’ve been told Nashville is the next San Francisco, though none of us could quite imagine how that could be.

To the surprise of the country the first thing we did was hold elections. Everyone voted because, believe it or not, we had been waiting a long time for our voices to count for something. The man elected governor previously ran one of the largest Mexican gangs while he was down. If a man can control that many business transactions from behind bars imagine what he can do with an office, a staff and a capitol building. As his first order of business the governor brought all the leaders of all the gangs together for a summit and there they worked out a peace accord which satisfied them all. For his second order of business the governor created the Green for the Mean program. He had a good sense of humor. The program paid men to build, clean and otherwise maintain the city’s parks. Men lined up five hundred deep for the hundred available positions. Don’t tell me an ex-con can’t appreciate the beauty of manual labor, outside, in the shadows of the mountains, a breeze blowing, the sun warm on your neck and nothing but land in front of you.

The women were also quick to organize. Farmers markets. Day care centers. Schools. Counseling centers. Those who didn’t speak English, learned. And those who didn’t speak Spanish, learned. Two black women and a Native American women organized a day of mourning and all the women came to the city center with their crimes and the names of their victims (sometimes the name of their children) written on small pieces of paper. They threw them into a large fire and then fell to the ground and wept. This is how they healed.

Some women and some men fell in love and there were weddings, followed by babies. For the first year the governor imposed a curfew, but over time, it became unnecessary. Citizens wanted to be home with their families come the end of the day. Men volunteered to walk the streets at night, to be certain no harm was done. Unarmed, these men walked and talked to their neighbors and there was no crime. At no point did the governor recommend the building of a prison. Why would he need to when most of us still dreamt of our cells and razor wire every time we closed our eyes?

After two years the country’s president had to admit the experiment was a success…or a failure…all depending. Delegations of senators and legislators and their aids came to the city. They walked our streets. They visited our schools. They took notes, copious notes. Then they returned to the country’s capital and held meetings and hearings and briefings. One senator said, privately, to the president, “If someone there doesn’t murder someone soon, then we will have no choice but to acknowledge them as a legitimate city. They will want to be represented, to come to the capital and have a voice. Imagine. A gang leader in Congress.”

And so it was decided that the walls to our city would come down. We were told to leave. The people of Denver were returning. In our new cities we had to register as former prisoners. We struggled to get jobs. It was difficult to find housing. For a while we tried to stay organized, imagining one day we could have our city back. But over time, we lost touch with one another and it was difficult to remember what exactly our political position was anyway. Men and women were rearrested for crimes both petty and substantial. I did the best I could until one day, hungry and cold, I stretched out on a park bench to rest for a few minutes and a man in a pressed suit came and stood over me. “You can’t be here,” he said. “It’s a free country,” I countered. “Not for you,” he said. He tried to pull me from the bench and I fought back. Wouldn’t you have done the same?

Three times yesterday I was asked, “Why do you do this work?” Or some variation of that question. The final question came at the end of our time at the prison. One guy who had been particularly quiet for the entire night took me aside as we were packing up to go and said, “I know there’s the feminine thing of wanting to help, but I still can’t figure out why you guys would want to spend your time up here with us.”

This isn’t the first time one of the inmates have asked this question. Typically, it comes from a place of wanting to know if we have an agenda. Motives, other than what we say are the goals of our program, for spending time at the prison. Some guys want to know if we are just there to collect their stories to use for our own. Some guys simply have a hard time understanding why, out of all the volunteer projects one would take on, anyone would choose working with inmates. Others have had experiences with volunteers who come in and are demeaning, disrespectful, judgemental and shaming. But when I was asked by this man last night I also wondered if the question has anything to do with their own ability to forgive themselves for their crime. Meaning, if their shame is still too great, perhaps it is difficult for them to accept that we might actually be there for no other reason than we choose to be. For this man, he told us about his young daughter who he never gets to see. So, I wondered if his family has rejected him how that plays into trusting that someone might not reject him — particularly someone who doesn’t even know him.

It is true that in order to go into the prison we have go in with a certain mindset. One that allows us to either see beyond the crimes in the room, or if that is difficult, which it is at times, to not let the impact of learning about a crime deter us from our efforts. The same guy who asked me the question about why I come to the prison, also said, “Despite what these guys say, it’s still prison, you know?” By which I think he meant that when the guys come to our group we see one side of them. He was reminding me that they are all there for a reason, and it’s not just because they are misunderstood. But most of the guys in our group would agree with that statement. They too are trying to reconcile the part of them that is capable of committing whatever crime they are serving time for with the part of them that is still a good human being, a creative individual, a father, a son, a reader, a spiritual man, etc. I watch their internal conflict with all the pieces of themselves play out over the course of our time there. They talk about what led them to prison and then talk about the struggle to serve their time in a way that will leave them better off when they came in.

This guy read me a quick piece of writing before he left, in which he referred to the death of his brother. Because the custody officer was calling for the inmates to line up, and because we don’t ever want to throw the prison off their rigid schedule, I did not have time to do anything but listen to his piece, tell him it was good and wish him a goodnight. This is the hardest part for me about my time at the prison –there’s never enough time it seems to say, “I’m sorry about your brother. What has that been like for you?” Or, “I’m sorry you don’t get to see your daughter. What is that like?” They disclose these painful moments from their past, I get to glimpse a piece of their story, and then we have to say goodbye. It’s difficult.

What I wish I had time to tell him is that I come to the prison because of stories like his. Because I care about the “rest” of his story. The part that doesn’t show up in his DOC file. The part that most others won’t ask about. I believe that all stories deserve to be heard, the full story. So, I keep coming in the hopes that, over time, they’ll be able to share their story — their full story — even if it only comes in small pieces, rushed at the end of an evening and meant to test whether I’m really there for the reasons I say I am.

A fictional piece (draft) inspired by work at the prison.

23 Hours
for s-

The situation: Sixty-two years old, black and displaced from Georgia to this northwest prison, I told the guard I would not get on my knees while he ransacked my cell. I have nothing to hide and it is easier to comply, but these old knees, this low back, my heavy-burdened soul is so tired of being told to stand down.

The punishment: Tell them no, refuse to bend, ask them why they have to come at you with pepper spray ready when they know you are too old to kneel, remind them you are human, try to remind them, say sir even though the word stings your mouth, and find yourself face flat to the concrete walkway, arms twisted behind your back, a knee piercing your ribs, a voice whispering in your ears, to the hole.

The place: I am a big man, in a small box. An old man practicing death. I lie still on this metal bed, stare at white-washed walls until I do not see them anymore and instead can feel the Georgia sun, see the pecan tree ahead where my father used to take me, smell peaches being sliced in the kitchen for a pie. Officers slide food through the door on a metal tray as if I might attack. I do not eat because I am not an animal.

The time: Passes. Does not pass. What does it matter? Twenty-three hours to pace from wall to wall, back again, turn, one more time. I’m too old for pushups, sit ups. I’m too old for slinging shit at the door to get attention and medication to dull the days into one blur of shadows passing. I’m too old to be dangerous. But, come the twenty-second hour, I sometimes think about killing somebody.

The hour: Twenty-three hours inside, one hour outside. It’s a cage outside as well. Fresh air, they say, is good for me. I pace for another hour, from one side of the cage to the other. I stretch my hands up, drag my fingers along my chain link roof, wonder if the guy in the tower has his scope centered on me now or if he’s resting, feet up, bullshitting with his girlfriend on the phone. An officer tells me to keep my hands down. At the fifty-ninth minute I take a deep breath, hoping to make the air last.

The return: Having learned my lesson, so they tell me, I am escorted back to general population. To be, once again, with my fellow thieves, murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thugs and some good men picked up for the wrong crimes. I do not speak, having grown accustomed over the past sixty days to keeping thoughts to myself. I think, perhaps better to keep to myself from here on out. To make peace with giving up the fight. Peace with being pushed and not pushing back. Standing up has only ever gotten me knocked down. I’m tired of picking up all my pieces.