29 years on a 30 year ticket

Posted: May 22, 2010 in prison, general, prisoner writing, teaching, Uncategorized, writing
Tags: , , ,

Many new faces in our group last night. There must have been a transfer in from a new prison, so guys are checking out the scene, trying to find ways to stay busy. The shuffling of prisoners has been a struggle for our group at the Reformatory. Guys are there one week and the next time we come back they’ve been shipped elsewhere. I had no idea the prison population was so transitory. They come from out of state, from prisons that are overcrowded or closing. They are shipped out when they are in danger or when they are a danger to others. It can be difficult to feel like we are pulling a cohesive group together sometimes when the faces we get to know one week are not the same faces that return the next.

Not too many meetings ago we were down to only two guys. Now we are back up around ten. When we were at only two we had to ask ourselves, is it worth to come for only two guys? We ultimately decided yes–that if they were willing to come and do the work then we would continue to show up. Touching one life is as important as touching a dozen…or more…right?

But it felt good to have a larger group last night. All of the new faces are young faces. All but one. An older man, who at the end of our evening came up to the volunteers that he was twenty-nine years into a thirty year sentence and he wanted us to know how much groups like ours mean to guys on the inside. He is a big bellied man with a fuzzy gray mustache and warm smile. His twenty-nine years don’t seem to have broken his spirit completely and I’m glad for that. I only hope his release back into the world isn’t more crushing than all the years he’s served.

I’ve been asking the question about my own writing life lately–what is the point? So much of the work is done in such isolation, and you never know if it will be worth it. Never know if you’re work will make it out into the world, or if I will end up writing my stories only for myself. Some days I wonder if I could give it up, do something else. Be normal. But I know I couldn’t. I want my work to touch the lives of others and while a story only exists as a file on my computer, as a stack of notes on my desk I feel as if I am not making the difference in the world that I want to make. Then I go to the prison. Where I am reminded by the gratitude of a man who must know what it is like to face the question, what is the point?, on a painfully deep level, that I am touching lives. If not through my stories just yet, then via my presence. And maybe the work at the prison is what I am meant to be doing as a writer, at this moment. It’s not glamorous, and it gets me no titles on a shelf at Barnes and Noble and I won’t be winning a Pushcart soon. But I did make one evening in the life of a man who has served twenty-nine years behind bars a little easier. I treated him like a human being, flaws and all and perhaps that does mean something to the world, even if the world doesn’t know it.

  1. Cindy says:

    I haven’t looked at your blog in awhile, but I took a peek tonight. The work you do both in person and as a writer is enormously important. You are changing the world. Don’t ever forget that.

  2. Ryan says:

    I’m a recent college grad who has just recently been accepted into the Peace Corps as a math teacher in South Africa; I’ve been doing research on how teachers actually can affect lives even in the most hopeless situations.

    I found your blog while researching prison teaching, and all I have to say is that the work you’re doing is inspirational, even to a stranger like me. Even if you never get famous, you are touching lives across the world.

    • islandwriter says:

      Dear Ryan,
      Thanks for the comment, and for taking some time with my blog. Sometimes it feels like we do our good work in a vacuum, but it’s true that we don’t. “Affect lives even in the most hopeless situations” is a great way to sum up what the work in the prison feels like at times. The point is to impact lives, regardless of the hopefulness of it all. I’m glad to hear you are about to embark out with the Peace Corps. I wish I had done that when I finished school–but now I’m saving it for a mid-life crisis, which is still a ways off yet 🙂 All the best to you and your journey. Now doubt you’ll also be touching lives, and you’ll grow because of it. Travel safe. Learn a lot. I’ve been humbled more than once by realizing that despite my title of teacher, I actually have more to learn than my students.

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