Archive for January, 2011

There are several men in our group involved in a prison gardening project. The program at the Washington State Reformatory where I volunteer does not sound as intricate or far-sighted as the Sustainable Prison Project (though I should look into–perhaps I can volunteer for that project as well this summer), which I’d like to highlight in this post (see this interview:, but both the work our guys do and the efforts of SPP deserve a moment of consideration.

One of the hardest thing for me to get others not familiar, or even fearful, of prisons and prisoners to understand is that prisons house human beings who have the same basic core needs as any of us. They need a purpose and something or someone to care for (this is why animal care projects are so popular and effective in prisons). They need something to stimulate their minds. Goals. Something to look forward to and something to take pride in. Absent these things they, like any of us, are left isolated, depressed and lacking concern for the larger society. If no one cares if their core needs are being met, how can we ever expect them to give a damn about another’s humanity? How do we ever teach them compassion if we have no compassion? Prison is punishment, but it is also intended to be reform. My time at WSR has taught me that there is little chance of reform if prisoners cannot find a sense of purpose for their lives behind the concrete walls and barbed wire.

I have often wondered myself if I could survive a prison sentence. Despite knowing now that many incarcerated individuals cobble together a life on the inside that is productive and a testament to not allowing the brick walls and barbed wire define whether their live is worth living, the longer I go to the prison the less faith I have that I could make it through a lengthy sentence. I have a hard time imagining how any person serving a life sentence survives. I don’t know that I could. One of the men in our group has become a baker while serving his time. When he speaks about his accomplishments, including earning all the certificates he needs to be a baker on the outside, he sounds like anyone I know who is engaged in work that is meaningful to him or her. He is proud. And he has faith that when he gets out (at least five more years) he will be able to make it because he’s discovered work he loves, work that feeds his soul and gives him confidence, responsibilities and a sense of pride about the direction his life is still heading. This man said in group a couple weeks ago that he is now thankful for each new day he is given because he knows he’s going to make something good with it. He gives me hope. But still I don’t know if I could turn my own prison experience–were I to ever have one–into something so positive. What would be the point? That’s the question that would plague me. Locked up and forgotten, why would I care if I came out any better than when I went in?

The point must be found in still finding a way to give back and to be in relationship with something or someone outside of yourself, beyond yourself. Projects like the Sustainable Prison Project give prisoners a chance to be something other than a prisoner (which simply can’t sum up an entire life). I’ve talked about it before–how freezing someone in one moment in time, in one action and defining them only in relationsship to that moment/action denies their humanity and denies them an opportunity to change and to grow. The men involved in projects like SPP are defining themselves as scientists, environmentalists, farmers and gardeners. Isn’t that rehabilitative? Wouldn’t we all be better served if men walked out of prison thinking of themselves as something beyond an ex-con? Wouldn’t we all be better served if they were able to transfer skills learned in prison to immediate concerns facing society such as sustainable living, endangered species restorations and local food production?

This might all sound like liberal, hippie b.s. I don’t blame those who feel that way. But I’d ask you to imagine for just a moment that all men behind bars are not monsters. Most are not and most will be released at some point. How they come out of these facilities is in many ways up to the larger community. We cannot willingly forget about them up until the moment of their release and then suddenly care about their presence in our community. We have to decide whether we are striving to rehabilitate men who lost their way (or who never had a chance from the beginning) or whether our goal is merely vengence and isolation. The latter will produce more of what we have now–high recidivism rates, ridiculously high incarceration rates and men who come out of prison not much better than they went in. Or we can all choose to tend to community–like we would tend to a garden. With patience and care. Forgiveness and hope. Blind faith that with a little water, good soil and the right weather good things can be produced. I’d like to plant my metaphorical garden with compassion and an open heart. I’d like plant the belief that more men then we think have the capacity to change. But, like a garden, they can’t grow on their own. A combination of the right elements and care must be provided. Otherwise they wither…and whether we want to believe it or not…if the prison system in this country continues to fail prisoners…we all eventually wither.

Last night we talked about the resurrection stage of a story, which seemed fitting given the beginning of a new year. The resurrection in the hero’s journey is the climax of the story–the one last chance that the hero has to prove that all of the tests and ordeals he has been through on his journey has amounted to something. It’s a life or death moment for the hero. Ideally, a man or woman changed in profound and better ways.

It was my night to teach. I had three fears…one, the concept of resurrection/story climax would simply be too complex to explain well in two and a half hours…two, that we’d get side tracked by discussions of Jesus’ resurrection and other religious talk…three, that I’d simply have to say the word climax way too many times in front of a group of inmates, many of whom haven’t seen a woman in well over ten years.

But once again, these men surprised me.

Our opening question (each man says his name and answers a brief question at the beginning of each meeting) was simply to tell us what they each thought the resurrection stage of a story or life was about. A few answers:

“It is a test of the protagonist’s maturing. A test that the “new person” is actually real.”
“A new beginning.”
“Coming back as a new form.”
“Our release dates.”
“A reinvention of the self based on new experiences.”
“When you have discovered who you really are and can then finally move forward in a real way.”
“An emergence from a dramatic transformation–when you are changed both physically and metaphysically.”

What I had failed to account for in my preparation for class was that these men know all about waiting for a resurrection. For many of them their entire prison journey is an attempt to prepare for the day when they will step back out into the world and have to prove that they have changed–not only to themselves, but to the world at large. Prison is their ordeal. The climax of their story is their release date. Can he make it on the outside? One of the men said during our discussion, “You know, I used to worry that when I got out I’d have to catch up with other people, but what I’m realizing is that other people are going to have to catch up to me.” That’s because he’s done his work while he’s been down. He’s changed. And he knows full well that many of his friends…maybe even family…have not been working as hard on their own selves while he’s been away. He’s worked past them on his prison journey. He’s worked beyond who he was at the time of his arrest, he’s survived and he’s moving forward.

Certainly this is not the story of many men locked at WSR. Please don’t let me mistakenly give the impression that every inmate there is feverishly working to prepare themselves for a moment of resurrection. The men in our group acknowledge as much. Recitivism rates perhaps suggest as much (recitivism is of course more complex than whether or not an individual worked hard on improving himself while he was down). But our group consists of men who, if they have a release date, stand a chance of making it. When they step away from the prison for the first time that is their resurrection moment. The world will rush to test their resolve and demean their journey. If they can stand through that and not return to what was…then they’ve walked the journey, made it to the climax of this particular story of their lives. I wish that for the men in our group.