On making and losing friends

Posted: September 11, 2012 in prison reform, prison, general, prisoner rehabilitation, Uncategorized, writing
Tags: , , ,

The status update I posted on Facebook after coming home from the prison last week simply said: Lost one of my favorite students to the hole. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this part of teaching behind the walls.

This is (some) of what I have to say about the rest of the story.

Having a student disappear to the hole—solitary confinement—is not a new experience (nor subject for this blog, see: Terry has gone to the hole). Yet, it is still a rare enough occurrence it takes me by surprise when it happens. And in certain cases, like this most recent student, is accompanied by an emotional response which can be difficult to express. Difficult for several reasons.

First, the practical reason. The DOC (Department of Corrections) trains volunteers to keep our emotional distance from the inmates. There are good and rational reasons to preach these sorts of boundaries. There are equally good and practical reasons to ignore them—or at least to allow oneself a bit of flexibility. While it is important to remember where it is and who we teach—that is, we teach men who have had a lifetime of perfecting the art of the “con” (and I’d argue now live within a system that tends to lead to honing the skill), as “do gooders” (such as we are) with big hearts and hopeful spirits and sometimes more empathy than is healthy it is easy to be taken in by a good story and then suddenly find yourself in a mess. I have never had this experience myself. No student has ever manipulated me into considering smuggling in cigarettes or running messages between him and his gang on the outside (to be clear—no student has ever asked, but according to the DOC training, it happens). I’ve never given my home address to a student to write to me on the side. Nor my phone number.

That said, a few (not all, but a few) of these guys, especially the ones who have been a part of our program for going on three years now, I am proud to consider friends. If they were out, I’d have a beer with them. I would not worry if they knew where I lived or came to visit or gave me a call every now and then (also, for certain, against DOC policy and thus likely never to happen since I wouldn’t want to do anything to risk our program being allowed in the prison, more on my criticism of this particular policy later in this post). It’s all based on a gut reaction, of course. I could be wrong about the “bad” ones. I could also be wrong about the “good” ones. But then, isn’t the same true out here in the free world?

All this leads to the second reason expressing the emotions that arise when a guy to the hole (from which they are often transferred to another prison and/or banned from returning to programs or otherwise disappear back into a system that swallows grown men like bite-sized snack food on a daily basis) is difficult. I’m not supposed to care as much as I do. It’s not just the DOC who I have to make certain feels I am maintaining the appropriate boundaries, but also family and friends who, though supportive of my work (most of them anyway, my grandmother would love for me to give this whole gig up), still worry. Mostly about riots or some other random act of violence happening while I’m behind the walls, but also, I know they worry about what happens if exactly what has happened in this case happens. What if I get too close to a student? What if I think of him as a friend first? What if I consider doing things I know I shouldn’t do and once thought I never would do? Give out my address? Write to him under a pseudonym? Try to skirt the system in order to not lose him within the system?

I’m not talking about falling in love. I’m talking about falling into friendship and feeling as much loyalty to that friendship as I would with any other friend or family member.

I’m talking about making friends with a murderer, being devastated by his sudden departure from your life and finding it difficult to call a friend here on the outside to talk about.

M— is 26 years old. He celebrated his birthday at the end of last month. He has been in our group for over two years. He was raised by a black father (who he rarely sees or speaks to) and white mother (with whom his relationship, as he grows and matures, has recently become strained to say the least) in Seattle. He has a younger sister he loves more than anything in the world (and once asked me for advice on how to counsel her as she starts to date boys). He is politically and academically active in the prison. A member of the Black Prisoners Caucus. A student in several classes besides ours. He is often invited to meet with legislative and political dignitaries who come to the prison to get an “insiders” perspective. He recently challenged himself to stop watching television. He was interviewed on my local NPR station this year as part of a story on lifers and prisoners with long sentences. He’s been reading the books of poetry I bring him. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse he only recently started to talk and write about openly. He never, until now, misses a class. When he was young (as if 26 isn’t young!) he used to steal cars just to drive as far he could on the gas in the tank—to see something new, be on an adventure, drive away from his life and toward the possibility of something different. He grew up poor in Seattle, ran with gangs. When he was seventeen, to prove himself to the gang, he carjacked a woman and shot her in the head. “A woman whose name I didn’t even know. Who never did anything to me,” he told me once. For that he received 30 years. If he is not granted clemency in 3 years (having served 10 years) he will likely be in prison until he is 47 years old (if not longer, depending on the charge he faces which landed him in hole). His entire adult life to date has been lived behind bars.

M—‘s early writing for the class was full of hyperbole, grand metaphors that often got lost one within the other and obtuse declarative statements about what others should feel or understand about their lives (this is actually quite common in prisoner writing—avoid the details so as not to remember reality). He fancied himself a guru. An old soul who had lived hard, been punished and now had a right to “teach” others. He didn’t write about himself, his life, his experiences in prison nor what put him there in the first place. Until we started to push him—gently—to be brave enough to do so.

The story is in the details, I’ve told him more than once. I challenged him to consider: why would a reader trust you to tell her how she ought to see life when you won’t tell her how you supposedly learned these lessons? What makes your view of the world different than anyone else’s? Different than my own? Can you be brave enough to tell the truth?

Then, within this last year, he got it. Or started to, anyway. And his writing took a turn toward the powerful. As did the short letters he’d write me and attach to his new pieces I was taking home to read (we offer this to all the guys, and it is allowed by the prison). He and I started to dialogue in writing mostly (because you get but only a few minutes at the beginning and end of any class to actually talk one on one in any meaningful way with students) not only about his writing, but about his life, his past, his hopes for his future, his current challenges within the prison and with his family. I responded. Offering what advice and guidance I could. He asked me questions about my life and I responded to those I felt comfortable answering—telling him I couldn’t answer everything. There were boundaries that had to be maintained as I’ve mentioned, and whether I agree with all of them or not, it is what it is if I want to work within the system. I wasn’t concerned that M—was trying to manipulate me. He’s wasn’t. I was not concerned he was falling in love with me or me with him. We weren’t. But I was concerned that in the hands of the wrong custody officer the wrong words in the wrong order on the page could be construed as something they were not (or interpreted as what they were—a growing friendship—which would be punished no less severely) and not only would M— be in trouble, but so would I and most certainly so would our program. There’s no understanding or compassion for a volunteer getting to know an inmate as a human being. As far as the DOC is concerned, they aren’t, and if we (volunteers) can’t maintain such a perspective then perhaps we should consider another line of work.

So I was careful, but still allowed the friendship to grow.

M— and I communicated in this abbreviated style, and it was fine. Reading his letters and writing my response started to become like sitting down over coffee with a good friend. The conversations sometimes rambled, and occasionally got off topic, but at the end I always felt satisfied the way you do when you’ve connected with a kindred soul who understands what it is to be searching for a little meaning and trying to get yourself—your head and your heart–right. He was concerned about his writing the way some of my closest and finest writer friends are, and spoke to those concerns just as eloquently. He was investigating his life. How he’d come to be in prison. What he could do to ensure he’d never come back when he was released. He cared whether I’d had a good two weeks between classes. I thought of him while we were gone, hoping he was taking care of himself—staying focused, staying positive and writing.

He was one of the last guys in our group I expected to get sent to the hole.

When he didn’t walk into class last Tuesday, smiling like he does and making his way around the room to shake each volunteer’s hand, I was devastated. I was disappointed. Angry. Sad. I was pissed off at him—for whatever he did to get in trouble (could be minor, could be a big deal, could be totally trumped up and/or petty—there’s no way to know). I was overwhelmed by the feeling that the system will always win and keeps yanking from us our most talented and dedicated students. On the drive home after class I argued with a society who locks up a seventeen year-old for 30 years. I cursed at his parents for fucking up his childhood. I fought with the DOC for allowing us to be something they can hold up as examples of rehabilitative services, yet when a student needs us the most or gets out and needs support we’re not allowed to continue to be in contact. If he’s not in our class we are not allowed to have any contact with him. I raged and then cried over a society that doesn’t give a shit about M—and never will. He’s a murderer. Murderers go to the hole. They get transferred to another prison. They serve their thirty years and maybe that’s not even long enough.

I cried for my friend over this past week. I cried for myself. I considered whether this is work I can really do over the long term given these are the sorts of losses I have to be prepared to face. I wondered if I’m making any difference. After all, if our program or our correspondence meant anything at all to his rehabilitation, then what the hell is he doing in the hole? I considered changing who I am in order to keep going. To close myself off. Harden my heart. Ratchet down the empathy to an acceptable level. Detach.

But here’s the rub, my personal work at the moment—and my challenge in my own writing—is to strive for realness no matter the cost. M— would remind me of as much if he could. I can’t be real and only write what is politically correct (safe) about my experiences in the prison, the friendships that develop there, the men as I get to know them (and all the complexity involved in that “knowing”). I won’t detach because detachment breeds apathy. Instead I write this post to give voice to what is true. I won’t let my current disappointment and frustration redefine my experience in the prison. I will rededicate myself to caring for these men because I’m capable of doing it, and because like me, our students and M-, are allowed to not be perfect, to be striving to be better but not always make it. Being confined to the hole doesn’t automatically prove they are the “cons” so many want them to turn out to be–it proves they are human. We all fuck up. Most of us just still get to go home at the end of the day when we do.

Most importantly, I will not apologize for nor minimize my friendship with M—. I will write about. Own it. Talk about it. Be proud of it. If he doesn’t return the group (there’s always a slim chance) I will grieve the way anyone would at the loss of a friend, and if I have a chance to connect with him in the future, I will, and between now and then I just might still write him letters. Saving them for the day he’s free—at thirty or at forty-seven—and we can meet in person, have a cup of coffee, and when I hand him my bundle of scribbled thoughts he’ll know I meant it when I said, yes, we’re friends.

  1. Awesome! Thanks for caring and showing your soul. I spent over 10 years in California’s prisons on drug related charges. Four of those years in solitary. I started writing novels in solitary. Maybe your friend will also, thanks to your influence. God bless what you do. Here is an excerpt from my novella Underdog that I thought was fitting. Sergeant Torrez crowded our cell door with a smirk on his face with six IGI Gooners behind him. We called the Inmate Gang Investigators Gooners because they wore similar uniforms to the regular prison guards but had additional black stitching on their shoulders and chest that resembled tattoos to signify they were in charge of deciphering who the gangsters were, usually based on their tattoos.
    We backed up to the cell door one at a time and stuck our wrists through the slot to accept the handcuffs. After we backed out of the cell we had one IGI Gooner on each side of us holding our shoulders to steer our direction. Sergeant Torrez led the way and just as we got to Traveler and Sinner’s cell he said, “Time to take some pictures of you to add to the gang file and have an interview out of hearing so you can really open up to us.”
    I knew he was trying to stir the pot and make it look like we might yap our gums and talk. They were always trying to play the divide and conquer game to keep the prisoners fighting each other instead of uniting for a common cause, like finding a new life away from prison walls…
    We stopped at an office and there were two other IGI Gooners inside with cameras and a table full of files next to them. Sergeant Torrez grabbed our files off the desk and handed them over. I read the nameplate from the first Gooner’s shoulder to receive our files, Velazquez, and noticed he was listed as a Lieutenant. The other Gooner to get our files was Perez, another Lieutenant.
    Sergeant Torrez looked at us like a bully and said, “Strip down to nothing. It’s time to take some pictures to beef up your files. Let’s see those tattoos.”
    I knew I would disappoint this branch of fault finders. I didn’t have any tattoos. Damon on the other hand was a sculpted banner of ink. They were going to have a field day with him.
    I stripped down and stared at Sergeant Torrez. He looked even more frustrated. He said, “Turn around BJ.”
    I turned around and heard him say, “Not one tattoo BJ? What’s wrong with you? Every other prisoner has tattoos. How do you have so much influence without them?”
    I responded, “Who said I have influence? If I have any it’s because I’m not trendy.”
    I heard Sergeant Torrez whistle and say, “Look at all that ink on Smith. We should be able to label some of that ink as gang affiliated.”
    “Turn around Smith”
    Damon turned around and looked at me with a sour expression on his face and I whispered, “Don’t say anything.”
    We heard Sergeant Torrez pull one of the Inmate Gang Investigators aside and close the office door behind them. We listened and barely heard the Sergeant say, “We can put everything on Smith and write it up that he was the shot caller that provoked the riot…”
    We heard the IGI Gooner respond, “Yeah, I like that. With all of those prison tattoos we can write it up that he’s part of a prison gang and a leader. We should be able to keep him housed in Ad Seg until the Pelican Bay SHU has an opening…”
    The door opened and they walked back inside.
    “Turn around.”
    We turned around and I studied Sergeant Torrez. I was starting to hate him. He was a power tripper who was willing to do whatever it took to screw people like us. He grabbed one of the cameras and got close enough to Damon’s naked body for it to feel weird. The feeling intensified because his face took on a glow, like he was getting off on the process. With his face six inches away from Damon’s stomach he asked, “What does Rott stand for? Is that you’re AKA?”
    Damon didn’t say anything…
    “What about that banner of ink flowing across your chest with the Ace of Spades flying off the table with the dice? Does that mean you control the gambling in here?”
    Damon remained silent…
    “What about the 737 on your shoulder, what does that stand for?” Lieutenant Inmate Gang Investigator Perez came closer with an excited look on his face. “That’s a gang tattoo! I know I have it in my files somewhere.” The energy increased with Perez’s excitement and the questions came in rapid fire.
    “What do they call you besides BJ?”
    “What do they call you Smith?”
    “Who do you run with?”
    “What gang are you from?”
    “What neighborhood do you represent?”
    “Are you affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood?”
    “How about the Nazi Low Riders?”
    “Are you Skin Heads? Are you Peckerwoods? Come on I know you’re someone!” The feeling of doom intensified as the reports were scribbled faster along with the flashing lights from the cameras. It felt like we were on an out of control train about to get derailed.
    Inmate Gang Investigator Torrez flipped the pages in his gang file and with excitement that bordered on glee, said, “See, right here! Look at the tattoo on this inmate… He has the number 737 tattooed on his shoulder also. When we interrogated him he admitted his AKA is Casper and also admitted his gang affiliation as OCS, short for Orange County Skin Head. He also told us the structure of White gang leadership in prison starts with the Aryan Brotherhood dominating the Nazi Low Riders, who dominate the Skin Head gangs. He said a Roll Call list is taken on every prison yard in California to organize the power structure…”

  2. Benito says:

    You go girl!

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