It has almost been five years since I first stepped inside the prison to teach. Three years since we started working with our current group of students. There are nights inside the walls which feel routine to me. The towers aren’t as imposing as they once were. The delays in being processed in no longer take me by surprise. Walking through the yard to get to our classroom, feeling the eyes of dozens of men watching us, doesn’t make me nervous. I greet our students like they are good friends I’ve been looking forward to seeing—because they are. I sometimes take for granted their continued dedication to our class. What it means to them that we keep coming, month after month, year after year. I underestimate our impact on their lives, as confined and restricted as they are. I even underestimate their impact on my life.

Then there are nights like this past Tuesday. We go through the routines to get inside the prison. There are delays at processing. They’ve lost one our volunteer’s badges. There’s no stamp to ink our hands—required to pass the next security check much like you’re required to have a stamp to get in and out of a club. We’re now too late to get to our classroom before “movement”, which means we have to wait for the yard to clear, for guys to get to and from where they have ten minutes to get to and from within the prison. We wait. We take it in stride. This is just how it goes. Inside, you have no control. This fact has even become routine to me, a self-professed control freak.

Finally making it to our classroom, our students waited. We walked around the tables, shaking each man’s hand. Saying over and over, “It’s good to see you.” It always is. We started class. Their assignment from the last class was to write an affirmation for 2013 related to how they will use what they have learned about The Hero’s Journey (the story writing structure we teach) in the new year. How will The Hero’s Journey influence the way you (the hero) will show up in your world as a strong, compassionate and positive human being for yourself and the people around you?

I had a difficult time doing the darn exercise, imagine asking men locked down for decades to consider a response.

But they all responded. This has also become routine. They do their homework, respond to our questions, trust us to be leading them down a good path both with their writing and their lives.

One student had said a couple of classes before, after telling us how on Christmas his wife let him know she was filing for divorce, taking the kids and moving out of state, that he needed to share this with us, despite how hard it was for him to speak about it because, “We’re family, you know.”

And like family, sometimes you forget what you mean to one another. Sometimes you forget how you depend on one another, and you often forget how you need one another. Until, of course, you do need the people who know you best. The people you can trust. I’ve carried his statement (and his story) with me several weeks now. And I was reminded of its truth again this past Tuesday—a night which seemed, well, routine.
Two students volunteered to read aloud to the group essays they were working on. The first student started. I normally—per routine—take notes while a student reads (because we aren’t able to get copies made of each piece and so don’t have the pages in front of us to read along and refer back to during discussion of the piece). I usually jot down particularly good phrases. Images that are working. Themes which are strong. I make note of questions I have, what might not be working as well.

I doubt, however, this student go more than a paragraph into his piece before I put my pen down, closed my eyes, rested my chin in my hands and simply listened.

He was telling the story of his psychotic break. When he lost himself to the overwhelming reality of a thirty year sentence at only nineteen years of age. He described a young boy screaming into a dark room, no one listening, no one offering to help. Punching the plexi-glass window of his cell until it cracked. He told of being taken from the prison to the hospital and the treatment he received from those along the way. Custody officers who thought he was “faking it”. An EMT in the ambulance who was “nurturing, you know?”. How he was strapped to a board. Catheterized by force, without anesthetic, in order to obtain a urine sample because they were certain he had only managed to get his hands on some drugs and that’s all his behavior was really about. He talked about going crazy and thinking he might just stay in such a state for good. Why not?

I’ve known this man for three years. I didn’t know this. Like a family member who finally comes forward to tell a secret he’s been harboring for a long time and can no longer carry alone—the only thing you are required to do, as family, is bear witness. What else can you do when someone trusts you with one of his most terrifying stories?

And, like only family can do, the group, when he was done, thanked him, before they said anything else, for sharing. For giving voice to his truth.

The second student then read a piece I had already taken home and read. I knew what was coming, and I braced myself. I had already sat alone on my couch and cried over this piece, for this member of my family. Two shattering pieces in one night was going to take some composure on my part. I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes again. His story was about a moment of physical and sexual abuse when he was five years old. It’s written with so much tenderness for his five year old self you want only, as a reader, to pull him into your arms and hold him. This student is a handsome, thirty-something, big, strong, man. He never, ever, shares himself like this. Not with the whole group. Only recently with the pieces he’s been letting us volunteers take home and read privately. Now there he was, across the table from me, reading and trying to keep from crying as he did.

Again, I made no notes. I closed my eyes. I thought of the other students in the class who I know have been through the same thing. So much untold abuse in prison. So many boys trapped inside the bodies of men, screaming out in a dark room, no one coming to help them.

When he finished, I leaned forward on the table. I looked each man in the eye. I looked this particular student in his eyes. I said, “Before anything else is said, I want to say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry for anyone else here who has had a similar experience because I know many have. Thank you for sharing.”

We’re family. We might be better than most families in fact. I don’t know that these men can talk about these things out amongst the general prison population. I doubt it. Outside of our classroom they have to be tough, strong, thugs, unafraid. They have to be the grown men their experiences as little boys taught them to be. Inside our classroom though, somehow, we’ve created safe space. We’ve created trust. We’ve walked along with one another long enough we don’t have a choice but to take the good with the bad. There’s an acceptance amongst us—come as you are. This is where the stories get told, and more importantly honored and held.

It’s not routine. And it’s not a normal life. And it’s not okay. Not one bit of it. And as a member of their family—like a mother or a sister—I take my love for them seriously. Want to protect them. Want to see them grow. And I’m willing to bear witness as I would for any member of my family out here in the so-called real world. I wish so many more of you could hear what I hear, read what I read, know them as I know them. Imperfect. Certainly. Done wrong. Without a doubt. Still human. Yes, yes, yes.

  1. Deep Water: Teaching Writing Inside of Prison, is an amazing site. I wanted to introduce this site to all my followers and readers of my prison books. They have compassion and common sense and are Saints. Check them out and subscribe to their posts, you will be glad you did and your spirit will be lifted.

    • Thank you so much for this sweet and encouraging post. I might not claim sainthood just yet, but I’ll claim a ton of empathy and compassion for the journey that is serving and surviving prison time. It would be an honor to connect with more of your followers as well. To the good work, and fight.

  2. […] We’re family. Deep Water: Teaching Writing Inside of Prison, is an amazing site. I wanted to introduce this site to all my followers and readers of my prison books. They have compassion and common sense and are Saints. Check them out and subscribe to their posts, you will be glad you did and your spirit will be lifted. […]

  3. Melissa J. Varnavas says:

    Beautiful as always, Erika. Thank you for your work, your kindness, and for sharing your story, too.

  4. Faye says:

    Gripping, thought-provoking, tragic. Thank you, Erika.

  5. Patt says:

    Your story reminds me of a quote I heard years ago. I can’t remember who said it, but I try to keep it in mind: “We are all so much more than the dumbest thing we’ve ever done.”
    I enjoy reading your work.

    • Thank you, Pat. When I talk to people on the outside about the work I’m always trying to say something similar to the quote you noted. Prisoners so often get pegged for life as their worst mistake. Imagine if that was true for all of us?


  6. W. S. Lyon says:

    Thanks for sharing, Erika. Not only is it a beautiful piece, it also shares with those of us following in your footsteps how to handle the difficult situations, and how to look forward to the touching surprises.

  7. Jill says:

    Erika, I have been teaching journal writing at a local jail for 1 1/2 years. It was great to find your blog! My students are more transient than yours, but their stories are similar. Often my students are ‘on hold’ waiting to be transferred to a federal institution. Thank you for writing about your teaching. I’m curious if you know of other people who teach writing in jail or prisons and blog about it. Thanks, for bearing witness, being family.

    • Jill says:

      P.S. Wondering how you got started …

      • Hi Jill. Thank you for being in touch. Apologies for my slow response. I’d love to hear more about your work. Journal writing in prison/jail would be so beneficial, I imagine. If you ever wanted to write a little about your work I’d be happy to post it here on mine. I’ve been thinking of starting a page for other volunteers to let each other know what they are up to. Just let me know. I do know others working in jails/prisons, but not that are keeping a blog. If I run across any I will try to post an announcement.

        I got started as a part of my graduate work in creative writing. We were allowed to do an internship in our third semester and I’d always wanted to work in a prison, so I took a chance. 5 years later I’m still very invested. I do the work with an amazing woman, Gloria Kempton, who is also a writer, and a couple other volunteers.

        Keep in touch.


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