Archive for the ‘prison, general’ Category

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.

It has been a while since the subject of cancer filtered into a conversation at the prison. A while since what was being discussed around the table made me think back to my moment of diagnosis, my first appointment with an oncologist, my trip on a gurney down a hospital hallway to an operating room. It has been five and a half years since my diagnosis. The memories, fears and worries do not plague me in the same way they once did. My experience with cancer always inhabits my thoughts, but more and more, thankfully, it hovers in the background, unobtrusive and no longer distracting. There are days I don’t think of it at all—like an ex-boyfriend one swears she’ll never get over, but then, one day, finds she has. Time, it turns out, doesn’t heal all wounds, but allows them to scab over, scar and become a part of you. A part you stop noticing in the mirror each and every morning.

Sometimes, though, the memories return fresh and strong. This happened during the last class at the prison when the guys offered up their stories of what it was like the weeks or days before they started serving their current sentences. The question specifically was: what did you do to prepare for this part of your journey? As teachers I think we expected responses about saying goodbye to family, spending time with children, making love to wives and girlfriends, visiting favorite restaurants and eating favorite meals, and taking long walks for as long as one wanted to walk. Our expectations only turned out to prove there is still much we have to learn about this experience called serving time.

Turns out, one doesn’t often get a chance to prepare for serving a prison sentence. One student did say something along the lines of, come on now, if you’re out in the streets doing dirt you always know you’re going to end up here. His argument being, if you are doing things that might get you arrested you would be wise to be prepared to go to prison any day. But beyond that general truth (Which reminds me of the saying: live every day as if it is your last. Good, but not necessarily practical advice.), it turns out most of our students were simply going about living their lives at the time of their arrest. They were not prepared. They had not discussed it with their families. They did not remember to do something they loved every day just in case tomorrow was the day they got caught. And once they had been arrested they stayed in jail until their trial was over, received their sentence and then went straight from jail to prison. There was no “time out” in the free world to prepare for the journey to prison. They were in their lives one day, and on their way to prison the next.

Cancer was like that for me. One moment I was a twenty-seven year old organic farmer living a fairly hippie and healthy lifestyle, the next moment, at 8am on a random Thursday, I was a cancer patient. I wasn’t sick. Then I was sick. In less than a few ticks of a clock. With only a few words from my doctor over the phone. Like the students in my group, I had to come to terms with my new reality after I was already existing within it. There was no considering. No trial period where if I decided this cancer business wasn’t for me I could give it back. People sometimes still ask me: don’t you feel like cancer taught you lessons you might not otherwise have ever learned? Maybe. Sure. What? I’ve never been one of those survivors to say after the fact that I was thankful for what cancer taught me. I learned the lessons I faced because I had no choice. But I would have taken them any other way. Without a doubt. I would have taken continuing to live my life in cancer-free bliss, saving the lessons for another day. I would have spared my family the months of fearing they were going to lose a daughter, a sister. I am not comfortable trying to package cancer up in a shiny bow of subversive self help. An unexpected path to enlightenment. It’s cancer. It can kill you. It could’ve killed me. Someday it still might. I would rather not have had it. That’s the truth.

There are experiences in life which change us profoundly. Rearrange our literal and figurative guts, redefine who we are, present us with questions we must answer whether we want to or not. How will you spend your time now that you’ve been sentenced to it? What is a life worth with a 50-year sentence? How do you want to die? These are not experiences you prepare for. They catch you by surprise. They are not a gift. They might have been inevitable, and maybe some part of you always saw it coming, but, you don’t prepare. Even if you could, what would you have done that would have made it any better? How many times could one of our students hug his children before going to prison to make not being able to hug them for years any less of a burden to bear? What would I have done the day before my diagnosis to feel alive that would have lessened my awareness of death the moment after my diagnosis?

What our conversation with the guys about preparation—or lack of—for entering prison reminded me is many stories start with the unexpected and the unpleasant. This does not mean there is no point to the story, but it can mean the point will take some time to find. And once the point is found it does not mean you have to be thankful for the journey. I don’t expect the men in our group to be thankful for 20, 30, 40 years behind bars no matter how much they change and grow into better men while serving their sentences. I do not expect cancer victims to be thankful in some way for their cancer experience. Such expectations are what those not walking these particular journeys want to hear to make themselves feel better about another person’s suffering. We wanted the guys to tell us they made the most of their final days in the free world, that they noticed how the air smelled and the way their wife smiled for what felt like the first time in their lives. We wanted them to say they were thankful in some way for the journey they were about to embark on. That they were ready, accepting and determined to make the best of it. It would have made us feel better to hear these things. The fact that they looked at us and said, “Why would you think we had a chance to prepare?” and, “How would I have prepared exactly?” was beautiful. It taught me what I had learned once with the cancer, but apparently forgot: there are some things in life you simply have to endure and survivor. If you come out on the other side a better person, well, then, as some say, there go I but by the grace of God.

Over the past week or so I’ve come across a few resources I wanted to be sure to post here for those interested in hearing and reading what others have to say about the prison industrial complex in the US.

These first two focus on the work of Bryan Stevenson, winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson was instrumental in the 5-4 US Supreme Court decision to end life and extremely harsh sentences for minors convicted of felonies.

Read more about Stevenson, the court case and his theories on equality and justice in this Smithsonian article: Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As A Society by Chris Hedges.

And, listen to Stevenson speak to the prison system, justice, race and equality during this TED Talk. (About 25 minutes and more than worth your time.)

For readers in WA State (or in states who do not currently have a parole system) be sure to connect with the work of People4ParoleWA. The time is now to write to our legislators asking them consider reinstating a system for parole in WA state–a system which can not only save taxpayers money, but also provides a fair review for inmates serving long sentences who have committed to their rehabilitation.

Finally, for an insider’s take on processing into a jail check out this short story published today by Mike Miner, my friend and fellow graduate of the Solstice MFA Program at Manor College. His story, El Locomotive, appears in Burnt Bridge and is available online. Within Mike’s piece are echoes of the stories I’ve heard from my students when they recount their first experiences in jail or prison.

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.

One of my students struggles to be inspired by most of the class exercises we give. He’s a self-proclaimed free form free thinker and prefers inspired free writes that allow him to compose more spontaneous, less directed poems, prose poems, short essays, etc. Our theory as teachers (as much as we want all our students to follow along with the class and do their assigned homework) is: whatever keeps you writing. So, I’ve started providing E- with first lines from poems. He takes those back to his cell, writes and brings them back to me the next class. This first line comes from Tracy K. Smiths poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from her collection Life on Mars. I found what E- wrote intriguing. If any reader wants to leave a comment for me to take back to him, please do. He loves spirited debate, differing opinions and smart conversation around the complexity of being human.

***

“Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone.”

Or is it?

Everyone has secrets that they can’t stand the thought of being exposed. Protecting those secrets can isolate someone, and regardless if another can be trusted, the secret will never feel safe. Trust has a lot to do with not feeling secure with being vulnerable. Personally, I don’t want to play with the idea of “giving away” because I’m afraid. I’ve offered intimate parts of my mind and spirit and when the recipient sprinted from their promises I felt stolen. The best company I can find are the teachings of being alone.

Alone is something that should be embraced. It is the process of discovering and relying on oneself. Getting space away from the rest of the world and gaining perspective on what is running across your mind. It’s like driving on an ocean breeze and the sky is turning the most relaxing colors, the seconds are a hour long.

I understand that strong connections can be comforting and supportive, but in my experience it still feels external. You can be open as a timeless river, but who is willing to swim in the naked truth without knowing how far they have to go to share in your aloneness running down the middle?

I know there are people who share or disagree with my point of view. My opinion is free for you to do with what you will. I’m not intimidated by honesty. In fact, I encourage you to examine and challenge your own opinion. My opinion is real to me because I live my life in my mind. Privacy is valuable and I feel crowded and intruded on when my layers are peeled back.

“Perhaps the great error is believing we are alone.”

My response is we are never not alone, and that to me is the greatest asset.

A second question offered to this blog’s readers from some of our students is now posted under the heading “Q&A with our students” at the top of this page. This time they are curious to know how readers define freedom.

I offer: How do you know you are free? What defines your sense of freedom?

You can respond on the question page itself or here. Feel free to ask them questions in response. As a reminder, I’ll remove all identifying information from your comments before taking them into the guys to read.

Folks: for those of you who interact (frequently or infrequently) with this blog I wanted to let you know that I’m starting a new feature with a couple of my students. It’s a Q&A page (you can find it at the top of the homepage). They’ve given me a list of questions they’d like to dialogue with blog readers about and in turn are willing to respond to questions from readers. We’ll see how this goes…but if you are interested or have the time the first question (Do you believe people deserve a second chance?) is posted and ready for your thoughts. Note: You get to individual questions by hovering on the page title at the top of the homepage–“Q&A with our students”. The following link takes you to the general overview of what’s going on: https://teachingontheinside.wordpress.com/qa-with-our-students/