Archive for the ‘prison reform’ Category

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.

The First Time Back

There’s an agitation in the air. That’s the first thing I feel. At the front desk, our group’s paperwork had not been processed properly. For fifteen minutes it seemed we’d made the trip up to the prison, full of anticipation to get back in after our sixth month absence, for nothing. We’d told ourselves to prepare for just this sort of thing. When dealing with the prison system it’s best to not let your expectations get too high. Best to come with patience…endless patience. After several calls with a lieutenant on the other end of one of the custody officer’s radios someone, somewhere, found some piece of paper clearing us to go inside.

Is it strange to say I was relieved?

The check-in security procedures are about the same. I don’t know what I was expecting. More comprehensive searches? A renewed list of items we can and cannot bring in with us? We proceed through the normal process of shoes off, bags on table to be searched, through the metal detector, shoes back on, volunteer sponsor badges attached, invisible stamp on the hand, back downstairs, through the sliding metal doors (one at a time, so for a minute you stand inside a cage, waiting for the next door to open), sign in to the book letting the officers know who is in the prison, where they are going and what time they came and left, flash the invisible stamp under the black light for the guards behind the enclosed office, through the gated sliding door (like a cell door), down the long hallway, past the cafeteria (I did not miss that smell), through the sliding metal door out into the causeway between the building we’ve just left and the turn-style gates to the classroom building, past one of our students being patted down by an officer, in his hand his notebook, I wave, which is stupid, and he knows better than to wave back while the custody officer is still running his hands down his back, shaking his pant legs, J- has killed, J- is a good student, J- is an amazing artist, J- is in for life plus some, J- will have made sure all of the guys in our group knew tonight was the night we were coming back, past the now two guards at the front desk, one a familiar face, he does not like us, nor the prisoners, and likely not his job, and that was true before the murder, the other a quiet and young looking kid, down to classroom number one, our classroom, move the tables and chairs into the configuration we like, and wait.

First Jo-, then T-, F- and M-, B- and JD come into the room. It is good to see all of these familiar faces, a relief to know we have not lost them all. We cannot hug these men. I understand. I shake each hand, one by one, saying, “It’s good to see you.” It IS good to see them. I have a million questions. I weirdly want to tell them about my grandfather, who fell ill the month before and who we thought might die, but who is now recovering in a nursery home and was coherent enough to understand me when I told him, “Grandpa, the prison is going to let our program back in,” and he was happy for me (it’s not easy to garner the support of friends and family…I try to understand that too). For six months I’ve only been able to imagine our guys’ lives. For six months I’ve worried they have thought we didn’t want to come back because we were scared. That we’d abandoned them. I’ve worried about who’s been shipped off to another prison, and who’s spirited has been weakened by the lockdowns and changes in rules since the murder of Officer Bindel, who has behaved and who has not, who we have lost to the system for good. I’ve prayed for them to keep cool heads. We’ve lost W-. No one knows where he was shipped. W- whose grandfather sent him to the store at age eight to steal a forty. W- who asked if we could be friends and I had to tell him no, not in the way he was asking, the prison doesn’t allow it. They say Mal- will be back. I have a piece of his writing to return to him.

We’re prepared not to talk about the last six months. These guys, we know, sometimes want to talk about anything but living behind the walls. We go around the room one by one and ask them to answer just two questions. How are you? Have you been writing? None of them are well, even if they say they are. All of them look pale, like they’ve either lost weight or become harder in some other way difficult to define. There’s an anger about the last six months. There’s grief, but they don’t know that’s what it is. They don’t understand the officers are also grieving. It’s not an excuse for anyone to behave poorly, but try to understand. J- says he worked with Officer Bindel and says had another inmate been there in the chapel on the night she was murdered the attack would’ve been stopped. “There wasn’t the normal satisfaction of seeing an officer hurt,” he said, “I mean, it was in the church and she was female. He was just a messed up guy.” T- has been to the hole. He tells us he planned to get in enough trouble to be sent, “Anywhere but here,” until he heard we were coming back. As he speaks he both looks like he might cry and like he is still so on edge if someone looked at him wrong he might still snap. He says an officer told him we weren’t coming back, we didn’t want to, and I can see the hurt he felt even though he knows better now that we are all sitting around the table again. Before he leaves at the end of the night I shake his hand again, tell him I expect to see him again in two weeks, he tells me not to worry, he’ll be here.

A member of the Granta magazine team sent me the link to this piece recently published by Granta: http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/On-Rikers-Island

The piece is short, but also directly powerful. Honest. Unafraid of the prison powers-that-be that might read it (an issue I struggle with here on the blog and as I consider writing more formal pieces for publication). I was drawn to the phrases “air of infinite weariness” and “oppressive lethargy” because they are accurate descriptions of the mood that hangs over any prison complex. McConnell is right, you feel it as soon as you step onto the prison property (and you feel a sense of desperation to fight against it, to wake up the men you meet). A blanket of deep tiredness. Within the prison there are certainly men who fight against such lethargy and weariness (we had several in our group). The institution itself seems to promote it, preferring indifference and sluggishness on the part the prison’s residents (and maybe one can’t wholly fault the institution for this promotion as imagine trying to “guard” hundreds of motivated, inspired, and determined men).

I sympathize with McConnell when he writes, “For some reason I’ve always got along with social castoffs, not the people who nuture their marginality into some marvelous and fecund inner freedom, but the people who can’t: the damaged, the uneducated, prisoners, run-of-the-mill criminals.” I too am attracted to work that brings me into contact with people who seem to have the longest hills to climb to make something of their lives (“make something” as defined by who and against what standards I still don’t know). I am not yet as cynical as to believe that there are people who “can’t” as McConnell writes. I still believe at least one or two of the men from our program will succeed upon release. But I’ve certainly met people who “can’t” or “won’t” and I am equally as fascinated by their stories as I am by those who are struggling to prove they can. These relationships with people who have been written off–prisoners, specifically–make me ask so many questions: what makes a life? what makes a productive day/week/year? where does ambition come from and if you don’t have it, do you miss it? can you choose not to give a shit? about laws? about others? about yourself? and if you answer yes, are you lying? I think we consider prisoners easy to define–simple, uneducated, anti-social and not interested in playing by the rules–but I argue that to be so is in fact to be strangely complex…baffling even. Perhaps because I didn’t have to struggle nearly enough growing up, and now in adulthood have still managed to avoid the worst of circumstances visited upon others, I am drawn to “the damaged” not the way a passerby rubbernecks at a car accident, but the way a student, preparing for an exam she is certain the teacher (life) is going to give, desperately searches for answers to questions she can’t possibly know until the test actually lands on her desk (by way of tragedy, illness, death, violence). I feel the men in prison know things I won’t ever learn without them, important things, survival things. Perhaps that is McConnell’s fascination with “social castoffs” as well. Thrown out of the larger, socially acceptable, law-abiding (depending on your definition) tribe, who are these “castoffs” and what unique knowledge do they take with them when they go?

We’re not going back to the prison. At least not anytime soon. I have known this for over a week now, but writing about it seemed to make it too real, so I’ve shied away. We have been told that all non-religious programs, such as ours (though I’d argue we are a soulful program, a heart-mending program, an imagining the self in a new better light program…but that doesn’t seem to count) will have to submit our programs to the Department of Corrections again for review and possible reinstatement. They will select those allowed to return based on the program’s relevance to the DOC’s Strategic Plan (a plan I need to look up), but the reality is that the security and procedural changes taking place as a result of the murder which happened in the prison chapel almost three months ago simply means there will be fewer custody officers to staff volunteer programs. So, programs must be thinned to a new manageable number.

Much like knowing you are one of the smallest, less athletic kids standing in the lineup waiting to be picked for a baseball game during recess on the playground, it is hard to realize that despite the power of our program’s will and spirit (and effectiveness, in my personal opinion) our chances of getting picked as anything but an alternate are slim. We are not Alcoholics Anonymous. We are not an anger management class (you should hear what the guys say about the effectiveness of those classes!) or a nonviolent communication class (though perhaps we can argue we are the latter…pen to paper is not pen to the side of the neck…doesn’t that count as promoting nonviolent communication?). We don’t offer GEDs, technical degrees, bachelor’s degrees.

Writers always have a difficult time qualifying their work. The hours spent quietly putting pen to paper (in the case of the men at the prison…few have access to typewriters or computers) with months and months passing without a final product to show for it. The transformations that take place between the soul of the writer and the story on the page are difficult to describe. What you learn about yourself, your story, your understanding of the world, your interest in questions larger than yourself, how you change, what your characters teach you, what you want your characters to learn so that you can learn as well…these experiences are hard to put into words others, non-writers, understand (despite their valiant efforts to try). Despite the fact that the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives, it can be difficult to get others to understand that when you help someone relook at his story, write it from a more honest perspective than perhaps he’s ever told it before or encourage him to write about the parts no one has ever asked about before you help to change him…in most cases for the better. The changes are subtle. A man who never talked in class and rarely completed assignments starts to bring 5 to 6 pages at a time asking if I’ll take them home and give him feedback. A man who has never talked about his abusive father writes a piece of prose poetry full of deep pain and childlike requests for love. A man who considered his crime “not that big of a deal” writes a story from his victim’s perspective and understands for the first time. Can I say with any certainty that any of these things will lead to a greater chance of any of these men not reoffending when they are released—not with any real authority (I’ve learned to try to stop predicting the behaviors of human beings—whether locked up or free). But is chance of recidivism the only marker we can use to determine whether a program has value, whether it is making change?

I will continue to write about our absence from the prison (as if I have a choice at the moment). This weekend we are filling out our “review form” on our program, which we just received Friday. Supposedly the prison will start reviewing these forms in early April. I’m preparing myself for a long wait before we hear anything from them—positive or negative. I don’t know how to prepare for being told our program wasn’t selected. Maybe it won’t come to that.

At the prison we teach the hero’s journey. I am now reminded that I’m on my own journey with this work. Everything has always gone so smooth for me at the prison, perhaps I should have expected an obstacle, a challenge, a conflict to arise sooner rather than later. It is the conflicts that make stories interesting after all, right?

I had been eager to get back to the prison last Thursday. Been thinking about what I would say to the custody officer who checked us in—wondering if it would be our regular guy and if that would make it easier or harder to say, “I’m sorry for all you guys up here must be going through since the murder.” It occurred to me I’ve never known anyone who has been murdered. I’ve known people who have died, a few even tragically in car accidents or by fast and furious diseases for which medical science had no answers, but never anyone who was murdered. I didn’t know the custody officer who was murdered at the prison either, but perhaps because the prison community is small and whether you know a certain staff member or volunteer or not you feel connected to anyone who goes in and out of those steel slamming doors, I feel a deep awareness of the complex grief and anger likely permeating the prison and its employees right now.

It occurs to me that I know more murderers than murder victims thanks to the make up of our prison group. It occurs to me that this is odd.

We didn’t get to go into the prison on Thursday after all. On Wednesday, another inmate in the special offenders unit (SOU) attacked a mental health worker. According to the paper he claims to have wanted to add another felony to his record in an effort to stay in prison longer. He’s likely succeeded in his request.

I feel I could spend a lifetime going to the prison, reading about prison, getting to know prisoners, prison staff and prison volunteers and never understand what motivates a man to violence any better than I do now. In fact, I wonder if the longer I do this work the less I’ll understand.

The prison is now back on lockdown, or at least the areas of the prison that had come off lockdown or been on a modified version of lockdown are now back on the full program. The guys we meet with have never come off full lockdown on account of the murder happened in their section of the prison. Weeks now they’ve been locked in their cells all day, all night. Is it fair? Punishing the whole for the inexplicable action of one other? Probably not. But as much as I wish for their lives to return to normal (or what constitutes normal within a prison) I understand that the lockdown is likely not about the inmates at all, but about the needs of the staff who need time to grieve, time to decide if they can continue to do their job, time to decide if they can forgive the whole for the actions of the one. Even I have had to stop to consider, is it worth continuing to do this work when there is no way to discern which inmate at which time might decide you will be the target for the rage (desire?) boiling inside?

I want to go back inside. I want our guys in our group to know that we are not afraid of them, even if I now harbor a new respect for the caution I should have in getting to know them. I want to be able to reassure myself by the sound of their voices and the way they will (I hope) still meet my eyes that these men I have come to know are not capable, any longer, of such a random, act of violence. I want to know they would protect me, not harm me. I want to know they respect the life in me, not fantasize about the ways in which they could take it. That’s what I want. What I know, however, is that prison is not the place to go to get what you want. At best, prison is controlled chaos. At best, we are all lucky the inmates, staff and volunteers play along with the illusion of order and control as well as we do. That’s what I feel the prison is waiting for…the illusion of order to settle back in behind the walls. When that happens, however it is one decides peace in a peace-less place has been restored, I will go back inside and I will tell the officer who checks us in thank you and I’m sorry for your loss and then I will go and shake the hand of each man in our group as he comes into our classroom.

When my doctor told me in late mid-2007 that the funny looking mole I’d had removed from my right shoulder was actually the outward manifestation of melanoma cancer cells hurriedly making their way toward malignancy I wanted to know why. What had I done wrong? And if I wasn’t specifically to blame, then who or what was? Did my parents not protect me from the sun when I was young? Did it begin when I visited my aunt in California when I was thirteen or fourteen and was sunburned while kayaking? Was it Florida’s fault? I’d lived there for three years after high school, and though I never became a beachgoer or sun worshipper per se, there was no avoiding the constant and insistent sun in Florida. Perhaps it was one pool party too many? What about my diet? Organic and local food didn’t make their way into my consciousness until I was well into my twenties—had the damage already been done by then by too much pesticide-laden food, too many antibiotic filled factory meat? Was it my brief stint as a not-very-dedicated smoker during college? Was it the air I breathe, polluted with God knows what? Or was the cause something subtle? Stress I wasn’t acknowledging? Sadness I wasn’t addressing? Did I know on some level I needed to make a change in my life, but because I was dragging my heels my body, suffering the quiet emotional consequences of being stagnant, became sick in an effort to force me to act? Was I simply not a good person? This last question of course was one I kept to myself and struggled with answering quietly while attending doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment.

I asked my doctors for answers. They responded with questions of their own that, though probably not meant to be blaming, came across that way. Do you always use sunscreen (no, do you?)? Have you used tanning booths (once)? Were you sunburned as a baby (I don’t know)? When I pointed out that I’ve lived most of my life in the northwest and that the mole was on my shoulder where clothing nearly always covered it, the doctors would eventually relent and say some version of, we don’t actually know why.

The journey of asking the question why when applied to any tragedy is a necessary, but often fruitless, endeavor. Occasionally, there are answers…or half answers or answers to related questions, but more often than not we are left to shrug our shoulders and admit there is no answer that satisfies the human need to place order and reason on the chaotic and unreasonable.

The scramble by the Department of Corrections and Governor Gregoire to find a reason for why the guard at the Reformatory was murdered this past weekend strikes me as a quest that will lead to eventual disappointment. A news article today revealed that the accused murderer was discovered with blood on his clothing, a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his buttocks. The article also revealed that the system-issued clothing the inmate was wearing wouldn’t have allowed for scratches to appear on the skin. The theory at the moment is then that he didn’t have his pants on at the time of the attack. So, the question of why, which he has answered thus far by saying he was attempting to escape (which seemed a dubious answer at best anyway), appears to not hold water at all. We must all now wrestle with the truly horrific idea that the guard was not only murdered, but murdered during an attempted rape attack and that she was targeted specifically for being female and alone in the prison chapel.

What is the why of that reality?

For a while during my cancer journey I radically changed my diet. I remember eating an enormous amount of blueberries for a while. I cut out all sugar. I started seeing a naturopath who, while overall quite helpful and encouraging, gave me a litany of supplements to take. I ran a half-marathon for crying out loud. Anything to prove that I had reformed my ways and deserved to live. Knowing all along that in general, while aiming for better health is always a good idea, no amount of blueberries and fish oil were going to prevent me from ever battling a recurrence of my disease.

I also left a relationship. Moved. Threw myself into my graduate work in writing because clearly I had to prove that I was going to make the most of whatever time I had left by being committed to what I loved. I started therapy. I had difficult conversations with my parents. I started volunteering at the prison—work that I’d always wanted to do.

Many of the changes I made in response to my cancer were for the better. Some have fallen by the wayside. Others proved to be destructive in their own ways. None of them answered the question of why I got sick in the first place.

The prison is still on lock down this week as investigations and independent reviews continue. The blame has thus far been directed at state budget cuts, understaffing, overcrowding, the ineffectiveness of so-called rehabilitative programs and the ways in which inmates can manipulate the reward system for “good” behavior. No doubt, all of these things, in one way or another contributed to the guard’s death. Ultimately, however, the “blame” lies with the man who committed the act—a man with a history of sexual violence against women, a man serving a life sentence, a man with a shadow side many of us prefer to not imagine or even ignore altogether. We’ll never understand his reasons why even if, like I asked my doctors a million times, we ask and ask and ask.

The prison will implement new procedures. The Governor will issue proclamations. I wouldn’t be surprised if our state government passes some new reactionary law, which promises to prevent something like this from ever happening again. But it will happen. If not at this prison, at another. It will happen at a frat house on some campus. In a park while a woman is out jogging at night. After a first date with a guy she thought she could trust. Between a husband and wife. And we will never be able to fully answer the question, why.

Eventually, we will learn to live with not knowing. Until the next time, when the quest for answers to the unanswerable questions of human existence and motivations for violence will start all over again.

Somberly, inquiry into prison officer’s slaying begins

Monroe inmate, suspect in officer’s slaying, has long history of violence

The murder of custody officer Jayme Biendl at the Washington State Reformatory this past weekend saddens all associated with the prison, even though of us who know the inmates better than we know the guards. Byron Scherf, the man accused of killing Biendl has thrown an already vulnerable system into a state of grief, shock and a desperate search for answers. The prison has gone on lock down for the week, and we all await the both necessary and perhaps reactionary changes that will come due to this incident. I had wished to be able to go up and meet with our group of men this week. Especially once I knew that it was not one of our students who committed the murder (I’m not naive enough to think that it wasn’t a possibility…we’ve got a couple of lifers in for murders(s)). I want to meet with them to talk…to express some of my feelings and thoughts about this incident and to hear theirs. I cannot imagine that any of them will be anything but saddened by the tragedy, though within the prison itself I am sure there are inmates who are not torn up over the death of a guard. This fact saddens me. Undoubtedly, Biendl was only doing her job…in a chapel nonetheless. And while we, the state, prison officials, family members, the community will search for a place to place the blame, the truth is the question of how and why one person would kill another is, at the core, an unanswerable question. Even if Scherf talks and confesses to the murder, how to “explain” it will still not be easy. Budget cuts across the state will take some of the blame…rightly. We’ll discuss whether women should serve in all male prisons. We’ll search and search to provide a rational explanation for an irrational act. And we’ll want to believe that we can prevent it from happening ever again. But we won’t. It might take another hundred years…longer (I hope)…for something like this to happen again…but eventually it will happen. Prisons house violent and nonviolent offenders deemed not capable of properly existing in society. But within prison they create their own society. One often, sadly, still filled with violence or violent thoughts. Prisons are too full, housing too many nonviolent offenders, understaffed, lacking real programs that would contribute to successful rehabilitation and now facing budget cuts that will further limit the effectiveness of the already bizarre system. If Biendl died for anything, hopefully it is to open a tough, but honest conversation about the prison system that could lead to systemic changes that will be beneficial to both the prison employees, the inmates and the community. Because, for better or worse, the system needs to function for all three if this great American experiment in incarceration is ever going to achieve its supposed aims.

My thoughts and prayers are with Biendl’s family and with all prison employees who have continued to do their job with dedication since Biendl’s death. My prayers are also with the hundreds of men at the prison who would never have condoned the murder and would, had they known, done what they could have to stop it.

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: http://www.kbtc.org/page.php?id=503), 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.

I come home from the prison tonight contemplating this question: if a man does evil, is he evil?

There is an inmate in our class who believes that, with very few exceptions, that a person is either evil or good. An evil person might occassionally do a good act, but that does not negate the fact that he is evil. Equally, a good person may do bad, but is not evil. This view creates a great deal of debate in the group, volunteers included. Of course, as a volunteer, I go to the prison with a firm belief that those who have done evil are capable of doing good/being good. I hold onto a naive faith in rehabilitation, and refuse to assume rehabilitation isn’t possible simply because an inmate fails at succeeding one more time. I guess maybe I hold onto a fear that if I give up on the possibility for all persons to change for the better (whether you’re ever convicted of your “crime” or not) then I’d also have to give up on the idea that as a species we exist to contribute, to aim to be our higher selves, to do good. The evil in the world overwhelms me most days, so I have to hold on firmly (and maybe with some naivety) to the belief that we are all capable of better…even the worst amongst us.

It’s uncommon, in my experience at the prison, to find an inmate who believes the opposite. To basically classify himself as an evil person. Capable of doing good, yes. But evil none the less. Most of the guys spend time telling us stories that help us to see that they are as complex as those of us not locked up. The inmate who professes to hold this belief about his evilness is smart and kind, a good student, always respectful in the group, working his way through several college courses and mentoring incoming inmates. In my opinion he is a good man who has done evil and should not be defined by those evil moments. He should be punished for them–yes–but not defined by them.

If he does truly believe his existence is an evil one then I have all sorts of questions. Not the least of which is then why does he even bother? Why the classes, the writing, the reading? What is he working for? Can you exist if you define yourself as evil? To what end? Is he being being more honest about his own nature than any of us can ever really be? Or is it easier for him to define himself as evil so as not to grapple with his guilt about his crimes?

Yet, in many cases those of us on the outside have bought into this inmate’s belief about himself. We learn that our new neighbor served time, or that an applicant for a job is a felon, and we are disinclined to give them a chance. Why? Because some part of us believes he is more capable of evil than good. That he may be able to do the job, but he’s more likely to steal from the company. That he might be a good neighbor, but he’s more likely to deal drugs. We classify people as good or bad as a way to make our own lives easier. If a man is a felon, then we can dismiss him and move onto other things. But we can’t dismiss them. To do so is to dismiss some complicated parts of ourselves. That part of us that knows we too are capable of evil on some level, for some reason, maybe. That shadow self we’d rather ignore.

Sometimes I wish we could take our entire meeting time and just discuss questions like this with the group. These men have a knowledge about the human soul and spirit that is different than my own. They are wise in ways that I am not. I feel like if we had the time to pull about the question of evil and good we’d come to some interesting places. And I know I’d go away knowing myself and the world all that much more.