Archive for the ‘The Hero’s Journey Workshop’ 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.

I’m overdue posting these student pieces. As always, comments welcome. The guys appreciate hearing what other writers/readers think–even the suggestions for improvement (please do remember these are first drafts by novice writers).

The assignment: Write a 250-300 word description of your “house” (cell) without using the words, dirty, cellie, cold, steel, bars, clang and bunk. You can create a scene from your real life or a fictional scene, but put yourself inside of the “hero”–use his point of view. The idea is to be as original as possible, to use no cliches or stereotypes.

The Letter, by J.D.
“Hey, John,” hollered my neighbor. “What’s for supper?”

“T-bone steak wrapped in bacon,” I replied. “You know, a baked potato with all the trimmings, corn on the cob dripping with butter, maybe a fresh baked dinner roll and a big ass piece of apple pie for dessert.”

“Damn that sounds good,” he sighed.

I grinned and reached past the cheap plastic hangers that wore my pressed “Sunday Service” dress shirts and matching slacks into the box at the back of my closet-bookshelf-pantry combo area. “Too bad the packing says ramen noodles,” I chuckled. I scopped up some of the loose papers from on top of my desk and dumped them on one of the already overloaded boxes of stuff at the foot of my bed, then set up my hotpot, plopping down on my swivel chair to watch a litle TV while I waited.

A short time later the slop was done and I readied myself to choke it down when an envelope was shoved under my door. The only mail I received was either catalogs or crap I ordered from them. This was different and I picked it up for a closer inspection. Though I hadn’t seen it in twenty-six years I knew the return address and I swallowed hard at the lump that had formed in my throat. It was my wife’s address. Forty-seven years of living with the angriest, most bitter men this state could offer hadn’t hardened my heart enough to prevent the river of tears when I tore it open and read, “Dear John…”

The door slid open with such force I was jarred back to reality by the vibrations that rippled through the solid stone floor beneath my feet. A preacher was quoting verses on TV so I guessed it must be morning, and I had lost track of the last eight or ten hours.

“On your feet, convict,” boomed a voice form the hallway.

Without a word , I stood and pushed the chair aside like I’d been conditioned to do.

“Pack your shiit. Your ride leaves in an hour,” came the voice again.

I stepped outside of my bathroom-sized studio apartment and was met by the warden and one of his lackeys, a scrwny little kiss-ass we called “Fencepost.”

“Pack it yourself,” I snapped back, snatching my release papers from his hand before he could react. “And my name isn’t Convict. It’s John.” I turned to face the piss an beside him. “But from now on you can call me, Sir.” I shoved my wife’s tear-soaked letter in his chest before turning to walk toward the exit gate.

“Hey, wait!” called Fencepost. “What about your stuff? Don’t you want it?”

I paused a moment and closed my eyes visualizing my confines from the last third of my incarceration. “For forty-seven years I laid on a concrete slab you call a mattress committing every detail of every item in that rat-hole to memory, and staring at pictures of people who do nothing but stare back. People who forgot about me a long time ago. What would you have me take with me? A guitar that collects dust in the corner? A lifetime of crap ordered from catalogs tha I never really wanted in the first place? Foul smelling soap or toothpaste I couldn’t pay to get rid of? Nah. There’s nothing in there I want or need.”

“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with this shit?” The warden glared at the overflowing shelves and boxes inside the elaborate broom closet with a toilet.

“Same thing I always tell you, warden.” I glanced back over my shoulder. “Shove it up your ass for all I care.”

As I walked away, I overheard his say, “Poor bastard. He doesn’t even realize he’s going back out into the world with nothing. Ten bucks says he’ll be back.”

“I don’t think so,” said Fencepost. “That lucky bastard just got his second chance.” He handed my wife’s letter to him with a crooked smile. “He’s going back home where she’s still waiting.”

The warden read the letter.

All nine words of it.

“Dear John, I still love you. Please come home.”

Untitled, by M.J.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that my cell’s dimensions were designed to be for people without comprehension. This is not fiction. I’m basing truth on all these cement inventions that have taken the place of lynchings. Injustice attacking powerless victims, benefits the structural systems of people like Rockefeller to President Nixon. Contemplate that and then decide if *powder cocaine and crack are not the same chemically as well as in fact. So who’s worse in this community pack? The ones without power or the lab techs setting the inevitable traps? The walls of the hood are quite similar to the ones in my room. Brick after brick confining every dream to the space of reality’s tomb. No glass ceilings so the skies out of reach. Just like the roof of the womb, all is dark and the souls of the youth are consumed by the tortuous doom. And they call us violent whenever we finally become conscious of the government tyrants who are running rampnt destroying the minds of the vibrant then close our mouths around pipes and fifths until we’re drowing in silence. My floor look like the streets in the ghetto, stuffed up, cracked and controlled by the string of Gipetto. So how can I get to the front row when I’ve only been allowed as far as my rope goes? Like I’m a dog chained in the yard to pole? It’s fucked up I know, but what can be the source of change? Are we to play the game or rearrange our brains and unshakle the chains? They say it’s for me and even though oxygen is a product of trees we’d rather inhale the smells of rot when the lungs of a prisoner breathes. So it seems my reality is drunk, boxed in and boxed out without throwing a punch. The noises of men clapped at televised junk invades my ears with a thump as I stare at my reflection contemplating my wants. It’s hard though, you understand what I’m saying? I’ve turned my whole world around but am never acknowledged for changing. So life makes religious men lose faith and stop praying, turn away from communication and embrace the teachings of Satan. No I’m not hating, what’s to expected? We live in a grave, but we can’t rest in peace because we’re alive and the reaper is delayed. So at times I feel like a slave. One that captured and turned in myself to live in this cave. Betrayed my family and friends because I was in it for the bling. A multitude of us lyin gin ruin, destruction caused by the hands of delusion, mistaking truth with confusion while wearing the mask of illusions. I’m beyond that, the face we paint on our essence instead of becoming invested in the lessons given to the sections of poverty’s veterans. And I reckon th eworld spins on God’s middle fingernail, so I’m not the only one trapped in a jail, waiting for mail, hoping for heaven not hell, but never released from our cells. And we’re told to have hope, convinced it’s cool to sell dope. What a joke. Yeah, we all laugh in the clouds of blunt smoke, but nothing is funny once we find friends hanging from a sheet turned to rope.

*Starting with the War on Drugs possession of crack cocaine came with a minimum sentence of 10 years, while possession of powder cocaine could still receive a misdemeanor sentence. Crack was most often found in minority and low income neighborhoods, while powder cocaine was most often used by upper-class whites. Under President Obama Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to only 18:1 (for what that’s worth).

The last two classes at the prison have been focused on publishing. For prisoners, the want to see their work in published form is no less of a desire than it is for the rest of us still waiting to officially and professionally move into the class of “emerging” writers. Yet, the barriers to their goals are significant. No access to the internet means no electronic submissions, no ability to research current contests, submissions guidelines or current information on agents. Everything they have access to is outdated–Writer’s Digests from 2008, if they are lucky. They have no ability to create a Word document and send it to anyone as an attachment. Most of them cannot afford to purchase a typewriter, and even if they can, a typewritten page now a days only gets you so far. Entering contests requires money, and as many of us know those fees have only risen in recent years. A $10 entry fee is a half a month’s salary for most of the guys’ in our group–we asked. Despite all of that we have spent two full evenings walking them through the process of what an agent is and what they do, what an editor is and what they do, what a query letter is and the difference between submitting nonfiction proposals and finished fictional work. We’ve covered literary magazines, and talked about e-books and self publishing.

Yet, the most pressing question, the one they won’t take our word for, is whether or not, if they were to say publish a novel, if you as a book buyer and reader, saw in their author bios on the back covers they had or were currently serving time for violent offenses of whatever nature, would you still buy the book or would you put it back on the shelf? Why or why not?–they really want to know. Does it matter what the content of their work is? That is, if they are writing a a novel about prison are you more likely to buy it than say if they have written a young adult novel about a zombie apocolypse (as one of our guys has done and it’s quite good)? Are readers only interested in true stories by prisoners about prison, or can a prisoner write something else and still be trusted by a reader? Does the background of an author matter to you at all as a reader? Why or why not?

The guys asked if I’d be willing to ask these questions of my readers here on the blog, and so I am. If you are so inclined to respond, not only would I appreciate it, but I promise they would as well. And they don’t mind honesty, I promise. I will share any responses I receive, but will remove any identifying information (name, email address, etc).

All writers doubt anyone will care about what they’ve written, and most of us experience moments of doubt about whether or not we even have the right to write what we do. Who are we to think we are more of an expert on anything than someone else who clearly is? Yet, prisoners are already doubted in most ways on a daily basis. In prison, they are labeled manipulators, liars and cheats no matter how hard they are working at their own rehabilitation (given that the prison system no longer focuses on rehabilitation, only punishment). Out of prison, they are ex-cons not to be trusted–not with a job, not with housing. Do we trust them to tell us stories?

I went to the prison this past Tuesday with little of myself left to give. I had not slept a full eight hours, let alone four or five hours, in days. My emotional tank had been spent on the personal challenges I am facing (nothing life threatening, though possibly life changing). My head and heart were in a multitude of places other than teaching writing craft and the hero’s journey story structure. My goal for the night was simply: do not burst into tears for the next two and a half hours, no matter what.

The specifics of my own personal drama are not essential to this post, and are probably best saved for a future short story about how hard it is to both love another and live as you desire all at the same time. I will ultimately be fine. But I was not fine on Tuesday night. I could only tell myself I was going to do my best and be thankful that my co-facilitator was doing the bulk of the teaching for the night.

I often tell people about this prison work that I learn as much from our students as I think they learn from us. What I don’t always say is that sometimes I go to the prison only for myself. Tuesday was one of those nights. It can be a relief (and I recognize the sensation of relief is only possible because I can walk back out of the prison when I choose) to hear the various prison doors closing behind us as we make our way deeper into the prison, each one locking me further away, even if only for a brief period of time, from the outside world, from a life that momentarily feels out of my control. In the prison there are no cell phones, no email, no fucking Facebook. There are no partners, no family, no lovers. There are concrete walls, metal-barred doors, familiar security procedures and at least an appearance of control and order. For two plus hours no one from the outside can reach me, no matter the crisis.
I went to the prison on Tuesday wanting to be locked away for a while. That was my only desire. I knew I would not share any of my personal struggles with the group (not appropriate). I did not expect to walk out with answers or new insights that would help guide me through the coming days and weeks. I just needed to disappear. And I did, and it was exactly what I needed.

What I did not expect was the unintentional kindness of so many of the students. Kindness that manifested in ways they probably didn’t intend or recognize. M-, for example, when he came into the classroom, shook my hand as always and asked how my last two weeks had been. I said, “It’s been a little tough, but I’ll survive.” He said, “Shoot, you don’t have to pretend in here, we get tough,” and gave me a big smile that did actually make me feel a little better. M- also read a personal essay, which was both well written and powerful and clearly demonstrated he’d been paying attention during our last class when I presented a craft lesson on scene vs. narrative summary. I was proud of him and his work, and pleased with myself for maybe having reached at least one of them to help make a difference in how they think about constructing their words on the page.

At the break, J- asked if I wanted some tea. He’s been bringing extra with him for us volunteers. I said I’d love some (I needed the caffeine), and then when I wasn’t paying attention because we were calling the group back to order for the second half of the night J- placed in front of me a hot mug of water, a tea bag and two sugar cubes. It was the sugar cubes that nearly undid me. Such a simple act of kindness in such an unkind environment on a day when I was feeling like the only person I would ever be able to depend on again was myself. Sugar cubes. I almost cried. Instead I said to him, “You just made my day, seriously,” and meant it.

J- is serving consecutive life sentences for some gruesome murders.

J- brought me sugar cubes.

We laughed a lot on Tuesday night. I got excited about an opportunity one of our students has to explore his fascination with fire when he was young, and somehow got myself pegged as a closet pyromaniac, which made me remember the time I got grounded as a kid for giving matches to another kid. That in turn made me remember I was once a kid and I made mistakes then just as I do now, but it still all worked out eventually.

I left the prison, walking through mechanized door after mechanized door, feeling better. Nothing had been resolved. I was headed back to my life where the same issues I’d left behind a few hours before still waited for me. I had no new good answers. But I felt cared for and respected. I felt like in a life filled with chaos at the moment, I’d found a small sliver of something that felt normal. And most importantly, I’d been gifted the smallest acts of kindness in a place and at a time when I expected none. In a small way, those sugar cubes fortified my resolve. Life is hard…and occasionally still sweet.

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.

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?

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

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

But once again, these men surprised me.

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

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

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

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

Be careful what you ask for–that’s what I found myself thinking after reading a letter from one of the guys in our program last night. I had responded to a piece he had written about a terrible fight he had been in that nearly cost him his life. I had questions about why he chose to pursue the fight when there was obviously ample opportunity to walk away? And why carry the violence to such a level that he ended up in the hospital, barely alive? He had written the facts, but not the emotion of the experience and I pressed him to tell me more.

His response was full of details about his childhood and family that nearly brought me to tears. I know full well he is not the only person with a heartbreaking childhood story. And I also now that many people overcome their childhoods without resorting to violent or criminal behavior. But I must say, by the time I finished reading his letter all I could think was, where else could he have possibly have ended up besides prison? Some of us are raised to believe we can be anything. Our parents nurture our talents, encourage our successes. Some of us are raised by uncles who put beer in our baby bottles and grandfathers who turn us into alcoholics by the time we are thirteen.

At the end of his letter he asked me to respond to three questions. I think most writers, in particular, will find these familiar:

Do you really think I have what it takes to be a writer?
Do you really think my story is interesting enough to tell?
When this is over, will do you think we can still be friends?

Okay, well, maybe the last one doesn’t specifically relate to writing and writers, but it certainly highlights this man’s desperate need for connection. Unfortunately, the question of friendship is a tough one for volunteers. The prison has strict rules about our relationships with the inmates. Basically, we can relate to them only as students in our program. We can not write to them outside of the program (a rule I don’t quite full grasp the reasoning behind) and we can’t develop relationships with them once they are released unless we tell the DOC (and telling the DOC anything can be a double edged sword because you never really know what side they’ll come down on).

I would be friends with some of the men in our group…even after their release. I would trust them to contact me, to have my phone number, to meet for coffee. Others, perhaps not. But isn’t that how life is? We don’t want to be friends with everyone we meet. Regardless, it is difficult to tell this man that I can be his “writing friend” while he’s incarcerated and that’s about it. This makes me feel as if I’m forced to abide the doctrine that states once a criminal, always a criminal. Something I simply do not believe. If the DOC, society and prison volunteers claim to be working toward the supposed rehabilitation of these men, and they work to achieve said rehabilitation, then how is it their reward is one of continued shame and isolation? It literally makes my stomach sick at times.

The good news is this man does have what it takes to be a writer. Like all of us, he has a long ways to go to perfect his craft, but he is motivated and determined. His story is more than compelling. And I truly believe writing it will help him to succeed upon his release. So that’s what I told him. Keep writing. Tell me how I can help, given the counter-productive restrictions set upon our relationship.

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.