Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry has gone to the hole. From there he’ll be shipped to another prison. Out of state.

Terry has gone to the hole, and I have been thinking lately about exits. The two events are a coincidence, but right now the coincidences in my life keep begging to be noticed—that seems to be the way it goes with big life transitions. Everything has to mean something, otherwise I risk believing everything means a whole lot of nothing.

So, Terry has gone to the hole and I am thinking of exits. The subtitle of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book Exit is: the endings that set us free. I agree in spirit. I recently exited a relationship and I’ve certainly experienced the freedom the leaving granted me (though freedom can also feel painfully constrictive as times). Terry, however, would disagree with the subtitle, I’m sure. This particular ending—his departure from our group to the hole—is anything but an elevation in his freedom. A trip to the hole for conspiracy to commit assault (so I hear) not only exits him from our group (of which he’s been a student for at least two of our three years), but also from his cell, from his tier, from his friend D– who he introduced to our program (our first transgender student) and from the prison. He will be transferred to a new prison, under new security restrictions and will most likely face additional years on his sentence. If he has been “set free” it is only in a metaphor I can not yet write.

I suppose on a spiritual level, psychological level, any other level than physical freedom, he might achieve a new understanding of why he does what he does when it only produces the same confining results. With this new understanding he might search for different ways to spend his time behind bars. Non-violent ways. Ways which might bring a freedom from the behaviors currently defining him, controlling him, ruining him. I doubt it, but I’m willing to hope because, again, I need things to have meaning right now.

Terry’s subtitle is more like, Exit: the ending that makes worse my confinement.

What I can tell you about Terry is two months ago he gave me an assignment to read The Princess Bride, a book and movie he already knows I love. I was raised on the movie (it, and Labyrinth featuring David Bowie in those distracting pants). I can quote the movie. Terry can quote the movie. We’d sometimes share an inside joke about it during class. I promised him I would read it and put the book on hold at the library. It had been a long time since I’d read it anyway, so why not humor him? Then life became…well, life…and the book arrived at the library and I didn’t get there in time and lost my hold. I put it back on hold. I went to New York City for work. Missed a class. The class Terry did not come to because he’d gone to the hole (but I did not know this while I was in NYC). While in NYC I got the notice in my inbox the book was again waiting for me. I was relieved to know the next time I saw Terry I could tell him I was on my way to completing my assignment.

What I can also tell you about Terry is he and I made an agreement at the beginning of the year. He would not get into trouble for at least one quarter. He’d disappeared on us to the hole before and I was trying to do my part to keep him out of that sort of trouble (I’ve always sensed Terry was one who has to choose daily, if not several times a day, to “walk away” as some say. I’ve also always had a feeling it is to the benefit of the other party he does choose to walk away so often). He agreed and did stay out of trouble through March. I tried to renew our agreement in April, but he wouldn’t. “I have some things I might have to take care of,” he said with an expression that was defiant, but also sad (because he was letting me down? or knew he’d soon be letting himself down?). I stated for the hundredth time (at least) how much we enjoy having him in the group and how good of a writer I think he is (he’s my Neil Gaiman-Terry Pratchett-esque writer). But he only said, “I’ll try, but I can’t promise. Things I have to take care of.”

Terry is a murderer. He’s also afraid of public speaking—to the point that another student in class would read his work because he was too embarrassed by how his hands shook when he tried. He was writing a story about a teddy bear who could travel between worlds to save children from their nightmares. He would often simply pass when it came to reading in class and give me his work to bring home, read and comment on. He made lists of movies he thought we (the volunteers) should see. He befriended D– when she first came to the prison and brought her to our group because, I hope, he knew she’d be welcomed and we’d think no differently of him. Terry keeps (kept) a McDonald’s paper bag in his cell. I don’t remember now the story about how he got it. I do know he brought it one day to show us and said it was his prized possession.

Terry has gone to the hole and I have been thinking about exits. Mostly about my less than graceful exits from relationships over the years—how I’m always suddenly packing my things in one day trying to get out, get out, get out because I simply cannot stand another minute of it. I’ve been remembering exits from jobs and from friendships. When I exit I am desperately seeking freedom in one form or another. I do choose endings (perhaps not always at the most opportune times, but still…) to set myself free from whatever has become restrictive and suffocating. Maybe I underestimate Terry. Perhaps whatever he did or is accused of doing was an attempt, in his own way and within the system where he exists, to exit toward some kind of freedom. Freedom from oppression—by the system? by another inmate? Freedom from his own nightmares? Freedom from a wrong he couldn’t let go? Freedom from four cell walls he’d gotten tired of staring at?

The last time I saw Terry in class I was facilitating for the night. I didn’t have time to talk to him one-on-one, and it wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized he hadn’t said a word the entire night. He’d sat scribbling on a piece of paper, his head resting on the crook of his arm. The truth is I knew on that drive home we’d lost him. Or maybe I just want to think I knew now, looking back. I don’t think if I had found some one-on-one time with him that night, had reached out or encouraged him to engage in the class discussion it would have prevented his actions once we left the prison. I have, afterall, been learning a plenty of good lessons these past few months about what I do and do not have control over when it comes to the actions of others. But I do wish we’d spoken. I wish he knew I have The Princess Brideat home now and will start reading it this weekend and I will miss him and his stories and I hope whichever prison he goes to next he finds the peace he couldn’t find here and how much I hate his exit came with no goodbye.

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).

From “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Steig Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson
Steig Larsson is the author of the Millennium Trilogy

“Stieg was a generous man, loyal, warmhearted, and fundamentally kind. But he could also be completely the opposite. Whenever someone treated him or anyone close to him badly, it was ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ He never forgave such an affront, and made no bones about it. ‘To exact revenge for yourself or your friends,’ he used to say, ‘is not only a right, it’s an absolute duty.’”

I’ve had reason as of late to consider the act of forgiveness. That is, I have been asked to forgive and have not yet been able to grant the request. Have had, in fact, to say out loud, I do not know if I will and if I can, I do not know when. This is uncomfortable territory for me. I believe in forgiveness as a basic value that defines who I am. I feel it is an ultimate gesture of not only peace, but also recognizing another’s frail humanity and in doing so, acknowledging my own. Forgiveness, to me, is tied up in humility, grace, compassion and an acceptance that try as we might, no one…no one…is perfect. Not granting forgiveness, I feel, stalls us in a place of anger, cynicism and feeds the fires of revenge while simultaneously snuffing out the embers of compassion.

And yet…I said no. Not yet. I hope, in the future, but not yet.

Part of the problem is I must first forgive myself before I can forgive anyone else, as I am also equally uncomfortable with the feeling of victimhood. That is I fight against seeing myself as a victim at all costs. Victims, to me, can lack control and autonomy and I refuse to acknowledge I have ever given either of those things away—or had them taken away—by another. Even when I clearly have. If I control whether or not I grant forgiveness at least I control something, right?

It is also hard, I’m finding, to forgive someone who must have, at least in some aspects, planned the betrayal against me. I feel as if I were marked, targeted and I do not know, let alone understand, the reason why. Only that I find myself here—unforgiving—and in the darker moments, even wishing I had the capacity for revenge.

This scares me.

I think then about the men at the prison, and remember the times I have lauded on to others who ask about my work there about my utopian dream that one day we will have a “justice” system in this country that is more focused on reconciliation and healing for both victims and perpetrators than it is on retribution and punishment. I consider my wish that the men in prison can not only find a way to forgive themselves, but their parents and others who should have known better who betrayed them in the worst ways, a system that fails them in their quest for rehabilitation at almost every turn and a society that ostracizes them for mistakes—egregious as they often were—made, in most cases, decades before. I think of the victims. Their suffering, loss and pain (in a myriad of unimaginable iterations) and my still strong belief that forgiveness is the ultimate act of claiming their lives back from tragic experiences that otherwise threatens to define them forever. I think about how annoying, dismissive and ridiculous my notions of forgiveness for men who have ruined lives must feel to those whose lives exist within and in spite of those ruins.

I am not trying to forgive someone for breaking into my home, killing someone I love or hurting my child. I have not had to attend a funeral, return to an empty or destroyed home or explain to a son or daughter the meaning of death, violence or random acts of rage. The “crime”, such as it is, that I cannot currently forgive, is one of the heart (yes, that old story)…of love gone awry…of trusting someone who turned out to be untrustworthy. Disorienting, yes. Emotionally painful, yes. But an experience which even in the darkest moments I know, KNOW, I will recover from. An experience I know I will, one day, forgive.

Yet, I have not forgiven, and now get to spend time examining the side of myself that has no interest in forgiveness whatsoever. Fuck ‘em, as some say–as some have offered as a sentiment of sympathy and proposed as a course forward. I’ve been getting to know the part of me that feels forgiveness benefits only the person who wronged me—lets him off the hook, minimizes his actions and leaves me still the perpetual doormat (to my dear friends reading this, especially my fellow feminists, you do not need to convince me of my errors in thinking here…I know). I do not believe, as Steig Larsson states in his quote above, in an eye for an eye. I think such notions are juvenile, perpetuate wrong-doing instead of healing it and speak to the least of who we can be as human beings, not the best. And yet, if I could, take an eye…let’s just say, I get why the statement is appealing.

Incarceration is society’s form of revenge (also systematic racism and a litany of other “isms”, but that is for another post—do read: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander if you have the chance). It is not our highest ideal. It should not be held up as a symbol of who we are as a people. We should be ashamed of the prison industrial complex in this country. We should be ashamed that we are not ashamed. But revenge satisfies something in us as a people. It satisfies something in me. I am not okay with this realization, and I will fight against it, but I am acknowledging it for perhaps the first time in my life.

I have a vision of perpetrators and victims being able to sit across from one another at a table and simply talk. Tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine, and by the end, despite the pain between us, we will heal because we will know each other as the flawed humans we are. Currently, I won’t even take a phone call from the person who has hurt me. If I sat across the table from him it would not be to tell stories—it would be to yell and admonish and belittle and rage. If I cannot imagine such a setting given my current circumstances, how does a mother sit across from her son’s murderer? How does a rape victim sit across from her rapist?

I don’t know.

So, today, on the subject of forgiveness, I say this: Forgiveness is not mandatory, only a goal we can aim to achieve. In some cases (not mine), forgiveness is not even warranted (and that is hard for me to write, but I think it might be true). However, in the cases where forgiveness might be possible, even if we’re not sure how to achieve it, we should cling to that possibility and work toward it the way we work hard toward any difficult goal. And on the days that we can’t spend our energy there, when we must forget forgiveness, put it on the back burner because it is too exhausting or doesn’t feel right or only invokes new anger, then my wish is we (I) might instead focus on living lives filled with grace, beauty and love in the hopes that we (I) keep the scales from tipping too far out of balance.

I ask forgiveness for the flaws this post reveals about me.

Things change at the prison from week to week, day to day, and believe it or not, the prison rarely gives us notice (and if you were inclined to believe they might, well, spend more time on this blog getting to know the Department of Corrections). So, when we arrived last night to a new electronic keypad lock on the door we normally just waltz through into the lobby where we get our nametags, put away our carkeys and then follow a custody upstairs for screening, we were confused, but not suprised. We had been given no code for the door (wouldn’t that be cool–having a code for anything at the prison?), and there was no sign giving any sort of instructions. A simple: A custody officer will be with you shortly to allow you entrance, would have sufficed, but no. Just a shiny keypad lock, daring us to try a code–any code. We did not dare. So, we stood there at the door, looking in, watching for a guard, sort of like those women in old department store commercials–open, open, open (though we refrained from actually tapping on the glass of the door because, well, tapping might now be a punishable offense, you never know).

We ended up being let in by another volunteer. How she got in, I don’t know. But I saw her, dared to give a light knock on the glass and she opened right up. A custody officer showed up shortly thereafter to collect our ids and start issuing our nametags. Even he looked a little baffled as to how we’d all beat the new lock system and were standing in his lobby waiting on him instead of the other way around. Later, as we left for the night, my co-facilitator, asked why the new lock had been installed. The response? To keep folks from getting in and just waiting around without supervision. Yep, tax payer dollars well spent there, folks. I sort of felt for the officer, he seemed disappointed as well to realize it was still possible for us to figure out how to get in on our own accord. Like the long staff meeting he’d had to endure to figure out how to prevent such loitering in the lobby was now only 2 hours of his life he’d never get back.

Oh, and perhaps now is also the moment to note, not in a demeaning way, I’m sure it’s just a small oversight, but there are two entrances to the lobby. Only one has the new lock. The other…well, that might be how the other volunteer got in.

Once we had our nametags we marched upstairs as we always do to go through the screening process. I’m pretty conscientious about this process. I don’t wear jewelry, try to remember to leave my belt in the car and never have change or other various what-nots in my pockets. Not having all these extras speeds up the process, and also keeps me from setting off the metal detetector or otherwise drawing any unnecessary attention from the custody officer. The best policy as a prison volunteer in terms of not having your program hassled unnecessarily (and we were already “in trouble” for being behind with our volunteer evaluations) is to try to just stay off everyone’s radar. Don’t cause problems and you’ll have less problems.

I put my bag of class materials, shoes, jacket, nametag (because the clip on them is metal so you put it on downstairs then have to take it off upstairs) and glasses on the table for the officer search and walked slowly through the metal detector with my arms at my sides as a newly posted sign clearly instructed us to now do (DO NOT CROSS YOUR ARMS WHILE GOING THROUGH SCREENING! – these sorts of signs always make me wondered what the hell happened in the 2 weeks since our last visit). The screener went off. Damn. I went back through and tried again. No luck. I rarely set off the screener. The custody officer looked at me as if to say, well, what do you have to hide? And even though I had nothing to hide, I started to get nervous. This is probably a natural response to failing any test, but failing a test in prison can have all sorts of consquences, including being denied entrance for the night.

I turned out my pockets and took the two hairclips out of my hair (even though I’m pretty certain they are plastic). I walked through again. It screamed its alarm again. I had no choice but to look at the custody officer and confess: it must be my bra. I tried to remember which one I had on, since I know I have one with underwires that will make it through the screener. Which one had I grabbed that morning? White or black? I couldn’t remember, I only knew I’d gotten it wrong.

The officer is a relatively young guy and his cheeks flushed a little and he immediately stepped to the phone to call for a female officer. Oh, Lord. Officers used to use a wand (you’ve seen them at the airport, I’m sure) if you set off the screener. They ran it over your front, over your back, saw where it went off–like right over your breasts–and would assume that you were telling the truth–it’s my underwires. A male or female officer could use the wand because they didn’t actually have to touch you. Apparently, the wand is now old school. Now, you get a real search.

The officer instructed me to wait in the screening area while he took all the other volunteers into the prison. I said goodbye to my co-facilitator (we have a standing policy we don’t go in alone) and assured her I’d be right there. But we both knew in these sorts of situations there are no guarantees. I waited, and while waiting told myself there wasn’t anything I could do. I certainly knew I wasn’t smuggling in any contraband. I knew I’d simply worn the wrong bra, and once the female officer got there I assumed she’d understand (she must’ve gone through this a million times with the number of women who come to visit on family day) and I’d be on my way.

The original officer finally returned, female officer in tow. She had a strange way of not looking at me, which is awkward when there are only three of you in a room and you’re the only odd one out–not to mention the subject of all the fuss. I could only assume later that in anticipation of having to feel me up in a pat down she thought eye contact would be a tad too intimate. At any rate, I was instructed to once again go through the metal detector.

It didn’t go off.

Now you might think this is a good thing, but I panicked. Here’s why. They’d left me alone for nearly ten minutes. For all they knew I’d gone into the restroom and removed a dozen razor blades, or a shank or a nail (I don’t know) from my bra and flushed them down the toilet. I jokingly said, I promise I didn’t toss anything out while you were gone. I knew I sounded nervous and immediately regretted saying anything. Humor is not always a good idea in prison. But the male guard just looked at me and said, we know that–you’re on camera the whole time we’re gone. I should have thought of that, but I didn’t, and I was strangely not comforted by knowing.

I’m still going to need to search you, the female guard said. Of course. She took me down a short hallway, supposedly out of the sightline of the male guard. She told me she would explain what she wanted me to do, and that I was not to do anything until she was done explaining. Okay. They have a way of making you feel like a very small child…and an idiot. She showed me how she needed me to pull my bra away from my chest and “shake” it out. I stared at her for a minute. Okay. I put a hand up my shirt, and she was quick to assure me I didn’t actually need to lift my shirt all the way. Good, because I wasn’t going to. I awkwardly grabbed ahold of my underwire on one side, pulled it out and sort of jumped up and down simultaneously. She nodded. Okay. Then I repeated the gesture on the other side until she nodded again. It occurred to mid-bounce on the final side that if I were to be hiding something up in my bra, it would be easy enough to keep it from falling out for discovery. But I refrained from making any sort of joke about the illusions of security. I actually didn’t want to end up naked with this woman.

She then turned me around, ran her hands over my shoulders, down the length of my outstretched arms, under my armpits, down my sides, around my waist, down and between my legs and then simply walked away. I followed. They were going to let me in. That’s all I cared about at that moment.

I don’t like walking out to the building where we have our class by myself. I mean I wasn’t alone–the male officer walked with me. But normally I’m one of a half dozen volunteers walking out together. And normally, we cross the prison yard before the inmates are released for movement (when they get 10 minutes to move from their cells to wherever they want to go for the next hour). But I was late. So, it was just me, and inmates were out and about in the yard, and maybe because I’d just been felt up and shaken out I felt weirdly exposed. Look, there’s a woman in the yard. I know all the men don’t think that, but there are simply some realities of being a female volunteer visiting a male prison. All to say, I was relieved to get to my building, and even more relieved to get to my classroom where 17 students smiled at me and teased me for being late and joked about what’d you try to get in, huh and then more quietly asked if I was okay.

I am, I said. I’m just glad to be here with the people I trust.