Posts Tagged ‘prison reform’

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 First Time Back

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

Is it strange to say I was relieved?

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

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

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

A member of the Granta magazine team sent me the link to this piece recently published by Granta:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the why of that reality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somberly, inquiry into prison officer’s slaying begins

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

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

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

There are several men in our group involved in a prison gardening project. The program at the Washington State Reformatory where I volunteer does not sound as intricate or far-sighted as the Sustainable Prison Project (though I should look into–perhaps I can volunteer for that project as well this summer), which I’d like to highlight in this post (see this interview:, but both the work our guys do and the efforts of SPP deserve a moment of consideration.

One of the hardest thing for me to get others not familiar, or even fearful, of prisons and prisoners to understand is that prisons house human beings who have the same basic core needs as any of us. They need a purpose and something or someone to care for (this is why animal care projects are so popular and effective in prisons). They need something to stimulate their minds. Goals. Something to look forward to and something to take pride in. Absent these things they, like any of us, are left isolated, depressed and lacking concern for the larger society. If no one cares if their core needs are being met, how can we ever expect them to give a damn about another’s humanity? How do we ever teach them compassion if we have no compassion? Prison is punishment, but it is also intended to be reform. My time at WSR has taught me that there is little chance of reform if prisoners cannot find a sense of purpose for their lives behind the concrete walls and barbed wire.

I have often wondered myself if I could survive a prison sentence. Despite knowing now that many incarcerated individuals cobble together a life on the inside that is productive and a testament to not allowing the brick walls and barbed wire define whether their live is worth living, the longer I go to the prison the less faith I have that I could make it through a lengthy sentence. I have a hard time imagining how any person serving a life sentence survives. I don’t know that I could. One of the men in our group has become a baker while serving his time. When he speaks about his accomplishments, including earning all the certificates he needs to be a baker on the outside, he sounds like anyone I know who is engaged in work that is meaningful to him or her. He is proud. And he has faith that when he gets out (at least five more years) he will be able to make it because he’s discovered work he loves, work that feeds his soul and gives him confidence, responsibilities and a sense of pride about the direction his life is still heading. This man said in group a couple weeks ago that he is now thankful for each new day he is given because he knows he’s going to make something good with it. He gives me hope. But still I don’t know if I could turn my own prison experience–were I to ever have one–into something so positive. What would be the point? That’s the question that would plague me. Locked up and forgotten, why would I care if I came out any better than when I went in?

The point must be found in still finding a way to give back and to be in relationship with something or someone outside of yourself, beyond yourself. Projects like the Sustainable Prison Project give prisoners a chance to be something other than a prisoner (which simply can’t sum up an entire life). I’ve talked about it before–how freezing someone in one moment in time, in one action and defining them only in relationsship to that moment/action denies their humanity and denies them an opportunity to change and to grow. The men involved in projects like SPP are defining themselves as scientists, environmentalists, farmers and gardeners. Isn’t that rehabilitative? Wouldn’t we all be better served if men walked out of prison thinking of themselves as something beyond an ex-con? Wouldn’t we all be better served if they were able to transfer skills learned in prison to immediate concerns facing society such as sustainable living, endangered species restorations and local food production?

This might all sound like liberal, hippie b.s. I don’t blame those who feel that way. But I’d ask you to imagine for just a moment that all men behind bars are not monsters. Most are not and most will be released at some point. How they come out of these facilities is in many ways up to the larger community. We cannot willingly forget about them up until the moment of their release and then suddenly care about their presence in our community. We have to decide whether we are striving to rehabilitate men who lost their way (or who never had a chance from the beginning) or whether our goal is merely vengence and isolation. The latter will produce more of what we have now–high recidivism rates, ridiculously high incarceration rates and men who come out of prison not much better than they went in. Or we can all choose to tend to community–like we would tend to a garden. With patience and care. Forgiveness and hope. Blind faith that with a little water, good soil and the right weather good things can be produced. I’d like to plant my metaphorical garden with compassion and an open heart. I’d like plant the belief that more men then we think have the capacity to change. But, like a garden, they can’t grow on their own. A combination of the right elements and care must be provided. Otherwise they wither…and whether we want to believe it or not…if the prison system in this country continues to fail prisoners…we all eventually wither.

Continuing to experiment with fiction based on my work with inmates. This piece was inspired by a series of statistics I recently found.

The United States lock up almost a quarter of the prisoners in the entire world. In fact, if all our prisoners were confined in one city, that city would be the fourth largest in the country.” – Alexander, Elizabeth, “Michigan Breaks the Political Logjam: A New Model for Reducing Prison Populations,” American Civil Liberties Union (November 2009), p. 3.

Released to the city. Freedom is redefined when you live surrounded by men who know you too well. We tick in a way we can all hear. The beating of our hearts keeping us up some nights, as bad as those infernal car alarms that no one heeds. In a city of thieves what is the purpose of alarms? We were an experiment. An attempt to prove left to our own nature we would rape, pillage and plunder an entire city into ruins. Animals will, in the end, be animals. When the project was announced the president declared, “When rapists only have each other to rape, we will see if they wouldn’t prefer to get a job.” They built tall concrete walls around what used to be Denver. No one knows where the people of Denver went. Nashville, perhaps. We’ve been told Nashville is the next San Francisco, though none of us could quite imagine how that could be.

To the surprise of the country the first thing we did was hold elections. Everyone voted because, believe it or not, we had been waiting a long time for our voices to count for something. The man elected governor previously ran one of the largest Mexican gangs while he was down. If a man can control that many business transactions from behind bars imagine what he can do with an office, a staff and a capitol building. As his first order of business the governor brought all the leaders of all the gangs together for a summit and there they worked out a peace accord which satisfied them all. For his second order of business the governor created the Green for the Mean program. He had a good sense of humor. The program paid men to build, clean and otherwise maintain the city’s parks. Men lined up five hundred deep for the hundred available positions. Don’t tell me an ex-con can’t appreciate the beauty of manual labor, outside, in the shadows of the mountains, a breeze blowing, the sun warm on your neck and nothing but land in front of you.

The women were also quick to organize. Farmers markets. Day care centers. Schools. Counseling centers. Those who didn’t speak English, learned. And those who didn’t speak Spanish, learned. Two black women and a Native American women organized a day of mourning and all the women came to the city center with their crimes and the names of their victims (sometimes the name of their children) written on small pieces of paper. They threw them into a large fire and then fell to the ground and wept. This is how they healed.

Some women and some men fell in love and there were weddings, followed by babies. For the first year the governor imposed a curfew, but over time, it became unnecessary. Citizens wanted to be home with their families come the end of the day. Men volunteered to walk the streets at night, to be certain no harm was done. Unarmed, these men walked and talked to their neighbors and there was no crime. At no point did the governor recommend the building of a prison. Why would he need to when most of us still dreamt of our cells and razor wire every time we closed our eyes?

After two years the country’s president had to admit the experiment was a success…or a failure…all depending. Delegations of senators and legislators and their aids came to the city. They walked our streets. They visited our schools. They took notes, copious notes. Then they returned to the country’s capital and held meetings and hearings and briefings. One senator said, privately, to the president, “If someone there doesn’t murder someone soon, then we will have no choice but to acknowledge them as a legitimate city. They will want to be represented, to come to the capital and have a voice. Imagine. A gang leader in Congress.”

And so it was decided that the walls to our city would come down. We were told to leave. The people of Denver were returning. In our new cities we had to register as former prisoners. We struggled to get jobs. It was difficult to find housing. For a while we tried to stay organized, imagining one day we could have our city back. But over time, we lost touch with one another and it was difficult to remember what exactly our political position was anyway. Men and women were rearrested for crimes both petty and substantial. I did the best I could until one day, hungry and cold, I stretched out on a park bench to rest for a few minutes and a man in a pressed suit came and stood over me. “You can’t be here,” he said. “It’s a free country,” I countered. “Not for you,” he said. He tried to pull me from the bench and I fought back. Wouldn’t you have done the same?

A fictional piece (draft) inspired by work at the prison.

23 Hours
for s-

The situation: Sixty-two years old, black and displaced from Georgia to this northwest prison, I told the guard I would not get on my knees while he ransacked my cell. I have nothing to hide and it is easier to comply, but these old knees, this low back, my heavy-burdened soul is so tired of being told to stand down.

The punishment: Tell them no, refuse to bend, ask them why they have to come at you with pepper spray ready when they know you are too old to kneel, remind them you are human, try to remind them, say sir even though the word stings your mouth, and find yourself face flat to the concrete walkway, arms twisted behind your back, a knee piercing your ribs, a voice whispering in your ears, to the hole.

The place: I am a big man, in a small box. An old man practicing death. I lie still on this metal bed, stare at white-washed walls until I do not see them anymore and instead can feel the Georgia sun, see the pecan tree ahead where my father used to take me, smell peaches being sliced in the kitchen for a pie. Officers slide food through the door on a metal tray as if I might attack. I do not eat because I am not an animal.

The time: Passes. Does not pass. What does it matter? Twenty-three hours to pace from wall to wall, back again, turn, one more time. I’m too old for pushups, sit ups. I’m too old for slinging shit at the door to get attention and medication to dull the days into one blur of shadows passing. I’m too old to be dangerous. But, come the twenty-second hour, I sometimes think about killing somebody.

The hour: Twenty-three hours inside, one hour outside. It’s a cage outside as well. Fresh air, they say, is good for me. I pace for another hour, from one side of the cage to the other. I stretch my hands up, drag my fingers along my chain link roof, wonder if the guy in the tower has his scope centered on me now or if he’s resting, feet up, bullshitting with his girlfriend on the phone. An officer tells me to keep my hands down. At the fifty-ninth minute I take a deep breath, hoping to make the air last.

The return: Having learned my lesson, so they tell me, I am escorted back to general population. To be, once again, with my fellow thieves, murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thugs and some good men picked up for the wrong crimes. I do not speak, having grown accustomed over the past sixty days to keeping thoughts to myself. I think, perhaps better to keep to myself from here on out. To make peace with giving up the fight. Peace with being pushed and not pushing back. Standing up has only ever gotten me knocked down. I’m tired of picking up all my pieces.

My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.

I have a dark sense of humor. I always have. It has something to do with growing up with a doctor for a father, I think (we blame our parents for everything, right–so why not this as well?). Our dinner time conversations were often not like my friends’ dinner conversations. Early on I learned that human beings and their bodies are darkly humorous. At least you have to find a way laugh, otherwise it is often all just so terribly tragic. Sometimes my “darkness” surprises those who generally see me as an accommodating, motivating person.

But at the prison tonight, I discovered there is a dark sense of humor that even tops mine.

We had a great group. Everyone did their homework. Everyone is starting to flush out solid stories to work on. Everyone took notes when we started to teach a bit on opening scenes (as a teacher, I’m learning, there’s nothing I love more than watching a student write down something I’ve said–narcissistic? Perhaps. But it’s reassuring to think that I might have actually said something worth noting on paper.) At the end of our time I walked the hall back toward the front desk with Gloria and thought about how I’m settling into this new setting, these new guys.

And then, while waiting for the guys to finish movement (movement = the ten minutes the inmates have to move from programs back to their cells or units) so we could “safely” cross the yard and exit the prison, I saw it. A chalkboard hanging on the wall, which said: Welcome to WSR. Since we meet in the building where many volunteer programs are hosted I figured this “welcome” was meant for us volunteers, and I thought, well that’s nice. But then, in the corner of the board, written in relatively pretty, girly cursive, I saw the subheading: Come for a year, stay for a lifetime.

That’s not funny. Is it? I didn’t laugh. And I laughed when the kid in the backseat of the car in Pulp Fiction was accidentally shot by John Travolta (don’t judge me too harshly). All the way home I tried to find the humor in it, the dark, dark humor that I typically enjoy. Tried to imagine the custody officers and the inmates sharing a joke with one another about the reality of the situation. Tried to tell myself that it is always in the darkest of places that people must search the hardest to find a reason to laugh. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t laugh about the several men in our group who only refer to the length of time they’ve served as “I’ve been here a long time”. I couldn’t laugh about the man who said, “All my life I’ve been defined by my skin color or this place (prison).” I couldn’t laugh about the young kids who came in at eighteen and have known no other adult life then the one they have lived behind bars.

It’s not funny. A lifetime behind bars has no humor in it. And it surprised even me that I couldn’t get or take the joke.

For those who don’t know Senator Jim Webb has been championing new legislation–the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. From a recent Huffington post blog by Sen. Webb, “This legislation, which I originally introduced in March, creates a Presidential level blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of our nation’s entire criminal justice system, ultimately providing the Congress with specific, concrete recommendations for reform.”

Here’s to hoping that if passed the Act isn’t only 18 months of review, but actually a catalyst for major reform that can be realistically implemented as soon as possible.

To read Sen. Webb’s full post and to link to testimony given at a hearing on June 11th regarding this legislation go to: