Posts Tagged ‘prisoner rehabilitation’

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

But once again, these men surprised me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three times yesterday I was asked, “Why do you do this work?” Or some variation of that question. The final question came at the end of our time at the prison. One guy who had been particularly quiet for the entire night took me aside as we were packing up to go and said, “I know there’s the feminine thing of wanting to help, but I still can’t figure out why you guys would want to spend your time up here with us.”

This isn’t the first time one of the inmates have asked this question. Typically, it comes from a place of wanting to know if we have an agenda. Motives, other than what we say are the goals of our program, for spending time at the prison. Some guys want to know if we are just there to collect their stories to use for our own. Some guys simply have a hard time understanding why, out of all the volunteer projects one would take on, anyone would choose working with inmates. Others have had experiences with volunteers who come in and are demeaning, disrespectful, judgemental and shaming. But when I was asked by this man last night I also wondered if the question has anything to do with their own ability to forgive themselves for their crime. Meaning, if their shame is still too great, perhaps it is difficult for them to accept that we might actually be there for no other reason than we choose to be. For this man, he told us about his young daughter who he never gets to see. So, I wondered if his family has rejected him how that plays into trusting that someone might not reject him — particularly someone who doesn’t even know him.

It is true that in order to go into the prison we have go in with a certain mindset. One that allows us to either see beyond the crimes in the room, or if that is difficult, which it is at times, to not let the impact of learning about a crime deter us from our efforts. The same guy who asked me the question about why I come to the prison, also said, “Despite what these guys say, it’s still prison, you know?” By which I think he meant that when the guys come to our group we see one side of them. He was reminding me that they are all there for a reason, and it’s not just because they are misunderstood. But most of the guys in our group would agree with that statement. They too are trying to reconcile the part of them that is capable of committing whatever crime they are serving time for with the part of them that is still a good human being, a creative individual, a father, a son, a reader, a spiritual man, etc. I watch their internal conflict with all the pieces of themselves play out over the course of our time there. They talk about what led them to prison and then talk about the struggle to serve their time in a way that will leave them better off when they came in.

This guy read me a quick piece of writing before he left, in which he referred to the death of his brother. Because the custody officer was calling for the inmates to line up, and because we don’t ever want to throw the prison off their rigid schedule, I did not have time to do anything but listen to his piece, tell him it was good and wish him a goodnight. This is the hardest part for me about my time at the prison –there’s never enough time it seems to say, “I’m sorry about your brother. What has that been like for you?” Or, “I’m sorry you don’t get to see your daughter. What is that like?” They disclose these painful moments from their past, I get to glimpse a piece of their story, and then we have to say goodbye. It’s difficult.

What I wish I had time to tell him is that I come to the prison because of stories like his. Because I care about the “rest” of his story. The part that doesn’t show up in his DOC file. The part that most others won’t ask about. I believe that all stories deserve to be heard, the full story. So, I keep coming in the hopes that, over time, they’ll be able to share their story — their full story — even if it only comes in small pieces, rushed at the end of an evening and meant to test whether I’m really there for the reasons I say I am.

Happy Day to All is what it reads on the sign in the lobby at the prison. I’ve written it down twice now in my notebook, as it has struck me as out of place on both of my first two visits to WSR. I wonder who the sign is directed toward? The staff? Perhaps it is meant to serve as an out-of-place sentiment to jar custody officers and prison staff out of the heaviness of their day-to-day efforts to earn a paycheck. Or maybe it is a hopeful wish that staff will carry a sense of happiness and possibility into their day, perhaps infecting the prison population, so to speak, with optimism. Did the person who placed the tiny white letters on the sign intend for the message to reach the general prison population? When the writer got to the “to all” part of the slogan did he actually pause and think of the men behind the bars? And if so, did he continue on with the sign out of a true sense of compassion or out of eagerness to mock the reality of bars, razor wire and guard towers?

Happy Day to All might be a sign that someone on the prison staff shares a not-too-shabby dark sense of humor. One that I can relate to. As in “happy day to all of you not stuck in here” or “happy day to all of you foolish enough to believe in happy days” or even, “happy day to all of you innocent, ignorant volunteers who think you understand prison life because you come in here once a week and spend time with the men when they are on their best behavior” (which actually makes the sign a big fuck you, and I sort of appreciate that).

What I imagine it is that the sign is one more contradiction of the prison system itself. A system that can’t seem to decide if its primary reason for existence is to punish or rehabilitate. So, happy day to all who read this post. Take from it what you will.