Posts Tagged ‘storytelling in prison’

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.

There are moments, teaching in prison, that make you stop and remember where you are. Sometimes you can get through a whole night without having to acknowledge the barbed wire, the armed guards or the towers. Once you get past all that and are in the classroom with the guys it can be like any writing class in any school classroom.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but still, there are nights now when it doesn’t feel like prison. It feels more like this class I teach with these students I’ve gotten to know. We talk about normal stuff, and only touch on prison life a couple times. Plus, you get used to some of the common talk about prison, so that it doesn’t strike you as strange to listen to someone talk about their new celly, or even, sometimes, tell you about their crime. A guy read his piece that I had missed last time to me during break and I found myself concentrating more on how he could fix it craft wise than the novelty of the crime he was describing–the crime that had landed him in prison.

Desensitized, I guess “they” would call it. I’ve been going up there for almost two years now, so it all isn’t so overwhelming, or new. Our guys are our guys and we take them as they are. Most nights.

On Thursday night though, there was one of those moments that made me think of being in prison first, writing second. For the life of me now, I can’t remember how the conversation started, but one of the young kids in the group piped up in seeming defense of one of the older guys.

“You have to understand,” he said, “It’s not like J- wakes up in the morning and decides he’s going to kill some guy. No. In here you have reasons. You never do it for nothing. But sometimes it has to be done. You have to respect him for that.”

We didn’t stay on this topic long. You can’t, as a teacher. You neither want to give too much air time to those who want to defend violent behavior or argue too long with them about what it’s like on the inside when you’ve never been there yourself. I suppose, up until this moment, I was more likely to side with the inmates. And it is true, I think the very institution of prison breeds violence, even in those who weren’t violent before they came in. But to hear one of the guys actually say, in essence, killing happens in here and don’t tell us there’s anything to be done about it, got my attention. I wanted to ask, but what? What can happen in here, where you are so isolated, that could get you so pissed off that killing seems the only option? Is it pride? Is it dignity? Respect? Do you have so little to defend in here that the smallest offense, the slightest hint of disrespect is suddenly a murder-able offense? And if that’s the case, then do I want this young man back out on the outside some day? A man who believes that in the right context, killing a man is justified? Do I believe that?

I’m writing a scene in a story right now where a character believes that all men need to fight-that violence is in the blood and out to be drained out every now and then. But that’s fighting, not killing. This character did kill a man in prison, for complicated reasons. It wasn’t hard for me, as the author, to come up with reasons though. So, though the character regrets his actions, he still did it. And he did it to survive.

I suppose that’s what has me still thinking about this whole exchange. Survival. We cage men who have already demonstrated a propensity for violence, and then we watch them kill one another. Maybe my disgust over the whole thing isn’t so much about the young man defending the actions of the older inmate, but about the fact that I belong to a society that would honor an institution that conditions men to believe murder ought to be respected.

I don’t fault the men for surviving. I don’t fault society for wanting to feel safe by putting violent men behind bars. I don’t fault victims of crime for wanting revenge. But let’s not fool ourselves–ultimately the entire system is about violence–from the crime, to the revenge (sentence) imposed by the courts on our (free citizens) behalf, to the power given to the guards and the myriad of ways it can be abused, to the inmates struggling for some sense of power and self worth. To call it a “vicious cycle” barely comes close to touching on the complex web of incongruencies surrounding the prison system and the supposed hope for rehabilitation.

Thursday night, I remembered. This is prison. The men in our group know violence in ways I never have, and hopefully never will, but it would be to my benefit to not forget exactly where I am.