Posts Tagged ‘teaching in prison’

I am an advocate for my students’ truth. I accept any story they want to tell–whether about fantastical worlds with fantastical characters, poetry about their memories and longings for the outside world or personal essays about their crime, their past, their family. It is typical to receive more of the former than the latter. Not surprisingly, men who have years, if not decades, to think on where they came from and how it is they came to be in prison aren’t always eager to spend their writing time on the same subject. Writing to many of them is escape, not a tool for therapy. They want to look out, forward, beyond. Not back, inward and to what is real. Real is concrete, barbed wire, custody officers, family who doesn’t visit, friends who no longer write. Real is not just a tough childhood, but a childhood most of us (and the movies) can’t imagine. So, I don’t push for the real, for the personal. But when there is an opportunity to encourage an exploration into the real, I do. Gently. With no expectation. And more often, with a warning to myself. Be careful what you ask for, Erika.

These men, when they decide to tell the real, tell the truth. They have stories locked inside hurt, locked inside pain, buried under trauma, wrapped with neglect, abuse and abandonment. When you ask for those stories you have to prepare yourself. What they give you will be real. What they give you has been waiting to be told. It is raw, but it is also polished from years of their own turning it over and over in their minds and their hearts. What they give you will surprise you even if you think you know what to expect.

I have gotten better at not being surprised, and better at protecting myself from these stories. Better at not seeing a student as solely a victim when he gives me a part of his story I did not know before. Even he knows where he comes from and what he has been through does not excuse what he did to be where he is now–behind bars. But it does shed some light, and it does evoke empathy. It does remind me, every time, we are not a moment of shitty decision making. We are a lifetime of circumstances. Some we chose. Many we do not. Some of our own doing. Many we had no control over. I read these stories and I simply breathe them in. Allow them to exist. Share them in creative space and time, which many of us know can also be healing space and time. Words to the page do not undo a past. Nor do they right it. They do however give it a place in the world. A rightful place.

The following piece is from one of our younger students. He might be twenty-one. He is hilarious, with a wicked sarcastic sense of humor. He talks fast, but he is thoughtful. He is writing a story–mostly true, but he calls it fiction–about his drug experiences and many attempts at sobriety. Out of that story, came the following piece, which is all true. He gave me permission to share it here.

***

Father of Mine
by J.W.

Father of mine, tell me where have you been… [Everclear]

Well, Dad, I know where you have been. I don’t know all the details, but I know some. I met Johnny. He married Mom a couple years ago. He explained why he killed you. He said when he met you he thought you were an intense guy. You had a look about you, like you were always on edge. Johnny told me you had a big heart, that you cared deeply for your friends and that was part of the reason you were so dangerous. Your heart got broken and you started beating up Johnny’s friends. He thought you had a knife (he said you usually did) and he shot you when you attacked him. He was afraid you would kill him, so he took your life.

Mom says I look like you–tall, blonde, blue eyes and lanky. My hair is shorter than yours. Yours went down to your butt. I don’t have your crooked teeth (except my bottom teeth). Mom is thankful I don’t have your beak of a nose. Since you died five months before I was born, we never got to meet. So let me fill you in…

At age two I went into foster care with my half sister, Jordan. Mom had/has a drug problem and she couldn’t take care of us. Your father doesn’t believe I’m yours, so I didn’t have much contact with your side of the family.

Foster care was rough. A lot of horrible things happened to me then. Like you, I found refuge in drugs. It was a pastime and a hobby. Something to numb the pain, and generate profit through middle and high school.

I pissed off some people through my drug deals and ended up in adult jail at sixteen. It got worse. I got out and got my parole revoked because of drugs. I went to prison. Dad, I hurt people, but I didn’t usually mean to. I just made dumb decisions. But enough about me.

Is it true you knew you would die young? Only a couple of months after your twenty-first birthday didn’t you predict before you turned twenty-one you would die? You were only a couple of months off. You were born in late February. A Pisces. I am a Scorpio. I’m sure we would’ve gotten along great.

Dad, there are those who say I should hate Johnny. That I should’ve killed him to avenge you, but there’s already so much hate in this world. I forgave him. Before he ever gave me his side of the story. I forgave him. I was nineteen, and he contacted Mom and she gave me the number. I cried because I never got to know you. My life could’ve been different if I had.

I figured that it had been nearly twenty years that it ate at him. If I were him I would hope for forgiveness. So I gave him what I could to ease the burden. I hope you don’t mind, but I felt it was the right thing to do. He’s a nice guy. I have love for him.

Dad, I want you to know I don’t hold anything against you. Not your lifestyle, not wanting an abortion. None of that. Being around the age all of that happened to you, I can understand how you felt. Even though we never met, I love you Dad.

Love always, your son.

P.S. Hey, Dad, you may have noticed I was named after you. I’ll make you proud.

 

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.

Folks: for those of you who interact (frequently or infrequently) with this blog I wanted to let you know that I’m starting a new feature with a couple of my students. It’s a Q&A page (you can find it at the top of the homepage). They’ve given me a list of questions they’d like to dialogue with blog readers about and in turn are willing to respond to questions from readers. We’ll see how this goes…but if you are interested or have the time the first question (Do you believe people deserve a second chance?) is posted and ready for your thoughts. Note: You get to individual questions by hovering on the page title at the top of the homepage–“Q&A with our students”. The following link takes you to the general overview of what’s going on: https://teachingontheinside.wordpress.com/qa-with-our-students/

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).

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.

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: http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/On-Rikers-Island

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?

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?