Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m overdue posting these student pieces. As always, comments welcome. The guys appreciate hearing what other writers/readers think–even the suggestions for improvement (please do remember these are first drafts by novice writers).

The assignment: Write a 250-300 word description of your “house” (cell) without using the words, dirty, cellie, cold, steel, bars, clang and bunk. You can create a scene from your real life or a fictional scene, but put yourself inside of the “hero”–use his point of view. The idea is to be as original as possible, to use no cliches or stereotypes.

The Letter, by J.D.
“Hey, John,” hollered my neighbor. “What’s for supper?”

“T-bone steak wrapped in bacon,” I replied. “You know, a baked potato with all the trimmings, corn on the cob dripping with butter, maybe a fresh baked dinner roll and a big ass piece of apple pie for dessert.”

“Damn that sounds good,” he sighed.

I grinned and reached past the cheap plastic hangers that wore my pressed “Sunday Service” dress shirts and matching slacks into the box at the back of my closet-bookshelf-pantry combo area. “Too bad the packing says ramen noodles,” I chuckled. I scopped up some of the loose papers from on top of my desk and dumped them on one of the already overloaded boxes of stuff at the foot of my bed, then set up my hotpot, plopping down on my swivel chair to watch a litle TV while I waited.

A short time later the slop was done and I readied myself to choke it down when an envelope was shoved under my door. The only mail I received was either catalogs or crap I ordered from them. This was different and I picked it up for a closer inspection. Though I hadn’t seen it in twenty-six years I knew the return address and I swallowed hard at the lump that had formed in my throat. It was my wife’s address. Forty-seven years of living with the angriest, most bitter men this state could offer hadn’t hardened my heart enough to prevent the river of tears when I tore it open and read, “Dear John…”

The door slid open with such force I was jarred back to reality by the vibrations that rippled through the solid stone floor beneath my feet. A preacher was quoting verses on TV so I guessed it must be morning, and I had lost track of the last eight or ten hours.

“On your feet, convict,” boomed a voice form the hallway.

Without a word , I stood and pushed the chair aside like I’d been conditioned to do.

“Pack your shiit. Your ride leaves in an hour,” came the voice again.

I stepped outside of my bathroom-sized studio apartment and was met by the warden and one of his lackeys, a scrwny little kiss-ass we called “Fencepost.”

“Pack it yourself,” I snapped back, snatching my release papers from his hand before he could react. “And my name isn’t Convict. It’s John.” I turned to face the piss an beside him. “But from now on you can call me, Sir.” I shoved my wife’s tear-soaked letter in his chest before turning to walk toward the exit gate.

“Hey, wait!” called Fencepost. “What about your stuff? Don’t you want it?”

I paused a moment and closed my eyes visualizing my confines from the last third of my incarceration. “For forty-seven years I laid on a concrete slab you call a mattress committing every detail of every item in that rat-hole to memory, and staring at pictures of people who do nothing but stare back. People who forgot about me a long time ago. What would you have me take with me? A guitar that collects dust in the corner? A lifetime of crap ordered from catalogs tha I never really wanted in the first place? Foul smelling soap or toothpaste I couldn’t pay to get rid of? Nah. There’s nothing in there I want or need.”

“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with this shit?” The warden glared at the overflowing shelves and boxes inside the elaborate broom closet with a toilet.

“Same thing I always tell you, warden.” I glanced back over my shoulder. “Shove it up your ass for all I care.”

As I walked away, I overheard his say, “Poor bastard. He doesn’t even realize he’s going back out into the world with nothing. Ten bucks says he’ll be back.”

“I don’t think so,” said Fencepost. “That lucky bastard just got his second chance.” He handed my wife’s letter to him with a crooked smile. “He’s going back home where she’s still waiting.”

The warden read the letter.

All nine words of it.

“Dear John, I still love you. Please come home.”

Untitled, by M.J.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that my cell’s dimensions were designed to be for people without comprehension. This is not fiction. I’m basing truth on all these cement inventions that have taken the place of lynchings. Injustice attacking powerless victims, benefits the structural systems of people like Rockefeller to President Nixon. Contemplate that and then decide if *powder cocaine and crack are not the same chemically as well as in fact. So who’s worse in this community pack? The ones without power or the lab techs setting the inevitable traps? The walls of the hood are quite similar to the ones in my room. Brick after brick confining every dream to the space of reality’s tomb. No glass ceilings so the skies out of reach. Just like the roof of the womb, all is dark and the souls of the youth are consumed by the tortuous doom. And they call us violent whenever we finally become conscious of the government tyrants who are running rampnt destroying the minds of the vibrant then close our mouths around pipes and fifths until we’re drowing in silence. My floor look like the streets in the ghetto, stuffed up, cracked and controlled by the string of Gipetto. So how can I get to the front row when I’ve only been allowed as far as my rope goes? Like I’m a dog chained in the yard to pole? It’s fucked up I know, but what can be the source of change? Are we to play the game or rearrange our brains and unshakle the chains? They say it’s for me and even though oxygen is a product of trees we’d rather inhale the smells of rot when the lungs of a prisoner breathes. So it seems my reality is drunk, boxed in and boxed out without throwing a punch. The noises of men clapped at televised junk invades my ears with a thump as I stare at my reflection contemplating my wants. It’s hard though, you understand what I’m saying? I’ve turned my whole world around but am never acknowledged for changing. So life makes religious men lose faith and stop praying, turn away from communication and embrace the teachings of Satan. No I’m not hating, what’s to expected? We live in a grave, but we can’t rest in peace because we’re alive and the reaper is delayed. So at times I feel like a slave. One that captured and turned in myself to live in this cave. Betrayed my family and friends because I was in it for the bling. A multitude of us lyin gin ruin, destruction caused by the hands of delusion, mistaking truth with confusion while wearing the mask of illusions. I’m beyond that, the face we paint on our essence instead of becoming invested in the lessons given to the sections of poverty’s veterans. And I reckon th eworld spins on God’s middle fingernail, so I’m not the only one trapped in a jail, waiting for mail, hoping for heaven not hell, but never released from our cells. And we’re told to have hope, convinced it’s cool to sell dope. What a joke. Yeah, we all laugh in the clouds of blunt smoke, but nothing is funny once we find friends hanging from a sheet turned to rope.

*Starting with the War on Drugs possession of crack cocaine came with a minimum sentence of 10 years, while possession of powder cocaine could still receive a misdemeanor sentence. Crack was most often found in minority and low income neighborhoods, while powder cocaine was most often used by upper-class whites. Under President Obama Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to only 18:1 (for what that’s worth).

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

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

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

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

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

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

This scares me.

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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?

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.

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’ve been thinking a great deal since my last trip to the prison about how to help the guys push the borders of their writing. How to help them find new avenues to approach their stories, avenues which will take them deeper and closer to the raw emotion of their life experiences. Writing can become so academic when in the classroom, and the mysteries of “good” writing can feel even more elusive. Once I’ve learned all the rules, why can’t I still get it right? One of the new guys brought a piece to read last time, but he prefaced his reading by saying that he was more of a poet and so writing in prose was hard. He’s trying to tell a fictional story based in the facts of his crime, and I can tell he’d rather do it via poetry and I can tell that if he’d dump the fiction part of it and tell it as he feels it, sees it, experienced it, the writing would be all the more powerful.

It’s a matter of needing to write from the dark places of our lives, the places we spend time trying to avoid. And for the guys in prison I think it’s a matter of 1) not wanting to scare us volunteers 2) being uncertain that the truth of their story, the way they want to write, is important enough to warrant writing it down and 3) still being new enough to the writing process to think that there is a “right” way to do things.

Also, it seems to me that if you’ve been told that your life is a crime, and you are a criminal, it might be hard to believe that the story of that life and that crime is a necessary story to be told. Not to mention when your day to day existence is made up of following the rules, and the punishment for not doing so is severe, it might be more than a little difficult to trust that in this classroom with these volunteers the rules can be bent as long as the story is getting told.

I told the new guy–the poet trying to write fiction out of a truth that is clearly so heavy on his heart–that he should write in the way that connects him to the work. And right now, this evening, I’m combing through my poetry, short story and essay collections looking for good examples of writers who have blended two, or even all three, forms. Stories told out of linear time. Poetry that reads like prose. Essays that don’t concern themselves so much with “then this and then that” but rather “it hurt here and smelled like this and made me remember when”. Hoping to inspire him to find his own form.

Hoping to remind myself that I can do the same.

Many new faces in our group last night. There must have been a transfer in from a new prison, so guys are checking out the scene, trying to find ways to stay busy. The shuffling of prisoners has been a struggle for our group at the Reformatory. Guys are there one week and the next time we come back they’ve been shipped elsewhere. I had no idea the prison population was so transitory. They come from out of state, from prisons that are overcrowded or closing. They are shipped out when they are in danger or when they are a danger to others. It can be difficult to feel like we are pulling a cohesive group together sometimes when the faces we get to know one week are not the same faces that return the next.

Not too many meetings ago we were down to only two guys. Now we are back up around ten. When we were at only two we had to ask ourselves, is it worth to come for only two guys? We ultimately decided yes–that if they were willing to come and do the work then we would continue to show up. Touching one life is as important as touching a dozen…or more…right?

But it felt good to have a larger group last night. All of the new faces are young faces. All but one. An older man, who at the end of our evening came up to the volunteers that he was twenty-nine years into a thirty year sentence and he wanted us to know how much groups like ours mean to guys on the inside. He is a big bellied man with a fuzzy gray mustache and warm smile. His twenty-nine years don’t seem to have broken his spirit completely and I’m glad for that. I only hope his release back into the world isn’t more crushing than all the years he’s served.

I’ve been asking the question about my own writing life lately–what is the point? So much of the work is done in such isolation, and you never know if it will be worth it. Never know if you’re work will make it out into the world, or if I will end up writing my stories only for myself. Some days I wonder if I could give it up, do something else. Be normal. But I know I couldn’t. I want my work to touch the lives of others and while a story only exists as a file on my computer, as a stack of notes on my desk I feel as if I am not making the difference in the world that I want to make. Then I go to the prison. Where I am reminded by the gratitude of a man who must know what it is like to face the question, what is the point?, on a painfully deep level, that I am touching lives. If not through my stories just yet, then via my presence. And maybe the work at the prison is what I am meant to be doing as a writer, at this moment. It’s not glamorous, and it gets me no titles on a shelf at Barnes and Noble and I won’t be winning a Pushcart soon. But I did make one evening in the life of a man who has served twenty-nine years behind bars a little easier. I treated him like a human being, flaws and all and perhaps that does mean something to the world, even if the world doesn’t know it.