Subsection 3a: Education and Arts
The following essays discuss programs that provide IP with a creative outlet, allowing them to express themselves or otherwise occupy their time in a productive and enjoyable way. Notably, each of the authors in this section also comments on the ways they have grown connected to other IP in the program, often presenting themselves as a resource for others. By regularly attending programming with others, or by facilitating the start of their own program, these IP have created their own close-knit communities.
From the ground up
Matthew Lucas Ayotte
Ayotte opens this essay by reflecting upon the dehumanizing nature of prison—however, the majority of this piece focuses on the ways in which personal interactions between IP and with outside educators, facilitated a positive personal change for the author.
In every way your identity has been reframed from the moment you were arrested. So who are you now?
Perhaps you know sign language, maybe you were an educator. Maybe you were a carpenter and a business owner. These are transferable skills, important understandings that can be tapped as to facilitate a process of growth in an environment where otherwise idleness and boredom too often devolve into negative behaviors. If upon screening an individual’s assessment addressed the assets and willingness of the individual to focus on these aspects of the person’s unique gifts and talents — perhaps a more proactive experience could be developed as a way of fostering an initiative toward preparing incarcerated individuals for reintegrating back into society with learned skills and a more positive sense of self-worth.
I personally feel so strongly about this approach because it is my experience to have witnessed the benefit of peer driven programs and am convinced of the profound difference such person to person service work can have on an individual.
It has been my good fortune to have the opportunity to participate in the Second Chance Pell Grant Program, which is a program to provide individuals with funding to take college courses while incarcerated. (…) One of the main factors for my having gotten involved with the program was on account of encouragement from other men who were a part of the program suggesting that I submit an application. Due to their support and the support of educational staff, I applied and was chosen to be admitted into the program.
It has been just shy of two years since I began my degree path and I have one course requirement remaining before I am to earn my Associates Degree in Liberal Arts. I presently have a 3.79 GPA and am orienting my future around the possibility of working in the Human Service Field. This would have never occurred to me if it would not have been for the encouragement of my fellows. In supporting me I was able to apply myself to a course of study where I was able to excel. In doing so I developed a more positive sense of self-worth, one which afforded me the courage and wherewithal to share my good fortunes with others. I began tutoring other students and helping out the education staff. I found purpose and meaning in my days, meeting my peers and professors with humility and gratitude for the opportunity at hand. The most rewarding realization came when my professors interacted with me as my equals. It was at this point that I was able to recognize the transformation I had undergone.
As I pursued my college degree I got involved in a Yoga Teacher Training Course offered at the facility where I was incarcerated. This in many ways was a life—long interest of mine and was thrilled to take part in the experience. Yet I am able to look back and answer myself honestly as to whether I would have had the confidence to sign up if it wouldn’t have been for the upliftment of spirit I experienced in the College Program, probably not. Nor would I have volunteered to teach classes and facilitate meditation and Tai Chi classes. In these moments I was given the unique gift of working with the hearts and minds of my fellows, in a place where it is common to hold oneself close, not allowing yourself to become vulnerable, but instead I was present for many breakthroughs and instances of revelation. Never in my life would I have experienced such an eye opening picture of humanity self-refIecting.
In addition to this, I found myself being attended to by the Hospice workers and although I knew each one of the men doing service, I saw another side of them, a deeper, more empathetic side of their personhood. On account of this experience I was moved to volunteer for Personal Support Specialist Certification, as to work with the ill and elderly, especially at end of life. Through this training I received an education ranging from the art of being present to establishing boundaries and care techniques for persons with disabilities. Such service work was never even a thought before I began the journey of pursuing anew my college degree. Because I took one step forward onto a path of education my self- esteem and personal self-image grew into a sense of responsibility and a certain amount of accountability to my fellow man and the whole of humanity for being a part of society and a citizen of the world.
I share these experiences because it was my privilege to observe how effective a personal interaction can be, especially within environs such as those characterized on television, places of violence and disregard for individual welI—being, a place void of love, an unsafe place where one can’t help but feel as though they are a stranger. What must it be like to enter into a cold, dark, steel barred world where everyone is at their lowest point in their lives? It is a place of desperation and helplessness. An unfortunate way of protecting oneself from such vulnerability is to embody the stereotypical dramatizations we too often see in the media of the hard edged, musclebound, dangerous looking convict. But how does such a transition effect the individual? Can they just turn off the ”bad dude” persona? What sort of person will be released back into society when all is said and done? There are facilities here in America where those who enter do not exit except for a body bag. This is a truth many Americans are not conscious of, but can actively protect and safeguard against by focusing on a more humane approach to corrections.
Tarik A. Clark
Clark reflects on the changes that one program, GROW, brought to his facility. The classes allowed IP to open up to one another, creating an emotional bond that soon manifested into a strong sense of community among the IP on this yard.
Wow!!!! What a difference a class makes. I have been to and also facilitated numerous groups since my incarceration, but I have not seen one impact a prison society as much as I witnessed GROW do. And without seeming prideful, I am very proud to be a part of that process that brought a non-violent change to myself and other inmates at CMC~West Echo Facility. At first, I truly believed that my message to the inmates on the yard was falling on deaf ears, because prison is prison and those must do what they have to do consequences never mattered. Boy!!!! Was I wrong. After other GROW classes were being held I soon begin to realize that we as facilitators of peace and security had alot more ammunition on our side. We talked, we shared, we compared without judging, we taught, we learned, we smiled, we laughed, we cried, we listened and we loved. We impacted…. Being amongst my peers of my former lifestyle and advocating for them to accept other inmates that they no longer deemed acceptable really pushed my and other facilitators backs against the wall. We got criticized, ridiculed and outsed by some. But all that did for me was affirm my decision of walking away from that negative lifestyle in the first place. And we knew we wasn’t gonna reach everybody, we just moved forward with the intention to change enough mindsets that would tip the scales of peace and security in our favor. And did we ever!!!! When I started speaking peaceful transition it were those that was strongly against it and speaking doing harm to any and everybody for it, I knew as a facilitator I was playing with fire, I just prayed God supplied enough water to put the fire out. And He did. That water came in the unity, peace, love, and freedom that GROW created, produced and instilled into the society of CMC—West Echo Facility.
When the new inmates arrived at Echo-Yard it was like they always belonged here. They were kinda skiddish at first, but after a few handshakes and introductions they began to relax and walk around. And today, I am proud to say that Echo Facility made an excellent transition into a NDBF without any incidents of any kind.
Better living through editing
Adam Roberts describes higher education classes as “intellectual communities,” highlighting the ways in which these classes fostered positive relationships between students. He recalls his experiences both participating in and tutoring for this program and emphasizes the strong connection that formed between him and other participants as they learned from one another.
I noticed more than a few classmates taking notes, the bulk of whom are in the prep class. There was Beans, Dave, Demo, Country, J.O., Just, Leap, Luxe, Premo, Pusha, Swole, Tyson, Umar, and Zach. This was the second lecture they attended, which in and of itself is a big deal, since this is the first year that prep students are allowed to attend. The prep class was started in the fall of 2016 as a means of improving the skills of students who scored in a high percentile on the entrance exam, but not high enough to be granted entry. Professors Robin Hinchcliff and Mary Katzenstein work with the students to knock the cobwebs off skills some haven’t used in a long time, or never learned–grammar, essay structure, advancing a critical argument, and close reading. The prep students were assigned CRISPR-related articles to read prior to the lecture, and the diligent note taking I observed was a direct result of Robin telling them that they would be writing an essay on Dr. Kotlikoff’s lecture.
And I would be working with them on that writing. I’ve been given the tremendous opportunity to be a tutor in the prep class from its inception, a role that marries my passion for writing with my desire to help my peers. I was a traditional student at Syracuse University before coming to prison in 1999. After completing a bachelor’s degree through a distance-learning program while in Attica, I was accepted into an MFA program, and made it all the way to being provided a university email account, before the school’s attorneys rescinded my acceptance. After that, I continued to write, but didn’t think I’d be able to further my academic career, certainly not in a robust and collegial learning environment. That’s why my time in CPEP has been such a blessing. However much the students learn from me, I learn more from them.
Class meets Monday nights, but I have them in tutorial on Thursdays, where we work on homework (identifying sentence fragments, tightening essay structures) and discuss the readings (“unpacking” the deeper meanings). Often, I find myself performing work ancillary to the lesson, yet essential to their academic success: note taking strategies, study skills, creating a process for their writing. But perhaps where I’ve been able to add the most value are the instances of coaching, motivating, or mentoring. When, for instance, Leap was frustrated with an assignment and remarked, “I’m doing life; thesis statements can’t help me,” I talked to the men around the table about the myriad academic opportunities I’d thrown away in my formative years, how education allows one to make better choices of what to focus on, while improving the quality of one’s life. Plus, I noted, I’m doing 25-to-life, just like Leap, and learning is how I make the most of my time rather than getting high in the yard. As David Foster Wallace observed in his uplifting commencement speech at Kenyon College (you can Google it, for my peers I make copies), the value of education is teaching one how to think, as cliche as that phrase has become: “the liberal arts cliche turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”
Zach, Leap, and Umar nodded along as my argument crescendoed, then redoubled their efforts on the text. Leap’s comment was oddly similar to that of critics of college-in-prison programs, who feel that any such program is a waste of resources, and even, for that matter, to certain proponents who feel that funding should go only to inmates five years away from being released. That would eliminate me and Leap from the program, along with dozens of others.
Clint Smith, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate, who teaches in a Massachusetts prison, writes in the Atlantic of the benefits of his teaching certain prisoners who will never be released (“The Lifelong Learning of Lifelong Inmates,” June 2017). True, he notes, college in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism and increase post-incarceration employment, but that doesn’t address those who are never going home, and it certainly glosses over the transformative impact that education has on the prison environment as a whole. He explains that college-in-prison programs provide “spaces [which] serve as intellectual communities that restore human dignity,” and argues that “people in prison deserve education because the collective project of learning is and should be understood as a human right.”
In the year since, I have experienced how CPEP provides entree to world-class professors and peer-reviewed material, as opposed to the conspiracy theories trafficked in by the louder elements in the cellblock. I have heard how students elevate the nature of the dialog of those non-students around them, who, in turn are incentivized to stay out of trouble and practice writing so they can pass the yearly entrance exam. In providing positive outlets that the criminal justice system has abandoned, CPEP creates students who are altering the course of their lives, something they can pass on to their children. Now, that is the best kind of human engineering, and there is nothing controversial about those edits.
Tommy Lee Dean
Dean outlines his goals for the Prison Writers’ Support Organization (PWSO Inc.), an organization he started with the help of an incarcerated friend that aims to provide resources to other incarcerated writers.
If you’ve read my other essays, you know that Prison Writers Support Organization Inc is new in my life. (…) Surely awesome – now I can do all those things, for other prisoners, that I’ve always wanted to do since the first thought I ever had of creating something like this. So, the reality is, instead of wanting, I am now actually working on securing prison based writers’ rights and helping to open better supported opportunities for them to succeed in their craft(s). I now do this through working with C-DOC staff and administration as the resident representative for PWSO Inc. Our belief is that although cognitive thinking is great and it’s a wonderful thing prisoners are offered courses to gain the skills to do so, having solid financial footing, once they’re on the other side of the gate, is a sound deterrent to stressors that could lead to relapse. This footing frees their minds to better concentrate on those newly learned cognitive skills.
I credit the following accomplishments to PWSO Inc:
We have accomplished opening up a new connection to the outside world, for prison writers and possibly even artists, through the use of C-DOC scanners, PDF files, and flash-drives purchased by the prisoners themselves. Technology fitting better with the modern day world than the technology literally from last century that we were being forced to use before (i.e. paper products). We have enabled an electric typewriter loaner program, too. Though pretty last century in and of itself, it will provide prison writers the opportunity to work on their craft all day – much like I do – and later scan the results into a PDF file. This is a positive accomplishment because, as it now stands, the majority of prisoners only get a couple of hours a week at the programs building to access its computers and monitors; hardly is this enough time to build any kind of successful writing career. Now, we’ve got to get more typewriters in this program because C-DOC staff have only been able to come up with one. I’ve spoken with Captain Clare, who is the staff member responsible for allowing any of these loaner programs, and let him know that PWSO Inc is working on securing more stock from Brother typewriter. PWSO Inc also plans on trying to secure equipment from other manufacturers as well. And the add-on to the August, 2019, proposal for normalization I have been wanting to know administration’s conclusion on?… Major Reyes and I had a nice thirty to forty minute meeting that left me more puzzled than before. She was nice, just not very helpful. PWSO Inc’s general counsel and free world representative will be contacting administration from our office on the streets to see if we can achieve clarity that way. I look forward to those results and to working further with C-DOC administration and staff to accomplish our goals.
End of harm theater
Stromberg describes the joy he felt while staging his original play with other IP within his facility. He felt a strong sense of connection not only with the organizers of the event, but the audience who attended the show and participated in a peace circle before the performance.
The “Lets Circle Up!” Steer committee members at SCI Phoenix in Pennsylvania agreed for me to stage my original short play entitled “Fight Another Day!” at the “2019 End of Harm Conferance” at the institution. I felt truly honored and grateful that the whole Steer committee members (those incarcerated) and the (outside volunteer Steer committee members) trusted and bestowed this wonderful opportunity upon me to represent “Let’s Circle Up!” in a grand light to start off the theme for this year’s conferance. After a few changes in my play that other Steer committee members suggested before the performance, that I changed to make the play better. I rehearsed and rehearsed and I was ready to go! Like a child on Christmas Day! My excitement was enormous and I was very nervous., but, nobody knew. The butterflies were flying within me. Then: that day came quickly. The guests all arrived in the morning at the East Chapel at SCI Phoenix. Everybody had smiles on their faces. All the outside guests, volunteers, Steer committee members and all the Restorative Justice members. All with smiles of excitement on their faces for this powerful event. That Peace Circle was a beautiful sight to see. A sight of unity with purpose. A circle of massive love with caring people that believed in the Restorative Justice cause. I was ready to act! It was time to stage “Fight Another Day!” My play is about a desperate incarcerated man who lost his child (a daughter) to a crime and now is on the verge of committing suicide. While performing, I was in a different world (The Zone) where nothing matters, but the moment. An individual searching for redemption while engulfed with sorrow, regret, remorse, and agony.
I moved around the circle as tears flowed from my eyes. Then: I fell to my knees and said my last words from the play, “Help me. Help me to fight another day! Just one more day. Only you can help me. Only you. You alone.” The play ended as I exited the massive glorious circle back to my seat and the applause roared. My heart filled with extreme gratitude for my “Let’s Circle Up!” family for the opportunity they blessed me with. My wonderful brothers and sisters. The theme for the rest of the day went into motion and the “2019 End of Harm Conferance” was a magnificent success. A day I will never forget as long as I live. That massive glorious Peace Circle is embedded in my mind and heart forever and nobody can ever take that away from me. Not even the horrors of regret and my remorse that breaks my heart in two.
A look in on the prison performing arts theater and poetry classes
Jaynes explains the process of putting together a live arts performance with other IP, describing how each actor supports the others and the widespread support for these performances throughout the prison.
I wish you could be present in the theater class, sensing the excitement in the air, as the students warm up with snappy word-action-rhythm games to shed their prison mode and then do improvisational acting exercises. Together, they take part in the selection to the play they’ll perform, reading through scripts in class, discussing the merits of each. After the play is chosen, they read through it together several times, interpreting meanings and discussing what emotions and attitudes should be portrayed, gaining discernment and direction from Wilcox, who also directs the blocking of the play- the positions and stances actors take on stage, their many entrances and exits from either stage right or left, and movements and interactions with other actors. Students request the parts they’d like to play and are cast by the director, not necessarily in the roles they’d requested, but which they accept and learn, memorizing their lines which can include lengthy passages for major roles. Actors receive through direction in the delivery of dialogue and what emotions and attitudes of the characters they’re portraying should be conveyed.
Inevitably, through unforeseen turns of events, an actor is unable to perform a role, so the other actors may take on that part in addition to their own or a willing offender is enlisted to step into the part, quickly learning lines at the last minute. It always seems like there won’t be enough time to pull it all together by performance time, so actors get together to rehearse in between classes at Recreation and friends and roommates help actors learn their lines on the dorms. But somehow the play always comes together successfully in the end.
I wish you could be present on performing nights and for the matinee performances, as the stage, backdrops, and bleachers and chairs for the audience are set into place and programs are folded and passed out by students to the incoming audiences. Performances for the prison population’s various housing units are held in the gym over three days are performances for prison staff and our invited guests (family, friends, PPA supporters, officials) are held in the visiting room on an afternoon and evening of one day. After the director greets the audience and gives them the play’s background, the actors take their cues, acting with aplomb and moving with precision as they’d be trained. At the play’s conclusion, they take bows together. Then actors who are also poets, go off to change into their poetry reading costumes (khaki pants with colorful silk blouses or blue chambray shirts) while actors take questions and comments from the audience, which often is in awe of all the memorization and portrayals of complex roles involved. Then poets singly take the stage and microphone, alternating with each other to read 2 or 3 poems, time permitting. They take comments from the audience, which often relates to and is moved by poems about addiction, suicide, sexual abuse, and other personal experiences. After performances in the visiting room, students have social time allotted to mingle with the guests over snacks and soft drinks.
I wish you could be privvy to that empowerment of the poets, watching them enthusiastically study the great poets in class and then are inspired to write their own poetry, using the poetic devices they’s learned of rhythmic meter, form, metaphors, and imagery, and rhythmic schemes (although they’re encouraged not to rhyme, not to be limited that way, unless called for in a form such as a sonnet). These poetic devices add impact to the ideas and feelings the poet is expressing, more intensely and they learn to condense and economize words to express those ideas. Students read the published poems and bio background of the poets in class and then are asked to explain what they got out of it, what their favorite phrases were and why. Students discuss the themes and their opinions and personal experiences relating to them. Homework assignments are given to write a poem, perhaps using the same theme, form, or metric rhythm as the studied poem, or they’re shown a sensory stimulus, art object, picture or image to inspire them. At the commencement of next week’s class, they eagerly share their poems, receiving commentary from their director and classmates. They revel in the freedom to express their innermost feelings. Some day they’ve come to know that their values are feelings are, from the poem they wrote, now knowing more about themselves and the world around them. Some say they’ve reached some kind of higher intellectual plane in class and have escaped prison in their minds. Poetry has enlightened them.
I wish you could see into the hearts of these actors and poets, to see their gained self-confidence from meeting challenges and reaching goals, to see their joy in understanding their ability to take direction with self-discipline, to see their bonding and how far they’ve come together in personal growth.
Finding family: Volunteer programs bring about lasting rehabilitation in prison
Roberts explains the goals and methodology of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG), a program founded by professors at Cornell University that works with IP to produce theatrical performances. This group gave him the opportunity to meet other IP and watch them grow to love PPTG just as much as he does.
PPTG was founded in 2009 by Michael Rhynes and Clifton Williams. They enlisted the help of Stephen Cole, a Cornell theater professor, who passed away in September, 2015. We now have a deep bench of volunteers from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the surrounding community: Bruce Levitt, first among equals, and his wife Judy; Mariana Amorim, Nick Fesette, Norm Johnson, Mary Rolland, Chris Seeds, and Alison Van Dyke. They give direction, coach, coddle, choreograph, and help our annunciation. In addition to my class of newjacks, there were veterans: David Bendezu, the wildchild Demetrius Molina, Nathan Powell, Leroy Taylor. They are mentors, informal leaders, critical eyes, and providers of mirth and joy. Michael was transferred to Attica in August, 2015, where he is trying to establish a local branch of PPTG. We practiced Rasa boxes, bioenergetics, improv, and Theater of the Oppressed. All designed to unearth buried emotions and help heal the wounds of our pasts, in a comfortable and secure environment, where emphasis was on real emotions even when the piece was imaginary. PPTG was a most transformative experience in my life. I learned that adult play is essential to creativity, trust, and resilience. It’s an adaptive wild card. Laughing and having fun with ourselves led to healthy risk-taking. Life provides precious few opportunities for such constructive play. JR slowly came alive from the positive attention, transforming his awkward hesitance into random smiles of belonging. I noticed it in me, too, as my defense mechanisms — aloofness, intellectualizing — melted away. Like JR, whose only extracurricular was PPTG, I wasn’t always a joiner of programs. During the decade I spent in Attica, aside from the occasional Jewish holiday, the only volunteer program I partook of was the Attica Writers’ Workshop. I was still getting high back then, and nighttime “call—outs” (permission slips to get us out of our cells) would’ve taken me away from that party. Now, two nights a week are spent at call-outs: Narcotics Anonymous on Mondays (I quit heroin in 1999, cigarettes in 2009, and, ﬁnally giving up bud, I’ve been sober since 201 l), and Theater on Fridays. Both require emotional honesty, maturity, discretion.
A boyish vulnerability about JR made us want to help. Several of us tried unsuccessfully to get him moved out of A—Block, the loudest, craziest block in Auburn. After a year without a disciplinary infraction, he was able to move to an honor company in another block (into Michael’s old cell, actually, after he was transferred); his neighbors included PPTG members David and Ray, who mentored him.
I continued treating him like a kid brother. We were able to arrange an additional call-out once a week during the day, sans volunteers, to further prepare for our production, “This Incarcerated Life: The Foundation of a Pipe Dream” (check. us out at PhoenixPlayersAtAuburn.com). My peers and I worked through material and discussed personal issues, occasionally bumping heads like raucous brothers, but being charitable and good-natured to each other, engaging in hilarious ribbing that made me laugh till my cheeks hurt. Perhaps it was then that I realized just how tight we were.
After a year of Friday night gatherings — writing, introspecting, performing, receiving love, and being listened to with nonjudgment — the transformative nature of PPTG was evident in all of us. I began to see myself through the volunteers’ eyes, someone worthy of love and forgiveness. Why else would they continuously make the hours—long drive and give up their Friday nights each week?
Subsection 3b: Rehabilitative Programming
Many of the following excerpts present themes of trauma, focusing initially on sources of pain such as an abusive childhood, addiction, or the abuse of prison staff. The programs described in this section allow IP to address these moments of trauma with a supportive group of their peers, forming a community based on this willingness to reveal vulnerability and care for one another.
Addendum to #32392 Commutation Application: Sylvia Boykin
This essay describes Boykin’s appreciation for the religious community she has found, as well as the connections she makes with other IP through her role as a Certiﬁed Peer Specialist, in which she helps other women cope with life in prison and their traumatic pasts.
Before I began my life sentence I was a member of the Church of Christ. I have continued to do so while in prison. I am so grateful for the support that I have been receiving from my religious community and in return, I encourage the women here, to get to know their God. My faith encourages me to help others. (…)
My life began as a hurt child. I was raped not only by my grandfather and a close family friend, but by my brother when I was 10 years old. My family was destroyed by alcohol and drugs. The only way I knew how to cope was by doing drugs and becoming promiscuous at a young age. I didn’t alert the authorities. I was ashamed. At that time, incest was covered up and never spoken about. No one knew I needed help. I didn’t know who to contact. I attempted suicide at the age of 11. I married four times and all of my marriages ended up in divorce.
The groups and programs that I have participated in and the training that I have received and continue to get as a Certiﬁed Peer Specialist, enables me to help women to cope with conﬁnement, overcome trauma, addictions, criminal behaviors and prepare those for reentry.
This work also prepares me for reentry as well. I needed all of the groups and programs that were provided for me. Without them, I would not have been able to improve myself and help others. What I learned about myself the most was from the Certiﬁed Peer Specialist program. My counselors, Ms. Dixon and Ms. Scarbarough were there for me when I experienced a crisis or a difﬁcult situation. Being a parent in prison means having to pray and to hold on to faith order to be a good listener, provide encouragement and celebrate successes. The staff at Muncy and Cambridge Springs truly were motivated to help me to reach my full potential. I am particularly grateful to the organization Kids and Kin for helping me with my daughters. The religious offerings at Muncy and Cambridge Springs helped me by encouraging me. The Reverends Johnson and Smith especially. I am very proud of my faith as it has been helping me to -survive all these years in prison. I never thought of myself as criminal while in prison. I identiﬁed with being a mother without her children. When I ﬁrst entered Muncy, I was able to bond with my daughters with the Wonderful program, Project—Impact. This was great. As my daughters grew up, our time together changed. The visits were both very enjoyable, but heartbreaking as well. We cried a lot. I learned how to cope with this sadness by praying. All the while, I couldn’t not think about the life that I was responsible for taking. I had to change. I had to change for my daughters and I thank God that to this day, they forgive me and love me.
My experience as a hospice worker
Cedric B. Theus
Theus describes the emotionally harrowing experience providing hospice care to other IP. Despite the toll that this work exacts from him, it also brings meaning to his life. Although he focuses on his overall experience rather than a specific relationship with one individual, Theus demonstrates the influence that human connection can have on IP.
My ﬁrst patient made me feel human again. I needed that after having spent over a decade in prison. I was no longer just inmate #[number]; I was not a convicted murderer. I was just a man who was honored to be of assistance to another man as he experienced the last days of his journey here on earth. The patient was scared, and for reasons less important that his, so was I.
Hospice/ADL training helped me through most of the experience. My humanity got me through the rest. The patient thanked me for every little thing that I did for him. Initially I brushed it off as him being courteous. I told him that he didn’t need to thank me. I was grateful for the opportunity to be there for him. It was gratifying to be able to do something for someone else in such a pure way.
Later, I realized that he was thanking me because he completely understood the signiﬁcance of having a hospice volunteer by his side. He understood what the alternative was. Eventually so did I. The thought of someone dying alone in a prison cell provided me with the mettle I would need to get through the tough times and embrace my duty as a hospice volunteer wholeheartedly.
Hospice care was not easy. From the ﬁrst man that I cared for, to the tenth, each patient brought his own unique challenges and rewards. Occasionally we would get a patient who did not want to accept the fact that he was dying, or that he needed help to do things that he had done for himself for most of his life. It was distressing to tell an adult that he could not take a shower by himself, or use the bathroom without assistance. I felt like a bully at times.
“You’re just doing this because you’re stronger than me,” one man protested as I washed him despite his objections. In the end, even the most challenging patients would submit to the care and express some level of gratitude. Moreover, when the words thank you could not be articulated, I could see it in their eyes or demeanor. One particular individual simply grabbed my hand and nodded. That gesture was worth more than any words he could have possibly uttered.
Some of the deaths were hard to watch. They are permanently imprinted into my memory. As I watched my ﬁrst difﬁcult death, I immediately thought of the death penalty and those who are emphatically opposed to the barbarity of it. However, there were no intravenous concoctions to ease the suffering that this man went through at the end of his life. There were no protests outside the prison this day. No, this was not an execution. In some ways it seemed worse.
Our hospice team managed his physical discomﬁt as best as we could. The nurses were great in instructing us on the tricks of the trade. But I was left to deal with the emotional suffering, the regrets, the missed opportunities in life that was unique to each individual, on my own. I shared in that suffering, albeit to a much lesser degree; and the prisoner-to-prisoner bond that connected me to each man seemed to bring a level of compassion to the situation that a non- prisoner could not replicate. Having to bear witness to a man struggling through his last moments of life, in prison, made my own Life sentence a stark reality.
After a patient passed away, most of the volunteers who cared for him would gather in his room to prepare the body for the funeral home. This too was an honor. I had never felt more alive, more grateful than at those moments. I felt that each man deserved the best I had to offer. I would always find myself thinking of things I could have done better during my care. I understood that I was not a perfect person and therefore could never be a perfect volunteer; I had to ﬁnd a way to get past my mistakes. There would never be a second chance to make things right.
I have since lost track of how many patients I cared for in the hospice program. The experience, the life lessons, and the gift of seeing sincere appreciation in the eyes of a dying man, will always remain with me. Please understand that these words cannot express how being a hospice volunteer has changed my life. My experience can only be quantified by how I now appreciate my own life and the lives of others. You can see it in how I value my loved ones, and through my burning desire to help those in need.
Hello, my name is Laura
This essay describes Purviance’s experience with getting involved in rehabilitation organizations in prison. It provides an honest and illuminating illustration of relationships that she has fostered with other IP.
I do pay attention to how prisoners are portrayed in the media, the general ideas are so naieve its both laughable and annoying. No, I don’t belong to a “prison family”, I’m not physically or romantically involved with anyone in here and I have no desire to be. I’m clean and sober. I still have only the two tattoos I came in with (which aren’t visable unless I choose them to be), and I have no fears of walking around here on my own. I don’t have debts to my peers and I don’t care for contraband. I just want to live right & be rehabilitated so I’ll be found suitable for parole someday. I know this will take time and effort, challenge accepted.
I take recovery groups for my mental health issues, my past history of substance abuse, and to address my trauma associated to being a survivor of domestic violence and sexual abuse – my victim was my abuser. (…)
I do what I can to keep my mind active; I read books daily, I’ll watch world news and lots of PBS, I do drawings and write often. I maintain my sense of humor, I try to positivly engage my peers, and help those who aren’t as articulate and literate as I am to navigate this beurocratic maze from hell that is CDCR.
A transformation: prisoners to peace ambassadors
In this essay, Harris describes the potential for community amongst incarcerated people through the formation of what he calls a “band of brothers & sisters.” He explains that IP form groups in prison with those they trust and connect to. These connections mean that IP have the potential to affect positive change amongst their social circles, such as through regenerative programming.
As an insider, I can say, this influence runs much deeper than a prisoner’s immediate family. Whether one is a geek, joker or malcontent, one will normally bond with a ‘band of brothers (or sisters).’ Therefore, members of this extended family are just as susceptible to follow down this detrimental path. This ‘plague’, also, affects youth worldwide via the streets & prisons’ offspring: hip hop. Due to this global communion, consciousness-raising in prisons is imperative to building a ‘culture of peace.’
A RAND study found that offenders who participated in regenerative programs, including those that are ‘community oriented,’ had recidivism rates 10-20% below non-participants.21 Boston Reentry Initiative (BRI), implemented such a program that focus on the ‘highest-risk offenders.’ It must be pointed out that this program includes, religious institutions, mentorships, & community collaboration – in other words, people invested ‘in,’ & know, the communities. With this said, the following should not come as a surprise:
The [BRI] results have been impressive. Harvard researchers found that participants had a rearrest 30% lower than that of a matched comparison group.22
With the proper determination, we can create a conglomerate of Peace Ambassadors that will enlighten their respective ‘bands of brothers & sisters,’ & construct a new atlantis founded upon humanism & wisdom, as opposed to egocentrism.
a person’s [esp., a prisoner’s] inner-directed change can transform the larger web of life, which, connects us all. This dynamic process of inner-transformation is fundamental to rejuvenating society from the ground up.
–Daisaku Ikeda, “A Declaration of Human Rights at Lincoln Park,” World Tribune-Special Commerative Issue, 10/2/10, p.6.
[Editors’ Note: Within this excerpt, Harris cites the following in footnotes 21 and 22: Petersilia, Joan. “Beyond the Prison Bubble.” National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 268, Oct. 2011, pp. 26-31.]
An excerpt from Inside This Place, Not Of It
Morningstar, a trans man assigned to live in a women’s prison, explains how he started a program for other trans- and LGBTQ-identifying IP within his prison.
When the Two Spirits Wellness Group first started, there were about six people. There are about fifteen people on our docket list now. At the meetings, first of all, we identify. We’ll go around the circle and say, “My name is… and I’m transgender, or I’m lesbian, or I’m bi.” Like that. And we’ll say what name we like to go by and what pronoun we’d like to go by to each other. We talk about first recognizing. We do that to reaffirm identity to everyone else, and to encourage other people within our group to say who they are.
Two Spirits is one of the only places in prison where we discuss sex and the risks of having sex. We do have peer helper educators who talk about health concerns, including AIDS/HIV and Hepatitis C. But to openly discuss sex the topic, we don’t have that.
Sex is against the law in the prison system. But the fact is that it’s still going to go on. There’s no way to get protection, so if you do it, since hep C is rampant, there is a risk that you’ll get it. I think most of the Two Spirits group express an appreciation just to talk openly about these issues, how they feel, how they’re treated, with people who understand their perspective.
Most of the people who have started taking hormones in this prison are doing so after I let them know about it in the Two Spirits group. There are some people who did not really know who they were, they hadn’t explored that they were transgender males. They had just considered themselves gay, or masculine lesbians, and because of the stigma they couldn’t admit to themselves that they were really males.
In Two Spirits meetings, I relate my own experiences to others in the group, and it helps them identify. I started it mostly for people to be able to get a stake in their spiritual identity. We believe that you are what your spirit dictates. In my case, my spirit dictates that I am masculine. We try to help you become strong in your spirit and identity, and to help you be able to function without feeling humiliation, feeling that you are a bad person. As long as you feel inadequate, you will not become all you can be. So you need to be in a better spiritual state.
Some of the members are Native American, but I open it to everybody. In Native American tradition, there’s no separation between your heritage, your religion, your anything. All of it really entails your spiritual self. The whole thing is that all living things created have a spiritual self. My whole thing is to let people have a space to be themselves.
Brother, can we talk?: Restorative justice in the criminal justice system
Feeney describes the concept of Restorative Justice Circles, and how they can build a bridge for communication between IP and the individuals affected by their crime. This program has the ability to reunite IP with the outside community, fostering a sense of understanding between them.
Restorative Justice is an age-old philosophy which is more recently being applied to the Criminal Judicial System. Based on traditions of the Original Peoples, Restorative Justice is the belief that harm was done, so healing must happen in order to restore things closer to where they were. Restorative Justice also takes into account that there is always more than one person affected by a single crime. Friends, families, and people in the community are all affected and need to be involved in the healing process. One of the amazing components of Restorative Justice involves a “Healing Circle.”
Most problems start with communication issues. People don’t feel heard or understood. People feel bullied. Someone assumes someone else feels the same as they do. Someone feels insulted or disrespected by an action. People feel triggered by key words or tones of voice. We often stuff our true feelings and don’t communicate how we really feel because we’re afraid of hurting or offending the other person. But communication starts small. Being able to say “I’d prefer you not to turn the light on while I’m trying to sleep” seems simple, and it is. But sometimes simple things are the most difficult to do. We blame ourselves, think we’ll get over it, or it’s no big deal… So we stuff it and let things build up. And emotions under pressure are like a pressure cooker – eventually they’ll need to be let out.
But communication, REAL communication, takes time, energy and effort. Anyone who has participated in a Restorative Justice Circle knows that it is not a slap on the wrist nor is it easier than jail. Oftentimes Circle participants will drop out of the program, opting for their suspended jail time rather than to continue into the scary realm of authentic communication. In Circles, everyone is given an equal voice. People of the community are involved and are able to state how they were affected. Victims are given their voice back and allowed to speak openly of their hurts and fears. Even the perpetrators are given a voice; not to minimize and reduce their accountability, but to attempt to explain some of the factors that may have contributed to their committing their crime. Please don’t confuse this with the 1-sided “victim impact statement” that is sometimes read at sentencing. This is two-way communication, with all participants being able to respond authentically and in the moment to what they hear. These circles may occur weekly for up to a year. That requires commitment to a real solution. This involves real challenges and vulnerability. The Circle facilitator is trained to help run things smoothly, and the end result is a true healing of all parties involved. Forgiveness may or may not be involved – it most certainly happens, but is not a requirement or even a goal of Restorative Justice Circles.
A supervised Restorative Justice Circle by a trained facilitator could have been used at the beginning to help divert the case from Criminal Court. But even for cases that go all the way through a Criminal Court, a Restorative Justice Circle can still be utilized afterwards, to help open communication, develop empathy and restore the community to where it was before the crime. Whether used in conjunction with or in lieu of traditional incarceration, Restorative Justice Practices are the way of the future.
Bloom grown from a crack in the wall
Jaynes remarks upon the various ways in which she works to rehabilitate herself and how these opportunities—including religious programming and writing workshops—allowed her to form relationships with other IP in those classes.
The transformation of transformed individuals – the diseased, debilitated, disadvantaged, addicted, depressed, degraded, disgraced, disillusioned, discriminated against, incriminated, or the victimized into healthy, stable, redeemed, and revitalized individuals, should be proclaimed and acclaimed. no matter how low a level they have been to, they should reach as high as they dare go. The success of the prodigal is a still a valid one. How blessed they were to have overcome obstacles in their way and within themselves. In receiving support, treatments, compassion, guidance, and opportunities, they transformed, triumphing over adversity and their own demons. Injustice and its victims were exposed to the healing light of the human conscience and abusers found theirs, through personal growth and godly grace. Changes in ideas, values, attitudes, and behavior were made. Problems were solved. Reconciliations and resolutions took place.
Then came people with help and opportunities, which they eagerly reached for and grasped. I’ve seen women “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, as in Romans 12:2, by taking advantage of opportunities prison offers: medical and mental health services; GED and vocational education; substance abuse programs; spiritual guidance by the chaplain and volunteer church groups; parenting classes and the variety of self-improvement courses; and the disciplines of work and set boundaries of behavior. Prison has saves lives from the abuses of the streets.
Prison can also be detrimental and dangerous, if abuses within it go unchecked. Diligence in advocating for one’s rights and healthcare, are often necessary for survival in prison. In protecting myself, I’ve had to rely on my higher instincts, thus becoming resourceful and self-reliant (good coming out of bad).
But I came into prison with some advantages. I had support from family and friends. I was college educated with a yearning to learn more. Maturity, manners, and my intellect, kept me out of trouble as I spent free time reading, writing, and playing scrabble. My respect for other cultures, races, and humanity in general, enabled relations with others of diverse backgrounds. My innate tenacity served me well in fighting for our rights. By cooking a variety of foods, I bonded with others as we cooked and ate together (supplementing bad chow hall meals). My Christian faith sustained me spiritually, keeping me connected to my home church and the enlightening seminars and church services of the Soaring Spirit Prison Ministry.
I used my teaching background in my prison tutoring jobs and my affinity for cleanliness in my dorm tending jobs. At home, I had volunteered in my three children’s school and scouting programs and I served as secretary of the Webster Groves Historical Society. In prison, I was secretary of our NAACP chapter, one of many service organizations serving the prison and outside communities, through restorative efforts by offenders.
The best opportunities for me in prison were the outlets of creative expression. The Prison Performing Arts theater and poetry classes stimulated me intellectually and emotionally. Acting in Shakespearean plays, studying the great poets, and writing my own poetry, gave me self-confidence and a sense of identity. The PEN prison writing program encouraged my writing of essays and in other genres. The writing course taught by the novelist, Catherine Palmer, also inspired me to write. The Anne Frank Diary prison program encouraged me in journal keeping. Other enriching courses were: Making peace with your past, rational, emotive therapy, taking a chance on change, keep your bobber up, master gardner, and nutrition.
Taking stock from a more positive perspective, I utilize goodness wherever I can find it, even in my enemies.
As Aristotle aptly stated, “I count braver he who controls his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is victory over self.” If we all achieved that, we might not have as many enemies, in each other. What good does it do to defeat our foes, when we’re still defeating ourselves? Harming others ends up harming ourselves in the grand scheme of things. We all struggle between the good and bad within ourselves. We should ensure the victory by that good, giving it priority to finding fault in others. We can no longer be our own worst enemies in our transformed selves.
As a young woman, I made a wall-hanging picturing a flowering plant under the saying, “Bloom where you are planted”. I never imagined that many years later, I would be planted under such harsh and hostile conditions, that I’d barely survive them, nor that in many more years, I’d bloom in prison. But here I am, a strong survivor, and unlikely humanist, and a hopeful opportunist, yes, I know who I am. By the way, who are you and are you being transformed too?
Dean A. Faiello
Faiello describes the sense of community between men in Cephas, a support group offered within his prison. Because of this camaraderie, the men in the group felt comfortable opening up to others and appearing vulnerable. Later, after Faiello is forced to leave Cephas, he continues to create community by helping other IP who turn to him for writing advice.
Of the two-thousand inmates in jail, only fifteen at a time could attend a Cephas meeting. Like nearly every prison program, there was a long waiting list. For the jail’s addiction program, the list contained over one-thousand names. Most would never participate.
As the Officer barked, “Cephas,” the bull pen gate cracked open. I walked down a well-lit corridor with painted sheet rock walls. Each meeting room had wire-glass observation windows instead of the typical barred openings. As I entered the meeting room, I shook hands with the volunteers, and bumped fists with the inmates. Some of the guys called out, “Hey, yo, John, wassup?” Each week, we shared frustrations, talked about the mistakes we made, and struggled with change. As the weeks passed, I watched guys open up and share their pain, deal with their issues. Some progressed more quickly than others. It took work. But the rewards were tremendous.
At one meeting, a guy was pissed at his co-workers. While he had been at the law library working on an appeal, they rearranged their work area, and got rid of his desk. He felt betrayed. Sitting in the meeting, agitated and angry, he told us, “I just wanna break their fuckin’ faces, ev’ry fuckin’ one a them.” We listened, gave some feedback, talked about the consequences. By the end of the meeting, he was laughing and joking. He was still mad at his co-workers, but had no intentions of punching or hurting them.
I recall a meeting where a guy told us that he finally divorced his wife after six years of legal wrangling. Rather than sell their house, and split the proceeds as a family court judge had ordered, she burnt it to the ground. He planned on getting revenge. There was no easy solution to his intense anger, but he took our advice and joined AA. I later edited a story he wrote about the incident, and published it in the AA journal. I like to think it brought him some closure on his loss.
The Cephas meeting room was light and airy with windows on three sides. About twenty plastic chairs were arranged in a large circle. As I looked at the volunteers seated in the circle, I thought of their dedication. Inmate faces in the group often changed, but the same volunteers were there every week. Some had been attending meetings for twenty years. They showed far more commitment than we did. Despite our difficulties in getting from our cells to the meeting, it was only a fifteen minute trip for us. Many of the volunteers drove hours to and from Antioch. Once there, they waited, just like we did, to be cleared by the CO’s to enter the meeting. Sometimes they received a hostile reception–rudeness, even name calling. I had heard stories of some Officers calling them ‘tree-huggers’ or ‘mud lovers.’ We were the mud. Sometimes the volunteers were left waiting, vindictively, in the reception building long after their program was supposed to start. But the volunteers always walked into the meetings with smiles and optimism. I envied their patience.
Slowly, the meeting room filled up as inmates from each block arrived. One of the volunteers, Iris, in a denim skirt and white blouse, signaled to get everyone’s attention.
“Ok, I think everyone’s here. I see some new faces. Welcome. Would somebody like to explain what Cephas is, and what the rules are, to the new guys? Billy, you’ve been coming to the meetings for a while. Why don’t you explain to the new guys the history of Cephas?”
Billy, just like the word Cephas, was a rock or foundation for the meetings. Incarcerated for over forty years, he had been attending Antioch’s Cephas meeting for eighteen of those years.
As word got in my block that I was an aspiring prison writer, a few guys came to me for help with their own writing. They had tried attending the prison’s creative writing class, but couldn’t due to its limited size. I edited their works and encouraged them to persevere, sharing what I had learned from the volunteer who taught the class, a professor at a private college. I found it rewarding when guys took my writing advice and incorporated it into their work. I struggled with my own writing. We sometimes took our work to the yard, forming a picnic table of inmates with pens and writing pads. I fancied us at the Algonquin Round Table, trading quips and barbs, filling the air with smoke and profanity. On the days when my energy waned, they motivated me to keep going, slogging it out, one word at a time.