A Great Day At The Prison
Some days are just wonderful. It’s My Best Beloved’s birthday, and it’s Bailey’s birthday (our dog, known asThe Rescuepoo), and the hot-off-the-presses copy of my new novel arrived in the mail, which just makes me giddy with grinning . . . . but. . . the most wonderful thing about today happened in a prison.
A woman who works with the terrific organization People and Stories wrote to me a few weeks ago and asked if I remember a student I’d had from my prison classes a couple of years back, whom I’ll call John. Of course, I did remember him. He’d been in prison for a long time, although he was still young. He was also funny, smart, kind, enthusiastic about writing (and pretty much everything else), optimistic (against all odds in a place like that), filled with a joyful faith. . . in short, he was a pretty good guy. I don’t have all the facts about what landed him in prison, so I won’t go into that, but suffice it to say it had to do with being felony stupid, and full of the sort of bad luck and bad judgement endemic to fifteen-year-olds that results in long prison terms.
Well, John has now been transferred to a facility which acts as a transition between prison and halfway house. Still very much a prison, but no quite so grim as where he was. While there, he’s been taking part in the People and Stories program. The first day of class, he asked if she knew me, and as happens, she does. (I’ve done work with People and Stories before.) John spoke fondly of me, apparently, and of the work we did together in the writing class. He’s been writing. He’s excited about going home . . . and … well, would I, this woman asked, be willing to come and lead a session before he’s released? Would I? Absolutely.
So today, I saw John again. You have to understand this sort of thing rarely happens. Inmates are not allowed to contact teachers like me. I’m not allowed to contact them. (This is wise and prudent, for obvious reasons.) When inmates get transferred (and they get transferred a lot), they simply disappear. When my class was cancelled, they were never given an explanation as to why. I’m just gone. One learns to live with it.
I don’t know who was happier, me or John. He looks great. A little older, a little calmer, a bit more bulked up, but just as kind and open and full of optimistic faith as ever. As part of the session, he read a story he’d written. It was good. It really was. I laughed and said, “What the heck did you do, save every handout I gave you and study it?” He laughed, and said yes. Well, what do you know. What do you know.
When I first met John he reminded me of a too-big-for-his-feet puppy, bounding everywhere, tripping over things, full of crazy energy. It seems he’s grown into his feet, metaphorically speaking. His writing shows the growth. He says he wants to be a writer, and I say, why the hell not?
He’ll be out in a few weeks and he has a lot of support lined up, which he’ll sure need. It’s rough out there on the streets for anyone, but for a young man with his past, it’s almost impossible. Still, he’s got a line on a couple of possible jobs, and he’s got that optimism, and that faith. If I was to bet, I’d bet he might just beat the odds. He just might.
We gave each other a big hug as I left. It felt wonderful to know he won’t be there long; that this part, at least, will be behind him. I’m going to cling to that.
So, it was a great day. Still, as I drove away, I couldn’t help thinking about my other students, the ones who just disappeared into the system, back to the streets, off into lives I’ll probably never know about. I think about those guys, and wish them well . . .I hate saying ‘them’ because if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned there’s no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’. Just all-my-relations.
I hope you have added to your list of good news that your new book appeared yesterday on GoodRead’s Best Picks in their newsletter! I then put in a purchase request at my library. Good luck with it and congratulations!
I didn’t know that, Diane. Thanks so much for telling me. I don’t think your library will pick it up, because it doesn’t have a US publisher yet. Sigh. Know anyone interested???
hello Lauren, congratulations on your new novel, look forward to getting it.
I found your essay very interesting, I wasn’t familiar with the People & Stories organization, sounds like a valuable group. Loved your comments about your interaction with John, and here’s wishing him much success as he gets on with the rest of his life.
By the way – I’ve learned a lot about my own “us” vs “them” thinking from your writing … so thank you. RJ
Thanks Rebecca. Nice to hear from you, as always. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.
As long as I have known you, you have always made an impression on those around you and have never deserted anyone, good or bad. Wishing both your loved ones all the best and can’t wait to read your new book. love you all, Dusan
Love you, too, Dusan. Thanks so much.
Visiting your essays again. They never disappoint. And congratulations on the newly arrived print next book.
This one certainly addresses a theme of how a subculture exists within our society, hidden from view. There are so many. We have chronic care home, palliative care, rehabilitation facilities, psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals and prisons as examples.
After all, how many times in our day to day life do we think of all those thousands of individuals behind bars. Those who are in prison, does it create a group we could call ‘them?’
It could be we do consider that group as different from us; as a world apart. We could say we do not understand that world, but those in such a world are really still ‘us.’ And within our own ‘us’ in society outside prison walls, are those who may have been ‘them.’
A blurring of the concept of divisions.
As a former RN, I occasionally was in contact with admitted patients from a prison facility. They would be under guard, shackled to a bed rail and yet they were a patient. They were identical to the others admitted. Their humanness was evident no matter what their crime. Each prisoner would have concerns about their health, their diagnosis and the outcome. It seemed their vulnerability was enhanced because of the social situation within the hospital setting.
As the professional health care worker with my own philosophy and ethics of care, those patients under guard received identical care as with any other patient. They were not a ‘them’ patient with the others being in the ‘us’ group. They each had their own personalities and behaviours but the basic human traits were those of universality.
I wonder how do others cope with any transition of who they perceive as ‘they’ when they actually become part of their ‘us.’ I was aware of other co-workers who, when faced with a ‘prisoner’ patient, struggled with the concept of providing equivalent care as with any other patient.
This young man who is about to make a transition from prison to a life ‘outside’ may have to overcome preconceived opinions of who he is merely because of having been in prison. With his personality, his motivation and support, he will hopefully be able to overcome such prejudices.
It may also be necessary as part of his success, he considers himself always having been ‘us’ and never ‘them.’
Your educational support for his writing spirit will be an important part of his emerging in his new world. One where he belongs with ‘us,’ because he always did.
I do wish him well.
And if there is a way to forward this to him through his parole officer, please do.
Thanks, Wendy. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to pass your message to him… but you never know. He may see it.