Monday, September 5, 2016
No Man's Land
I am not good company on prison days. Aloof, irritable, withdrawn, I sleep-walk through Saturday morning chores. I have gone inside and need space to gird my loins, armor myself, visually rehearse my routine: go to Bookman's for used books, magazines, dictionaries, then to an office supply place for pads of paper, accordion folders, and pens, then to the University for copies of inmate work, and turnout lists that I print out. Then the long drive from the sculpted lawns of the university to the strafed, naked ground of the prison. The physical and material preparation is nothing compared to hardening of the psyche though.
My usual life -- and the moralities that go with it -- don't apply in prison. Prison rules of the road fall more into the Darwinian, opportunistic, and brutal plays of dominance and power. Yes, there are power structures in the free world too, but they are less naked, overt, urgent, less desperate, less unrelenting. In prison there are no breaks from the scramble to survive, even the boredom of the place feels close to fatal.
The workshops offer a bit of a reprieve. Often, but not always, we have air conditioning, and they get paper, conversation, and a forum. I am not naive enough to think that the exigencies of prison life don't trail in with the inmates, that some of the shot callers aren't using the time to sneak in some politicking, that notes don't get passed under the table, that looks aren't telegraphing outside prison business, but men show up. They are not just inmates any more. Many of them have something to say and want to learn how to say it better.
With all the conning, fishing, and hustle that goes on, why do prison workshops? And how did I end up here?
On a personal level, I am the last person who should be here. Introverted to distress, soft from a life of academic work, somewhat middle class, white, male, and having avoided violence most of my life, utterly absent of tattoos, guns, and locked doors, I come from a standpoint far removed from prison realities. I live in something like another country, both materially and psychologically. In many ways I am less altruistic than ignorant, or in denial, of prison realities. I don't have to fight for my place. In the eyes on inmates, I likely do not even register on the scale that measures "cred."
The boundaries between the men in the workshops and me are stark, the wall already built (and Mexico didn't even have to pay for it). And getting into prison is almost as hard as getting out. The paperwork of clearance, the doors, the locks, the searches, the occasional contempt of the cops for someone doing "creative writing," said with real disdain, all add up to hassle.
Plus I defy my volunteer directives. I carry contraband, distribute banned reading material. I am already doing what I would do if I were being fished or conned, so why bother?
Part of what helps cross the boundaries is that the usual game of prison life gets short-circuited in the workshops. There are no cops. I turn off the radio. What I am interested in is writing. I invite them to leave their territory, as I have left mine, and meet on the ground of expression. Here we overlap. Here we have stories, we have wounds, we have lost, we grieve and we rejoice. We read what others have written about love, work, death, longing, lust, nature, betrayal, unfairness, fathers, children, cars.
The common ground outside or between the boundaries shakes down my perceptions of the inmates and it opens the possibility to see writing as a kind of freedom from prison.
I am not saying this just because I think it. I say it because they tell me it is so for them, some of them anyway.
Learning to express opens possibilities, other ways of seeing. The voice on the page is not always the voice of the man speaking on the yard. The voice on the page may see an alternative to violence as an answer, may see a connection or a story where before there was nothing. It may speak from an identity heretofore unknown, a stranger.
Here I do step in to say, that I believe in writing and literacy and language as tied to creating a full humanity. Self-critical enough not to be wholly evangelical, I confide with them that believing and living this is what gets me off my ass on Saturday mornings and out to a place where I might leap across a void so impossible that it might as well be on Mars.
But then it happens. And, in a strange way, I am at home in a place I cannot live.
We meet in no man's land for a brief encounter. The air here is too rarefied for both them and me. I offer a distilled tonic of expression, share the refined riches of my life as a teacher and writer. They offer their best truths. We exchange goods, even though the currencies are mixed. It's a barter, but it's contact.
In another life, we might be friends. In this life, we will remain strangers, but for the brief taste, this communion of the word.