I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.
When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.
Whereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …
Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.
The accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.
But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.
On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.
And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …
And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.
The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.
This is their life.
And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.
So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.
No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.
A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.
The first student was white; the latter black.
There’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.
Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.
“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”
(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)
This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”
He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.
“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …
“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”
“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”
His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.
We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.
We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.
Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,