Back in the 1990s, a buddy of mine was locked up repeatedly for possession of heroin in California. The drug itself is illegal, and apparently my buddy was making some poor choices while under the influence. You know, little mistakes, things like turning & running backward to flip off a cop while he fled, only to flip over the hood of a police car coming from the other direction. Liberating quarters from coin-op laundromats. Moving meth to fund his habit.
As a condition of probationary release, he was sentenced to rehab. Required to participate in AA meetings. He’d show up sullen, at least for a while, then start showing up stoned, then quit altogether as his addiction took hold. Nobody can force you to get sober, he told me. You can be forced not to use – if you’re locked up without it, then you’ll kick. But that’s not the same as being sober. You can’t be clean – not really – until you have a choice.
Unfortunately, that first moment of choice often comes at an awful time in people’s lives. Incarceration is traumatic; so is release. From Susan Burton and Cari Lynn’s Becoming Ms. Burton:
There’s also no logical reason why federal prisons offer halfway houses to those newly released, but state prisons provide nothing. Four thousand newly released women arrive in Los Angeles County every year to nothing. No re-entry programs, no counseling, no services, no assistance. You have no house key, no credit card, no checkbook, no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no identification of any sort because anything you were carrying when you were arrested has been destroyed by the state. You’re just one woman in the crowd of mostly black and brown faces, one number in the recidivism stats that are decidedly not in your favor.
Like vultures, the pimps circle, eyeing you, assessing you. The drug dealers circle. You know them from the old neighborhood, and they call you by name, offering their brand of a welcome home party. You have little incentive to say no. Ego tells you you’re gonna make it by any means necessary. Ego tells you you’re a grown woman. But you’re scared. How do you calm yourself? How do you connect with something healthy and hopeful when you’re surrounded by Skid Row? When you haven’t been allowed to make a decision in five, ten, twenty years? When all you want to do is wash prison off you, but you can’t, because it’s in you. It’s seeped into your psyche and into your soul.
All I wanted was to ease the fear, ease the self-loathing, ease the hopelessness. It seemed the only thing in the world I was certain of was how to escape by taking drugs, by self-medicating. Three days: that’s the average time for someone to relapse after getting out of prison. I knew nothing about statistics, but I knew that, in a drug high, I could escape into silence.
It takes a lot for an addict to get sober. I don’t fault the people who want to get clean but keep slipping. Still, this much is clear: you can’t change your life until you choose to.
I started teaching in the local jail because I felt ashamed. I am a citizen of the United States, and the horrors of mass incarceration are inflicted on behalf of all citizens. I personally owe an apology to those who’ve been yanked away from their lives unfairly … and to those children whose parents were taken away … and to those parents whose children were taken away … and to those who lost their neighbors … and to those whose loved ones were harmed by the violence begat by entire community’s loss of trust in the police, which required inhabitants to take justice into their own hands … and …
Given that some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are currently incarcerated … with another 5 million on probation or parole, a tiny slip away from being shipped away again … and which surely means tens of millions more whose lives have been sundered by the loss of a loved one … many of them innocent children … there is no way I could give a personal apology to everyone who deserves one. I’m sorry, as a citizen of the United States, that your mother was yanked away on my behalf.
But I can go in and teach. Last year, I spent about five hours each week inside the most miserable place in town. Even now, after one of my classes was canceled, I spend close to three hours a week in there. And I hate being in jail. Everyone does. It’s loud, bleak, malodorous, filled with stale air and flickering fluorescent light. Full of angry people who won’t make eye contact when you talk, but will stand at the front of their cells and stare. If you don’t see a dude, he might bang the glass and shout – I jump.
The elevator has buttons. The buttons do nothing.
There is waiting. Lots of waiting.
But the time I spend with the men in class (only men – the administration has declared all female inmates to be manipulative, irresistible seductresses and will not let male volunteers work with them, for the volunteers’ protection) is great. They love our poetry class. Despite the fact that many of these men stopped out of school and never looked at poetry on the outside, they are astute readers.
Several of the men in our classes grew to love writing as well. Monster House Press has put together a literary magazine featuring some of their work, available here.
Each week, we met with mid-level offenders in a classroom, and with recovering addicts inside the New Leaf New Life dormitory. This latter was an incredibly grim space. Twelve men lived inside this dormitory full-time; there were two steel tables with uncomfortable round seats attached for their meals in the “living area”; there were bunk beds in the “sleeping area”; they had a toilet and shower, the only portion of the room not under constant camera surveillance. The concrete walls were painted gray, and the only window was a small, wire-reinforced pane in the door: this window looked out to the booking desk on the ground floor of the jail.
So: no exterior windows, no glimpse of sunlight, no fresh air, twelve grown men crammed together for months in a space smaller than the living room of my own (small) home. A wall was shared with the drunk tank – sometimes somebody would be kicking & shit everywhere. Sometimes a schizophrenic would sing ceaselessly for days. Sometimes an angry inmate would rhythmically kick the steel door, every three seconds another KLOOOM reverberating through our skulls.
New Leaf had been granted this space by the jail because no one else wanted to be in there.
And yet that is where we held our best classes. Even though the space was wretched, the men chose to be in there. Volunteers – like J-M & me, and a dude who held AA classes, and a local linguist, and others – came in to offer some “enrichment.” The men also created their own programming: one of the twelve conducted a meditation session each morning. After our class had been going for a while, the men started reading poetry out loud to each other. They were suffering, but they learned to suffer together. In that small, crappy space, dudes riddled with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos befriended black men. A dude forgave the informant who’d put him there. Together, these men weathered the deaths of their parents, girlfriends, wives – mass incarceration has ravaged our country. In the devastated communities left behind, people die all the time.
Hell, mass incarceration caught up with my wife and me, too. Last November, my wife’s mother was murdered. It’s unlikely the killer would’ve done it if he hadn’t been so severely distanced from his friends and family, locked up for a decade for a pair of low-level, non-violent drug crimes. He sold crappy amounts of cocaine; ten years of his life were yanked away; now my mother-in-law is dead.
To publicize the Monster House Press magazine with the men’s poetry, we made a video using the text of a poem from the collection, Max E.’s “San Diego 1985: I Felt Your Presence in the Absence of Time.”
I love this poem for its depiction of epiphany. It’s hard work to change your life, but before that work can even begin, you have to want to change. As much as I hate the way we treat “criminals” in this country, many men have told me that they’re glad they were jolted from their routines – their lives were on a bad course and jail shook them awake, making them realize that they needed to change.
Surrounded by angry angels, this poem’s narrator realizes he’s made a mistake.
Given a reprieve from fate, that is when the hard work begins. Here’s another excerpt from Becoming Ms. Burton:
Drugs are insidious. A social ill for some folks, a criminal ill for others.
Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction. Education, hard work, dedication, a support system, and knowing there were opportunities for me and that my life had value: these were what had made all the difference. For the past twenty years of my sobriety, I deployed each of these facets, every day.
Few people find the right path on their first attempt. Collectively, nobody in the U.S. can claim to be on the right track. We’re wrecking the environment, we’re wrecking lives … some of us try to tread lightly, but the world is still being wrecked on our behalf. We all share the blame.
We, too, need to be jolted into change.