“Life is Life” by B.R.

Forty-eight years ago, in 1972, I received a life sentence, and even though I have been eligible for parole for twenty-seven years now, I remain in prison. So, “What does one do if he or she has years or decades on the ‘inside’ or may not be able to leave?” The question makes me wonder, “Do people in the free-world believe there is a difference between their life and incarcerated life?” Life is life, regardless of one’s circumstances.  
 
On this day, I’m sitting on my bed, back against the wall, tablet made in China, paper and pen in hand, looking out the window at the forest on the far, back end of the prison. My constant oversight supervises its growth and I see the beauty of life change through passing seasons. In the beginning the trees were just shrubs, but now they are giants. I love the view of the forest. It takes my mind off the concrete, brick, and steel that represents prison. A desolate landscape. In the spring, the trees of the forest begin to bud, and in the summer buds turn into green leaves. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange, and red before falling off, leaving the trees bare again. It almost erases the sight of oneself in a cell for decades. 

There are greater restrictions on an incarcerated life. Among the most pronounced is no intimacy with the opposite sex and the loss of personal decision-making over one’s own life. But neither of these major restrictions in my life bring to it a screeching halt. Everyone’s life has restrictions. A person living in the free-world cannot live in a house unless they work and pay for it; they cannot eat unless they work to buy food; and they cannot jump in their car and go as fast as they want when they want because there are speed limits. I have speed limits in prison, too. There is no running in prison, except at the rec yard. They assume if you’re running you’ve done something wrong. I can’t stop on the controlled walk to talk. If I’m on walk, I have to keep moving. So, as an incarcerated person doing decades, “What do I do?” It’s simple, I accept the restrictions on my life because it’s the only life I have to live at this time. Maybe tomorrow will bring a different situation.  

In truth, what I do in life is not much different than what most who strive to survive life do. I have hope, which is essential to surviving decades in prison. Hope tells me that someday the prison doors may open. It reminds me not to give up. Hope enables me to live another day. When I came home from Vietnam, I had problems coping and adjusting. I showed signs, documented by the Judge, of severe PTSD which contributed to my crime. I was confronted with the death penalty. But, before my trial began, the death penalty was struck down as being unconstitutional. I know, deep in my heavy heart, that warehousing people without a glimmer of hope is wrong.  

Throughout my life sentence, I’ve upheld a strong connection to faith. In Vietnam, I had Marine brothers stand beside me shot dead. I returned home without a single, physical scratch. Later, when I worked for the power company framing 50’ poles, a fellow lineman argued with me that it was his turn to climb and frame the next pole that I was glaring up to climb. I stepped aside, and the pole that was supposed to be stable and set in rock, fell over and crushed him to death. Faith has guided me through, provided purpose. In prison, I’ve seen men stabbed and beaten to death. I have come to know my fellow inmates well as they allow themselves to be known. Their backgrounds cover a diverse spectrum: drug dealers, middle-class types, gang-bangers. Though each man’s story is unique, they are all viewed as evil and worthless. 

Family has stood by me during my long prison sentence. Over the years, time has taken most of my immediate family, but nieces and nephews have stepped up to fill in. Such is the hallmark of a good family. My family send me “icare” food orders each month. These food orders consist of triple, bacon cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets with ranch dressing, nacho platters, French fries, to name a few. In all of this, the greatest gift of all that they send me is love. I know they will be there for me when others won’t. And yet men, like me, who have been locked up for more than forty years believe that the steps we’ve taken to redeem ourselves will matter to someone, someday. As long as there is life, there is hope. 
 
As I look over the vast forest from my cell window, I admire the changing leaves. In the rebirth and dying of trees in the forest, I see the mimicking of human life. In the evenings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the sweet, tender shoots of grass that grow alongside the road that lie in front of the forest. If I’m lucky, Mama will bring her baby fawns out with her for me to see. There are some differences in our lives – mine and yours, but restrictions in life are constant. One can adapt to circumstances. Life moves on no matter where you sit. 

“Hurdles” by Danny S., participant in Indiana Prison Writers Workshop

In life, there are many hurdles to jump. Some people make the jump and some take the fall. Some who take the fall get back up and re-join the race, but some who fall are broken and must knit themselves back together before ever thinking to race again and even then seem to never fully heal.

Which one will fair better in life: those broken and mended or those who merely stumble and keep running? As one who was broken and mended many times, I can tell you I prefer the company of the broken. No one can truly know what you’ve been through, but the shadows that lurk within the minds of those who have been broken are all the same. Those who feel broken or have experienced depths of pain and suffering know this: if you have been shattered that means you have more dimensions of character and a bigger heart than those who haven’t been. Some wounds remain so close to the surface. Beauty often requires a kind of devastation. Maybe the saddest terrain are always the most beautiful. And for those who reveal their scars: there’s more of you to learn about and more of you to love. I’m not broken; I’m simply divided.

“Free At Last” by Danny S.

On February 24th of this past year I was released from what I thought a dismal existence. After 28 and a half years I got out of prison. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion where I screamed to the heavens about the freedom I had been given. Instead I have remained subdued. The world is unkind to those of us from within the system, and I quickly realized that I would receive no quarter. Immediately I was opposed on all sides by challenges and goals that seemed impossible to overcome. I could understand where a man with nothing would choose to remain or  re-enter the system as opposed to deal with the kind of issues that we are faced with.  I was sent by parole to get an ID card. But I had no social security card, so I couldn’t get an id. The social security office would not give me a card because I had no id. So it went until I had to rely on the parole department to supply the information in order for them to believe who I was.

From there things only got worse as I attempted to find work (without a way to get there and back) and found myself looking at refusal after refusal. It turns out that if a business hires felons, it only hires certain felons.

So jobless and struggling I found myself thinking about prison life. I’m not going to lie, the lure was there, all you have to do in prison is exist. That is it.

Darkness overcame my thoughts as this time passed over me and I began to think I’d be better off going back to that simple existence; to be a number not a person. I began to look through the paperwork that I had brought with me from the joint and found my creative writing folder. I began remembering the people who tried so hard to help me, to bring me out of the “convict” mentality, I remembered the writing classes and Tiffany and Debra and the others in the class with me. A lot of us are out and I began to wonder about them.

My mind began to wander as a voice within me started telling me to stand firm.

I had weathered 28 years and 6 months in prison and now I was going to give up cause things got a bit out of my comfort zone? No fucking way.

This is where I am less than 6 months out. I have a job working for a towing company, I own my own place, no payments, I own a car, I own a truck, and I have a beautiful girlfriend to top it off. I go fishing when I want to and play when I want. I sleep when I want to and all those things I took for granted in prison are now cherished by me every day.

Expect to exchange one set of problems in life for another, no one is exempt from this rule and all things will change like the weather, the key to survival is perseverance and belief that while bad times are surely coming, better times can be had by plowing through them.

“Hope” by Tiffany L., IPWW volunteer facilitator

Twenty-eight years. That’s a long time for a man to live his life behind bars. It’s also a long time for a man to be alone with his thoughts. But twenty-eight years is how long one of the men in my writing class waited for his freedom, waited to rejoin society, waited to once again be seen as a human and not an “offender”. This past Sunday, Danny walked out of prison and into a cold, clear Indiana night. I imagine it like The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, steps past the prison gate after 40 years and looks around in wonder at the world around him. It’s the same outside world it’s always been but now, somehow, the world looks and feels different; there’s a shift in the atmosphere and life hasn’t quite come into focus. I think of Danny beneath that inky night sky exhaling years of oppression, exhaustion, and affliction and inhaling…hope.

Hope is an amazing thing. It has the power to propel us through dark days and unimaginable tragedies, but also manifest itself in the rising sun of a new day. I think I notice it most when December closes out the present year and January ushers in a new one. People are ripe with hope. With every New Year’s resolution and every promise to change, comes hope. It’s the possibility and opportunity to improve our circumstances and overcome our challenges. On the outside, hope is prevalent. We are surrounded with family and friends to help us accomplish our goals and fight our battles. We have access to the means necessary to guide us, heal us and support us. But what about those who live life on the inside? Surely the idea of hope must be a pipe-dream to someone facing decades in prison. How can one possibly find hope when life as they know it has been stripped from them and instead, of the promise of a new day, they are forced to accept the fact that they very well may die behind those prison walls – alone.

But, you know what? Hope is powerful. It has a way of seeping in through concrete walls and razor wire and transforming broken spirits. Hope is bigger than what we can conceive or imagine. Hope has purpose.

Time and time again, I hear inmates say the one thing that gets them through their sentence is hope. Hope is different for everyone. To me, hope is knowing that this life isn’t all there is. God gave my life purpose beyond what this world can give and He placed eternity in my heart; I know I was made for something more. I can’t imagine waking up every day and thinking this world is all there is, so I’d better make the most of it, be the best, achieve all I can because when it’s over it’s over. I would be so depressed!

For the men in my writing class, hope is evident in their words:

“For me, hope is all around in the expectation of things to come and in my desire to make those things happen.”

“Hope is having things to look forward to: family visiting, having good friends, going to church, and having a release date.”

“My hope comes from God. Having faith in God gives me all the hope I need.”

“My hope in prison comes from within my heart – my desire to live and be free.”

“Hope requires faith, if not, belief, that there is a chance things will get better.”

“As long as I have breath there is hope, and no matter what you take from me or where you put me you cannot take that.”

That last one reminds me of the conversation between Andy and Red (in the prison movie The Shawshank Redemption):

“In here is where it [hope] makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.” says Andy.

“Forget?” replies Red.

“Forget that there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours.”

“What are you talking about?” asks Red.

“Hope.”

Danny had hope too. Despite his almost thirty years behind bars, he had this to say about hope:

“Hope comes from knowing that because I can do this, because I can lose everything and everyone, and still get up in the morning to face the world, there is the possibility that things will change. Hope comes from hoping and wishing and watching your dreams and wishes fade away. The next time…next time it will work out. The absolute refusal to allows life’s misfortunes to destroy the light within your soul.” 

I believe the poet Alexander Pope (1732) was right: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Life is unpredictable. Each day is rife with ups and downs and clad in uncertainty. But, we possess something beautiful, something powerful that surpasses human understanding. Deep in our souls, we have this adept ability to harness hope and allow ourselves to believe in a better tomorrow. Regardless of how many obstacles we face, if we allow it, hope will bubble its way to the surface and refresh us with a sanguine spirit.

Perhaps Andy Dufresne said it best:

“Hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things – and no good thing ever dies.”   
                                           Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

Danny S., photo post-release

“Utah” by student-offender

Not too overly ambitious, I have a burning desire to go to Utah to see the Arches National Park. To witness the breathtaking view of fifty miles from the south rim of the park. After hiking over petrified sand dunes for two hours I’d come to a cliff that overlooks the Colorado River and a 5,000 foot drop, and it’s bound to be amazing. The dry, clean air that has swept and carved those rock formations for a billion years would enhance the water in a canteen to taste sweet. Eye candy is that way, too. It makes the whole day taste sweet. Dark absurdities and blessings disguised as disappointments vanish to make way for the naked beauty of the landscape to comfort me.

“Dear Basketball” by Kristina O’Connor, volunteer instructor

A few hours before my Sunday visit to prison, I learned about Kobe Bryant’s death. As I was consuming the never-ending news cycle that day, I learned that he had written a poem titled “Dear Basketball” the year he retired. I decided to alter my plans for class and bring in the poem to share. I figured it would be on everyone’s minds and would give them a chance to talk and write about it. When reading the poem, I was also a little shocked at how much it felt like a goodbye to the world, not just to basketball. Sometimes when I’m journaling or writing something nostalgic or premonitory, I wonder- will my kids read this someday when I’m dead? I wondered when reading the poem if that had occurred to Kobe Bryant when writing his poem as well. I’m sure the end of such a career, that spanned all of his adult life and that he was working toward for most of his childhood, probably felt a little like a death. The poem is nostalgic, with imagery from childhood, and one could imagine him writing a letter to life in much the same tone, given his larger than life status and stature.

After reading his poem, we did a prompt in his honor, where we wrote Dear Basketball, or Dear Kobe, or Dear sport of their choice. I am sharing brief excerpts below of what each of us wrote. I was impressed with how many different elements the same prompt could bring out for people. Humor, pride, gratitude, longing-it is amazing the variety of emotions a sport and/or a hero can bring forth.

Dear Sports,
I’m sorry I never really got to know you. I remember when we met in grade school when I wanted to try out for the track meet. I could sure throw that shot put but I didn’t feel comfortable getting a physical. Who knows what I could have achieved in sports?

Dear Kobe,
I thought you were one of the greatest even though I wasn’t into basketball. I loved football because it’s rough and you have to be tough to handle the pain. Kobe, you were one of the toughest in your game. Rest in peace.

Dear Basketball,
This won’t be a love letter. My basketball career was over before it began. Somehow the jump shots and free throws I sank into the plastic goal over my bedroom door didn’t translate to the sticky synthetic wood floors of my junior high gym. I thought the high-top Jordan’s would carry me down the court gracefully. Instead I bounced dribbles off the shiny toes and only scored one point the entire season, during a free throw. At least everyone was watching. It was a moment in time.

Dear Football,
From the time we met
it was the perfect fit
Especially defense
From the popularity
and smiles from cheerleaders
Two practices a day
turned me into a leader.

Dear Kobe,
Thank you for being inspirational to me.
I started loving the game from the first time I saw you play.
From your jump shots to your dunks to your killer instincts.
After hitting the game winner, you would ball your fist and pump your arm.
You were never afraid to lead or carry the weight on your shoulders.
I remember multiple arguments about who was the greatest player.
You were always the greatest in my eyes.

Here is an excerpt from the poem that inspired us:

Dear Basketball,
From the moment
I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary
Game-winning shots…

I fell in love with you.

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now…
We have given each other
All that we have.

…I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5…4…3…2…1

Love you always,
Kobe

“Sharks and butterflies” by student-offender

The analogy of the menacing and the majestic is a common theme throughout the observation of nature – be it human or animal kingdom. A convicted felon is labeled as a “menace to society,” but a butterfly can also be a prisoner, when trapped inside a caterpillar.

The allegory of a cell being a cocoon of evolution can easily get overlooked – especially when popular thought is to keep a shiv sharp…or get shiv’d by a shiver of sharks. A room full of incarcerated men were asked if they’d rather be a shark or a butterfly. These hardened criminals reacted in a mini uproar of tangible sighs, razzberries, and dismissive hand waves with disdain and disbelief that they were even asked such a preposterous question.

Their collective mind fixated on the thin fin cutting thru the water – and that extra row of teeth revealing itself when they’re about to sink into the flesh of their prey. It was unanimous that the guys saw themselves as sharks. It was then explained that those big fish go stir crazy after they’ve been in confinement, and they can’t even swim straight upon release.

Butterflies on the other hand…they are better for their confinement. They went into it as crawling caterpillars and came out with wings and flying colors. The activity within a chrysalis is a programmed mix of destruction and growth. Some cells die, and body parts atrophy. The same is true for a cellhouse in the penitentiary.

“Nevertheless, there are certain cells in this majestic creature in the making -as well as the rare diamond in the rough residing in a cell – that have been in place since birth, ready to rapidly expand.

The butterfly reveals itself as completely transformed, with the ability to fly over the limitations of its past. Setting its own standard for newfound freedom.

“A Recipe for Immortality” by student-offender

(1) Born Legend – Name written in Heaven
(1) Accidental on purpose birth
(1) Great Grandma with (1) rocking chair, (1) record player, and (1) navy blue metal can with cookies in muffin wrappers
(1) Nana who drinks Miller High Life, smokes Winston’s that give you asthma, and makes cuss words a part of your everyday vocabulary by age five
(1) OG who takes you to the library during the summer because ya’ll don’t have any air conditioning – and you think that every kid loves books like you do
(1) Older brother with (1) Say Anything boom box that plays all the golden era of hip-hop cassette tapes
(1) Moth-smelling basement with (1) pool table, (1) washer/dryer set, (1) twin-sized bed, (1) record player, (1) wooden incense holder, (1) milk crate full of long play albums, (1) ash tray full of joint roaches
(1) Sweet lick that ended sour with the death of one of your best friends
(1) Trip to the land of orange scrubs in Marion County Jail
(1) Trial where you’re labeled as a “monster”
(49) Years you are sentenced to the state penitentiary
(1) Night to scrape a toothbrush against a wall until it’s a sharp object
(1) Observation of a real stabbing that lets you know that little shank wouldn’t do shit!
(100) Nights wishing that they’d slain you instead of your brother
(99) Mornings where you wished you never woke up
(1) Sunrise to realize that the breath in you is still swelling your lungs for a reason
(6) Grams of marijuana that was supposed to be (7) shorted by (1) your own cousin so you can smoke your last sack of weed in the joint, and not fail anymore piss tests…or have any fear when you see a big Ziploc bag full of clear plastic cups
(5) Days of fasting – in search of your soul’s purpose
(1) Dream of a conversation while you’re getting a haircut in an apartment that was filled with milk crates of old stuff that was brand new, including the first Nintendo, a record player, and a couple different color pairs of Nike ’89 Flights
(1) Strong desire for an existence to have unequivocal worth
(1) Trip to the barber shop to cut off 3 year old dread locks
(1) Righteous brother to break bread with from a “street” point of view of the Bible
(1) Bachelor’s degree with Honors, to go along with a street degree with honors as well
(71) Notebooks
(184) Ball point pens
(1) Cherry sunburst acoustic electric guitar named Rachel Blue
(1) Novel (written in 30 days)
(1) Person beyond you who believes
(2) Interviews with the city paper and the local news
(1) Life-changing performance at Square Cat Vinyl in Fountain Square

“Freedom Within” by Tiffany, volunteer-instructor

I recently gave the men in my class a prompt. What is freedom to you and how do you attain it? I found the men’s answers to be interesting and thought-provoking. A question such as the one I posed lends itself to a myriad of responses, but I felt given their current situation, the idea of freedom might not be as black and white as one would assume for these purported hardened criminals. The following is freedom defined in their own words:

***|
“Freedom, liberty, fair treatment and free from being a captive. Free from slavery and torture. Free from penitentiary, free from depression, free from stress, mind and body free. That is what freedom is.”

***
“Freedom is the right to believe whatever we want. My beliefs are my own, and no one can take them away from me. Right or wrong, good or evil, light or dark – beliefs are what constitute the individual. They form us. Drive us. Define us. Even kill us. We are only free when we believe it to be true. Our loved ones become more bolstered when we believe in them. We become lost when we cease to believe in ourselves.”

***
“People incarcerated say that the only true prison is in your mind, so the only thing that can hold one captive is oneself. Here, imagination is the key to freedom.”

The word freedom can be defined by the dictionary, but I think the idea of freedom is something far greater than the words that define it. To each of us, freedom has a different meaning depending on where we are in life, what we believe, and how we choose to live our lives. Is freedom a physical freedom – the freedom of life beyond prison walls? Is it a mental freedom – one that gets you out of your head, if for only a short time, like a drug clouded consciousness? Is it the release that comes when relentless sin and struggle finally lose its grip and the bad habits that cling to us like unwanted leeches are defeated? Is freedom death for the pain-riddled drug addict or hospice patient, or is it life and the chance to try and live again? Is freedom forgiveness given to the seemingly undeserving, freeing the victim from the bondage of hate? Or, can freedom be found in happiness and a life free from worry, stress, and anxiety? Is freedom attained by shedding the skin that’s grown calloused to the world around us through the lives in which we have walked day in and day out and choosing to be made new? 

When I think of freedom, I think of art. Artistic expression marinates in freedom. The artist is free to choose what they want to create as well as the emotion they want to evoke. The irony and beauty of that process is that the person who views the work has the freedom to interpret it differently. Writing as an art form also gives way for freedom. It allows for the freedom to bare one’s soul and create works of art through words.

The men in IPWW, though not physically free, have the freedom to express themselves through their writing, saying whatever they want and allowing the words buried deep in their bones to emerge and give shape to the written word. Writing is an outlet for these men and a way for freedom to be found inside the walls that contain them. Just as one of the men stated, “[In] here, imagination is the key to freedom.” What better way to give imagination viability than by allowing it freedom to come alive on paper. For writers, imagination fuels us and with heart and soul we create.

In a place where daily decisions and schedules are enforced by someone other than themselves, writing allows the men a sense of normalcy and autonomy. As writers, we allow what’s inside of us to come out be it in the form of fiction, poetry, memoirs, or journal entries, and we embrace words like a close friend or cling to them as if they are our lifeline. We choose how those words are used, whether we share them with others or reread them silently in the safety of our own space. The beauty of writing is that we can touch others with our words if we choose to give freely of our gift, or we free ourselves from the hurts that lie within us by simply writing the words and allowing them to bear our pain. Our words have power and the ability to empower. With every prompt, every journal entry, every homework assignment, the men are allowing writing to empower them to believe in themselves just a little more than they did the day before. Believing in oneself cultivates confidence and with confidence comes the ability to try again no matter the barriers that keep us captive.

For the men inside prison and for those of us who (perhaps hesitantly) call ourselves writers, freedom can be found in the flow of the proverbial fountain pen. It is a fountain of life, flowing freely and moving with intensity. Its strength swells as the words pour out and we are filled with a sense of purpose. We are writing our own stories. Regardless of our circumstances and despite the pages of our lives that are peppered with challenges, we write, because writing allows for freedom for our soul and with that freedom we find peace.

“Friendships” by student-offender

Some might say that I never had any real, true friends left when I came home from the war, and they were probably correct because after I went to prison, they were nowhere to be found. “True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it is gone,” wrote Charles Caleb Colton, and I understood his analogy.

True friendship should never be confused with acquaintances. True friendships are cultivated, matured, and if necessary, tested over time by fire. They are known by their staying power- their willingness to stay when the bottom falls out of a friend’s life. In life, very few true friendships are ever realized. Henry Adams knew this when he wrote, “One friend in a life is much, two are many, three are hardly possible.”

In prison, I met men from all walks of life with different characters, crimes and personalities. They remain, of course, acquaintances who I kept at a distance. But I developed a close friendship with one prisoner named Jay T. Jay had a life sentence, too. We walked the prison yard routinely, and we discussed nearly every aspect of our lives. In prison, Jay met his future wife. When the parole board paroled Jay, I shared his joy. Even after Jay left prison, our friendship held together until Jay died of a heart-attack as he played with his boys on the front lawn. Once again, I felt abandoned.

Jay’s death hit me hard like losing close friends from my Marine Company. During that time, we developed a closeness. We covered each other’s back wherever we went. Since I joined the Marines at the age of seventeen, they became my first adult friends in life. Most of them died in Vietnam in “Operation Star-lite” on August 18, 1965. I tried crying them back into existence.

People who I don’t even know call me friend. In most cases, I don’t even know their names, but they know mine. They hang around like lost puppies, which makes me suspicious. Have people in the 21st century become so overwhelmed with loneliness, I wonder, that they will attach themselves to anyone? I understand that people need a steady diet of closeness to other people or their persona may fade in time like an old pair of worn blue jeans. People need each other to make life work, but they should seek out the few friendships meant for them.

It has been seventeen years since Jay’s death. It seems like yesterday we were walking the prison yard together.