“It’s a gift to exist” by student-offender

Forty-seven years ago, I received a life sentence, and even though I have been eligible for parole for twenty-seven years, I continue to live a restricted life in prison. What does one do if he or she has years or decades on the inside or may not be able to leave?

On this day, I sit on my bunk with my back against the wall, holding my tablet made in China, looking out my window at the forest in back of the prison. I remember when the trees were just shrubs, but now, twenty-three years later, they are giants. In winter, when trees are bare, the squirrel’s nests made of dry, brown leaves are visible in the forks of the trees. I watch them as they run and jump from tree to tree, and I remember a time when I was in the woods squirrel hunting with my Dad and brothers. I felt a deep-down yearning for those days gone by. When watching the forest, I’m able to escape the concrete, brick, and steel that represent the desolate landscape of prison. But my escape is only temporary.

To be clear, prison life is not the only life that lives with restrictions. Everybody’s life is restricted to some degree. In what is allegedly a free society, one cannot jump in his or her car and go as fast as they want because there are speed limits. Neither can one take in the good life without paying for it. Nothing is free in our capitalist society. For a roof over your head, food to eat, and bills paid, one must work. Otherwise, you will become homeless, hungry, and indebted to life. There are, of course, greater restricts on the prisoner’s life. No intimacy with the opposite sex and no decision-making over one’s personal life are among the most severe. These two restrictions took some getting used to, but neither one brought life to a screeching halt. Restrictions can weigh heavy on our lives, but they do not change the living, breathing nature of life. Life is life no matter where one lives.

So, “What does one do?” One thing I do is I keep hope alive in my life. Hope is vital to prisoners doing decades in prison. Hope makes me believe in the impossible; it reminds me to never give up, and it enables me to go on. For decades I have hoped for a better life. I realize that a better life may never come, but still, I keep on hoping and I keep doing the very best I can with what life I have. When I came home from Vietnam, my hope was shattered. I suffered from full-blown, chronic PTSD-documented by the VA. I had problems coping and adjusting to life. Consequently, I committed a horrible crime that left me facing the death penalty. It was then that I realized the hypocrisy in America’s promises to veterans who fought to protect her. She sent me to war where it was kill or be killed, she abandoned me at home to face the demons of war alone, and when I failed and could not cope with the horrors of war, she wanted to execute me. Despite that realization, my hope never wavered, and before my trial began, the death penalty was struck down as being unconstitutional. Afterwards, I was put in prison for the rest of my life as if America was bound and determined to hide her hypocrisy from public view. Concerning hope, I have seen that warehousing prisoners for life without a glimmer of hope is not only wrong but cruel, and that it’s contrary to God’s will towards humanity.

I have had faith in a higher power throughout my life. Out of his abundance of mercy, he shielded me from the death penalty. I was not surprised. In Vietnam, he protected me from death as fellow Marines standing by me were shot dead. 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 preparing to climb. I stepped aside, and the three-thousand-pound pole that was set too shallow fell over and crushed him to death. I felt horror-stricken and confused as I watched emergency-workers lift the pole up and cut his toolbelt to dislodge his body from the pole. In prison, I’ve seen men stabbed, beaten, and burned to death. But in forty-seven years, I have not received as much as a scratch. I do know why he blesses me, but I faith.

During my long stay in prison, I have been blessed with an unwavering family. They never forgot me. Their love is constantly shown in all that they do. They still support me with “icare” food gifts. They keep money on my phone account. Pictures and emails arrive regularly. The first few years in prison were the hardest on me. They worried about me constantly. Learning prison routines, schedules, and rules, getting used to the constant noise, meeting new people, which is always stressful, finding out who to hang with and avoid – it all takes time. Unfortunately, most prisoners come up short when it comes to family, and family is necessary if a prisoner doing decades is going to survive. Speaking of surviving, I make my escape to the forest.

The forest is beautiful. In the spring, the trees begin to bud, and in the summer, buds turn into shiny, green leaves. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange and red before giving up and falling off, leaving the trees barren again. In the dying and regeneration of leaves on the trees in the forest, I see the nature of humanity. In the evenings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the sweet, tender shoots of grass that grown alongside the road that lies in the front of the forest. If I’m lucky – Mama may bring her two fawns out with her for me to see.

“The Butterfly with the broken wing” by student-offender

There was once a butterfly with a broken wing who struggled to stay alive in a world that sought to make its existence invalid. Null and void. All the other insects told him how useless he was, being that he had a broken wing. Some of the insects admired the beauty of his color but they would never admit it in front of the rest of the insects. Instead, they secretly envied his beauty and wished they were as beautiful as him. Some who knew the transition he made from an ugly caterpillar never missed an opportunity to remind him that they knew him “before” his transformation. They poked fun at his change and said that they liked him better when he was just another worm. But he ignored their comments and continued to build upon his strength so that one day his wing would heal and he could fly away from all the negative energy of his present environment.

Coming out of the cocoon that gave birth to his new image, the other insects told him he wasn’t any better than them; which he knew, but he also knew he was different. One day another butterfly was flying over him and as he looked up, he saw the grace and majestic manner in which it flew. He wished he could do the same. The other butterfly landed close enough to see him.

“Why aren’t you flying? Why are you down here walking around like the regular bugs?” the butterfly asked.

“Because my wing is broken so I can’t fly,” he replied. The other butterfly examined his wings and laughed.

“Who told you that your wing was broken?” she asked.

“All of the bugs walking around down here, and I’ve heard it for so long that I believed it,” he replied.

The other butterfly smiled, stopping for a moment before flying off.

“Your wing isn’t broken, but when you listen to other people’s value and opinion of you, especially those who don’t want to see you grow, you do yourself a grave disservice and you’ll never reach the heights of your true potential.”

At that point the butterfly who thought he had a broken wing flapped his wings and took flight for the first time. He saw the world and life from a new point of view, while leaving the negative insects and bugs who once made fun of him in the mud and dirt, where they belonged.

Dedicated to my granddaughter Khalani A.

“Revolution” by student-offender

A prison revolution erupted in 1973 at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana. It came swiftly and without warning. As a prisoner and witness to that revolt, I can say unequivocally that activist Emma Goldman was correct when she said, “No real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution…”

A gray building and a large wall blocks the view of the street was my home. Steel and concrete are depressing. Inside the large cellhouse are five stories of cells. I was in the C-cellhouse. In front of the cells lay a five-foot wide concrete walkway known as “the range” with high railing that run the length of the range to prevent prisoners from falling off.  Each cell has a toilet and sink, a chain and a lock. The chain and lock allow a prisoner the comfort of securing his own cell. The noise level in a cellhouse housing 400 rowdy souls yelling, laughing and talking can sometimes be overwhelming. Only at night, when the body gives up to rest could one know the feeling of peace but it would be short lived because morning always comes.

Tensions in 1973 grew. Prisoners had tried discussing a long list of grievances with prison officials but they fell on deaf ears. In time, it became obvious to prisoners that no one cared, and prisoners felt that guards continued to treat them as less than human. Cries in the night ranked among the most serious grievances reported to prison officials. Even worse, guards had masqueraded as nurses, a terrible sewage smell emanated from the kitchen, and prisoners were found in hung in cold, dark, isolated cells with their hands tied behind committing suicide according to prison officials. At the time I thought, how could anyone look in the mirror, knowing they had let another human being die in agony? I felt hopeless, but back then the reality was guards did not consider prisoners human beings.

Suddenly, a group of armed prisoners entered C-cellhouse. I stood on the range in front of my cell after chow waiting on lockdown to be called but no call came. Unbeknownst to me, a group of armed prisoners had entered the cellhouse and took the guards hostage. The front door was barricaded with fifty-five gallon containers filled with water. No one was coming in and no one was going out. I sensed something was amiss as the normal rhythm in the cellhouse changed. Proof of that change came when a prisoner was running down the range yelling like Paul Revere when the British were coming, “They took over the cellhouse, they took over the cellhouse!” he screamed. I stopped him and asked, “Who took over the cellhouse?” He replied, “We took over the cellhouse, the prisoners.” I felt sickened and thought to myself, we my ass. I’m not taking over anything. I’m more of the pen is mightier than the sword kind of guy. I’m not about knives and hostages. Messages flowed steadily with the latest updates. I soon learned that all cellhouses had been taken over and that prisoners controlled the entire prison.

Those who led the revolution knew what they were doing. They immediately realized the importance of keeping the hostages safe. Some in the cellhouse wanted to harm them but the revolutionary leaders locked them in cells and assigned armed prisoners to protect them. While negotiations went on, prisoners made signs using bed sheets and black paint which read: We want to speak with the media and want to be treated humanely. Signs hung at the top of the cellhouse and out the windows for the public and media to see. Other armed prisoners patrolled the cellhouse and kept the peace. From my time in the Marine Corp and Vietnam, I recognized a well-planned operation.

The revolution continued for days and hunger began to set in. Not everyone had food and those who did held on to it. The Governor got involved. Negotiations continued. Then, an agreement was made with the Governor included no reprisals against prisoners but it was dependent solely on whether or not the hostages were released unharmed. When word spread that the hostages had been released, pandemonium set in and Paul Revere was again on the ranges yelling, “Put your mattresses in front of your doors to protect yourself.” Everyone believed officers would come in shooting. In the hysteria that followed, I grabbed my thin mattress and placed it in front of my cell door. As I stood there, hidden behind my mattress I thought: What in the hell am I doing – no thin mattress was going to stop a shotgun blast. I took the mattress down, put it back on my bed and laid on it. Guards did come in but without guns. They took a head count and passed out bologna sandwiches. 

After extensive negotiations, an agreement was reached with the Governor. He promised that leaders would be treated fairly and unharmed. Social changes began to take place. Prison guards had to attend mandatory training classes on how to treat prisoners with respect. Guards had to respond to cries in the night and they had to log them in a log book. Qualified nurses were hired at the hospital. And deaths in cold, dark isolated cells were under investigation. Life at the state prison improved for the good of all because of the revolution and because of the courage of the revolutionary leaders who took a bold step to right the wrongs being done to prisoners.

“The Return” by Branden A.

After spending eighteen years in prison, I felt like a baby bird taking his initial flight. I now had the entire universe to explore at my own free will. It was exhilarating, a feeling of being uncaged and free, but what was I coming home to?

Branden A., writer

Hired by the Indiana State Hospital within two days of release, I was making a living by working at a temp agency in the food service department. With my family and childhood friends in my corner, I felt hopeful about my future but the lights beyond the prison walls aren’t always bright.

I saw darkness. Humanity didn’t progress while I was gone, it declined.

Technology baffled me to the point of great confusion. I didn’t know how to email or tackle the basic things people take for granted.

Also, my hometown had become a war zone. My nieces and nephews had grown up alone – the cycle of incarceration – ever present in their lives. In my neighborhood, drugs were still there and the dealing game was strong. A lot of my childhood friends were still caught up in that life. I had to learn to distance myself from them. The lifestyle breeds jealousy, greed and criminal activity. It was still around me.

In addition to technology and the streets, I had a tough time adjusting to my work environment. I was lied to, passed over for opportunities of advancement and felt undervalued. I realized that everything I had learned in prison – studying culinary arts and receiving certificates – didn’t matter in the workforce because of office politics: who you know, and what you’re willing to do. Stress and anxiety weighed me down.

I quit my job with no safety net to harness my fall.

Two months had passed without employment and it tested my core but also revealed something – how I can endure – especially after almost two decades of incarceration. Still, I was completely broke, broken and embarrassed. I stayed in my house for two weeks, too embarrassed leave. I dove into my safe space, searching inside myself for answers. 

I shared my disappointments with my mom. I began to set boundaries with friends and started to build up the confidence I had developed in prison. With a change of mindset, I was now ready to forge ahead, and move at my own pace, feeling out the culture like a blind man reading braille.  I discovered a harsh truth: freedom isn’t free. To be free means sacrificing on a level I was not used to. I was used to feeling important and needed. It was my biggest adjustment.

This made me question who I was on the outside. It wasn’t easy.

While my prison neighbors (grown men with kids and wives who had once upon a time had ordinary lives) held monkey-style wars, I read. While the light in my cell stayed on for 24-hours and flickered a neon glow on my face, I learned. I continued to stick with it once I was released. I contacted my writing teacher to figure out how to continue to rise in my new environment. I wanted to build on the spark ignited while on the inside.

My sanctuary had become writing and I needed it now more than ever.

While in prison, I started writing on a serious level. I had a lifetime pass in the prison library where I spend an agonizing four years in solitary confinement and where there are only two choices: grow or give up. My choice was always to grow.

Within a month of being released from prison and through the work with the writing workshop, I was asked to do talks and readings in Indianapolis, including radio shows and writing contests, and people in my life were amazed with pride. How did the neighborhood knucklehead become a voice and community leader? How did a man that knows nothing about this day and age come home and change a community vibe by just being present? I had once been a street thug with no deep understanding of who I was, trapped in my warped sense of pride.

Was it the talk with my mentor, Mr. Sams, before he was released from prison? He showed me how one can make a difference by solely believing in himself as well as in others? Or, was it the writing teacher, Mrs. Deb, who had sparked a greater purpose of change because I could now could see the special talent that was talked about? This gave me a vessel to hone my voice. Or, did it take me getting kicked out of one prison and sent to another facility within less than six months of my release? I had been labeled a notorious gang leader. It could have been the loss of my father and big sister while gone that was a wake-up call to my soul. I missed too many events. It was time to see the light and be the light, to shine.

Maybe it was a combination of all the people who lifted me up.

My neighborhood is filled with pockets of meth, heroin and pills that was once dominated by crack rock and cocaine but it doesn’t mean I am a product of it. I’ve come too far for to go back. My worst ordeal – imprisonment – made me the best version of myself. I took time to reflect, learn and grow. Without the downfalls, I wouldn’t know which way was up. I’m showing the world how to live, love and smile through adversity. I was gone for a long time but now I have returned.

“Pain” by student-offender

Booze helped ease the pain I felt inside. In my state of mind, I didn’t understand how the pain came to be but only that it clung to my life like a millstone around my neck ever pulling me down deeper into darkness.

Over the years, the pain I once felt inside subsided. It moved from a hole inside where it once hid to a place of open sorrow for what happened. Time heals most things – they say – but I’m not convinced of that because an innocent man still lost his life and that cannot be given back. Later, the Veteran’s Administration diagnosed me as suffering full-blown, chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the War at the time of the crime. Even so, I will spend the rest of my life being sorry not only because I let humanity down, but also because of the loss of innocent life.

“Revolution” by student-offender

A prison revolution erupted in 1973 at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana. It came swiftly and without warning. As a prisoner and witness to that revolt, I can say unequivocally that activist Emma Goldman was correct when she said, “No real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution…”

I lived in C-cellhouse on M-range in cell 19. A gray building and a large wall blocks the view of the street. Steel and concrete are depressing. Inside the large cellhouse are five stories of cells. In front of the cells lay a five-foot wide concrete walkway called “the range” with high railing that run the length of the range to prevent prisoners from falling off.  Each cell has a toilet and sink and a chain and a lock. The chain and lock allows a prisoner the comfort of securing his own cell. The noise level in a cellhouse housing 400 rowdy souls yelling, laughing, and talking can sometimes be overwhelming. Only at night, when the body gave up to rest could one know the feeling of peace, but it would be short lived because the morning comes.

Tensions in 1973 grew. Prisoners had tried discussing a long list of grievances with prison officials, but they fell on deaf ears. In time, it became obvious to prisoners that no one cared, and prisoners felt that guards continued to treat them as less than human. Cries in the night ranked among the most serious grievances reported to prison officials. Even worse, guards had masqueraded as nurses, a terrible sewage smell emanated from the kitchen, and prisoners were found in hung in cold, dark, isolated cells with their hands tied behind committing suicide according to prison officials. At the time I thought: how could anyone look in the mirror, knowing they had let another human being die in agony. I felt hopeless, but the reality was – back then – guards did not consider prisoners human beings.

Suddenly, a group of armed prisoners entered C-cellhouse. I stood on the range in front of my cell after chow “meal time” waiting on lockdown to be called, but no call came. Unbeknownst to me, a group of armed prisoners had entered the cellhouse and took the guards hostage. The front door was now barricaded with fifty-five gallon containers filled with water. No one was coming in and no one was going out. I sensed something was wrong as the normal rhythm in the cellhouse changed. Proof of that change came when a prisoner was running down the range yelling like Paul Revere when the British were coming, “They took over the cellhouse, they took over the cellhouse!” he screamed. I stopped him and asked, “Who took over the cellhouse?” He replied, “We took over the cellhouse – the prisoners.” I felt sickened and thought to myself, we my ass. I’m not taking over anything. I’m more of the pen is mightier than the sword kind of guy. I’m not about knives and hostages. Messages flowed steadily with the latest updates. I soon learned that all cellhouse had been taken over and that prisoners controlled the entire prison.

Those who led the revolution knew what they were doing. They immediately realized the importance of keeping the hostages safe. Some in the cellhouse wanted to harm them, but the revolutionary leaders locked them in cells and assigned armed prisoners to protect them. While negotiations went on, prisoners made signs using bed sheets and black paint which read: We want to speak with the media and we want to be treated humanely. Signs hung at the top of the cellhouse and out the windows for public and media to see. Other armed prisoners patrolled the cellhouse and kept the peace. From my time in the Marine Corp and Vietnam, I recognized a well-planned operation.

The revolution continued for days and hunger began to set in. Not everyone had food and those who did held on to it. The Governor got involved. Negotiations continued. Then, an agreement was made with the Governor included no reprisals against prisoners, but it was dependent solely on whether or not the hostages were released unharmed. When word spread that the hostages had been released, pandemonium set in and Paul Revere was again on the ranges yelling, “Put your mattresses in front of your doors to protect yourself.” Everyone believed officers would come in shooting. In the hysteria that followed, I grabbed my thin mattress and placed it in front of my cell door. As I stood there, hidden behind my mattress, I thought: What the hell am I doing – no thin mattress was going to stop a shotgun blast. I took the mattress down, put it back on my bed, and laid on it. Guards did come in, but without guns. They took a head count and passed out bologna sandwiches. 

After extensive negotiations, an agreement was reached with the Governor. He promised that leaders would be treated fairly and not harmed. Social changes began to take place. Prison guards had to attend mandatory training classes on how to treat prisoners with respect. Guards had to respond to cries in the night and they had to log them in a log book. Qualified nurses were hired at the hospital. In the kitchen, a sewage truck came weekly to pump out kitchen sewage lines. And deaths in cold, dark isolated cells were under investigation. Life at the state prison improved for the good of all because of the revolution and because of the courage of the revolutionary leaders, who took a bold step to right the wrongs being done to prisoners.

“Firefighters” by Kristina, volunteer instructor

“Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow.” -Terry Real

This quote was recently shared with me by a friend, after I had shared a story of personal struggle. A family can mean your actual, DNA-sharing family, or it can mean your work family, your close knit group of friends, your church family, your in-laws, or maybe a “substitute” family, if you become estranged or moved away from your own. When revisiting the quote this morning, what I thought of is my national family, or my fellow Americans.

One of my favorite authors, Brene’ Brown, has stated “The hallmark of true belonging is dissent.” I think this is where we, as Americans, need to have the courage to turn and “face the flames” as Terry Real so eloquently states. For years, decades, and even generations, we have become so overly identified with our political views that we seem to be losing our national identity. So much so, that the term “nationalism” has taken on a negative connotation, associated with not just support of our nation or patriotism, but with exclusion of others. It’s confusing to think of America, the place that welcomes “the homeless…tired…poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as a nation of people clinging so desperately to our own ideology that we’ve lost our connection with each other.

It has taken 25 years for many people to acknowledge the damage the 1994 crime bill did to our nation. These laws had a powerful effect on economically vulnerable communities and led to mass incarceration. Most people in prison are there for drug-related and non-violent offenses, even as more and more states legalize or decriminalize drug possession. There is overwhelming research that rehabilitation, not punishment, is most effective in improving outcomes for substance abuse. Yet it still seems it’s much more common that those struggling with addiction end up in the criminal justice system, instead of receiving substance abuse treatment.

I believe that with all of the hot button topics people argue about on social media and in the news, reforming our criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration is an opportunity for all of us, as an American family, to have the courage to face the flames. We need more politicians to admit they got it wrong, we need more people in the criminal justice system to admit there is a problem, and we need more Americans demanding change. This is how we heal from the past and this is how we better the future for our children. It is not a political issue. It is a human rights issue. It is a national issue. How we treat the poor, disenfranchised, homeless, and tired masses is a reflection of the soul of America. Previous generations told us to make decisions based on fear. If we decide to treat these people with love instead, imagine the healing that would provide for all of us. Imagine if someone struggling with addiction was met with compassion, instead of confinement. Imagine if we were responsible for reuniting families, healing communities, and decreasing rates of addiction. The cascade of impact this would have on future generations is immeasurable. All it takes is choosing courage over complacency; letting go of fear and choosing love.

I’m ending this post with the same quote. I find the more times I read it, the deeper meaning it seems to hold.

“Family dysfunction rolls down from generation to generation like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person in one generation has the courage to turn and face the flames. That person brings peace to their ancestors and spares the children that follow.” -Terry Real

“Nourishment” by student-offender

 In prison, or any other place for that matter, we do what we can for others – at least that is my prayer.

When in early 2019, illness swept the Nation, I got it. I thought it was the flu, but a nurse at the hospital said it was something else. Who really knows what the hell it was? I was ill for a month and went through two regiments of antibiotics before getting over it. Consequently, I knew firsthand the misery of the illness.

Then, early one morning I noticed my friend James, “Preacher” by nickname, was ill. They called him Preacher because he never stopped talking. I worked with Preacher for years at the prison. He worked as a maintenance man and I worked in the office as a clerk. He was a standup guy, a man of his word, and dependable – all qualities in a person that mean a lot – especially in prison. He was a handsome fella and stood 5’11” and at 51 he exhibited good physical strength. Tattoos covered his arms. He rarely cut his foot-long, brown hair but pulled it straight back into a pony-tail. His face was always clean shaven. And what I thought was a remarkable trait, even when he felt bad, he smiled. I couldn’t do that. How the hell do you smile when you’re ill?

My friend had been ill for about ten days and from looking at his red face, runny nose, and watery eyes, I could tell he felt terrible. I knew he had not eaten a hot meal for days, when in fact eating would have made him feel better. If he was like me, when I was ill, I was hungry, but didn’t have the energy to cook. His slow-pace and droopy shoulders revealed his struggle, and I would help him.

Preacher worked nights doing in-house laundry, so he was up working throughout the night and me, I was an early riser. Since I had the means, I decided to cook him breakfast. In my possession was hard-boiled eggs and sausage. I often purchased eggs and sausages from the prison’s Fresh Favorite program that allows prisoners with money to buy special food items. Although eggs and sausages may not be special foods in the free world, they are special in prison.

I pulled two eggs and cut them in half. Then, I cut a sausage into four thick strips. After that, I placed them on styrofoam, I warmed them in the microwave. Sausage-cooling-aroma filled the room reminding some of breakfasts passed. I added bread and grape-Jelly to the tray.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Preacher watching me off and on and he folded clothes, sniffed, and occasionally drew his hankie to blow his nose. When I approached him try in hand, he said with a smile, “You’re going to eat good ain’t you brother?” I handed him the tray and said, “No – but you are.” He was grateful as he ate. He couldn’t thank me enough, and even though his eyes were watery, I saw tears in them. My blessing, of course, was that the Lord allowed me to give a gift of breakfast to a friend.

“Embracing Humanity” by Tiffany, volunteer instructor

The man across from me is covered from head to toe in typical tattoo green. At first glance, his appearance is slightly alarming, but I try to get past the ink and meet his eyes with intentionality. I want him to know he’s heard and known. He tells me the reason he is taking this class is because “with writing people don’t see you they only see your words so they can’t judge you by your appearance” and that’s something he has gotten a lot of in his life.

He says, “Look at me.”

There is both power and desperation in those words. He knows his past choices of outward expression will come at a cost, but as he writes the words that are bottled up inside him, he’s able to do so without judgement. Instead, people will read his words and see his heart. One of the greatest truths I’ve learned in life is what matters most is on the inside and not what’s on the outside, and for those living life on the inside that truth takes on a whole new meaning.

A young man clad in khaki and covered in art shares hesitantly at first – the words coming out of his mouth are guarded, but filled with description, emotion, and hurt reserved only for those who have experienced true pain. It’s authentic. What he reads sounds like something a college English major would have spent a week preparing, but he has allowed his soul to spill out in the form of ink on paper in only 15 minutes. It is a talent, a God-given gift. But most won’t see it because he is a criminal. To the state, he’s nothing but a six digit number. The men in prison know this. Their reactions when someone treats them like a human is surprise, because behind walls and razor wire fences humanity is lost.

I think the majority of the population does believe it’s a “lock them up and throw away the key” scenario, but I can’t, and I refuse to see it that way. These are men, albeit thieves, addicts, drug dealers and murderers, they are also someone’s son, father, brother, husband, grandfather or uncle. They are more than a number, they are a name, they are a person – a person with gifts and talents that are hidden away and silenced behind concrete walls. Reading their work can be like finding a gem in the midst of rubble. Their words evoke emotion and remind me that even though they may live their life behind bars, we both feel grief, love, anger, and shame and battle similar demons. One of my student-offenders said, “Being a prisoner isn’t just defined to one that is incarcerated; we are all prisoners at one point in time. To ourselves, or to the expectations of those around us. It’s a burden all people endure, all people despise, yet few people ever learn to escape.” How true. It’s not sympathy I have for these men, it’s empathy. Despite the crime that has put them there, we are both plagued with those vexatious questions of self-worth and purpose.

Having served as a volunteer with the Indiana Department of Corrections for six years I find myself at ease with the interaction of strangers dressed in jumpsuits. I’ve seen this before – a hardened exterior but with eyes pleading to be seen and heard. I’ve watched these men be vulnerable even though they know vulnerability in prison can be high stakes. I’ve heard them share their stories and I’ve read their private thoughts, fears, and memories and that simple ideological thread of humanity runs through the tapestry of their writings. I know the term humanity is grappled with, contemplated, and reworked to try to fit the mold of the man they see staring back at them in the broken bathroom mirror. Is it possible humanity no longer applies to those on the inside? A question posed by one of my student-offenders gives me pause. He said, “Am I really not worth fighting for? Do my negatives trump all of the positives in my life?”

People often ask me why I volunteer in the prisons. Isn’t that dangerous? Wouldn’t that be depressing? Are they receptive to you being there?Their concerns are valid, and I would answer yes to all three of those questions. Prison can be a dangerous place, but I’ve never felt afraid. In fact, it’s been just the opposite. I’ve felt acceptance. It can be depressing, but it can also be a place where a simple conversation can bring joy amidst suffering. And I can say whole heartedly that my being there matters to them. Every group I’ve worked with has shown nothing but gratefulness and appreciation, especially when they know I am a volunteer and I’m not getting paid to be there. They realize I am spending time with them when I could be with my family; a luxury they no longer have. They may not know the hours I spent driving or the time I’ve put into preparing for the class, but the one thing they do know is how I’ve made them feel – like they matter. Kindness, compassion and humanity. The thing that brings me back and has fueled my passion for prison work is the friendships that I have formed with those on the inside. I love getting to know the inmates – who they are, their life stories, and, if they choose to be so vulnerable, the reason they sit behind those bars. I want them to know someone cares, someone hears the words they say, and sees them as a human being. They are people with uniquely personal stories that have the ability to reach other lost souls and inspire hope.

I don’t pretend to know their lives or their hurts or the journey that they have taken, I only choose to try to understand it and empathize with it. So, I embrace the time I am so privileged to spend with these talented men – these writers – and I listen as their words bring emotional release and, in turn, a sense of sought after freedom.

“Don’t judge people for the choices they make when you don’t know the options they had to choose from.” -TobyMac

Tiffany Leininger, Indiana Prison Writers Workshop volunteer instructor

“Hummingbirds” by Kristina, volunteer instructor

 I listened to a speech recently by Elizabeth Gilbert about the power of people who are “hummingbirds.” For years she had given motivational speeches about pursuing one’s passion. What she had failed to realize was that not everyone has found their passion, despite months, years, or even decades of searching. She discussed the beauty of chasing our curiosities instead and that sometimes this is how we find our true passion.

And sometimes not having a passion is how we enrich the world. Like a hummingbird, persistently moving from one flower to another, nourishing itself with every flavor, some of us have moved from one hobby or interest to another, and came away with knowledge and skills that many people do not possess. While having one passion to pursue is a beautiful, sustaining goal, Ms. Gilbert encourages us to let go of this obsession with having a passion, and follow our curiosity. This talk was very affirming for me, as I strongly related to the “hummingbird” people she described.

I feel comfortable now saying that writing is my passion. It has taken me a long time to get there. I have felt pulled in many directions throughout life, as evidenced by my education first in psychology, then in nursing. I’ve also pursued numerous self-taught hobbies like playing guitar, sewing, or cake-baking, all things in which I am still barely proficient. It is also scary to pursue my passion. What if I fail? What if I tell the world that I want to be a writer, that I have written things and submitted things and tried to convince people to pay me for the things I’ve written, and it doesn’t pan out? Am I still a writer if none of my writing ever sees the light of day?

Being part of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop has helped me with answering some of these questions. None of these men have ever been paid to write anything, and few have submitted work or had work published. Many do not plan on being a writer. It is something they enjoy. It helps them cope with life. Yet I see them all as writers.

They show up every class, eager to listen and learn, eager to share their own writing with others, and eager to write. They write therefore they are writers. They are teaching me how to be a writer too. Publishing credits or dollar amounts for word counts or accepted submissions be damned. When I have something to say, I will pull out my notepad or laptop. I will get it all out quickly, furiously, passionately- engrossed in those moments when there is nothing else I should be doing. I will put it away and come back later, pretending I’m an editor, a reader, a mother, a stranger. When every version of me nods their head in approval, I will save it and send it into the world. I will show up to every class and encourage them to do the same. We write therefore we are writers.

I would encourage everyone to go find this short speech whether you’ve found your passion or not. It is available on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, via Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations Podcast, titled “Elizabeth Gilbert: The Curiosity-Driven Life.”