“Felony” by Danny S.

“Have you been convicted of a felony?” I have found these words to be the most vicious words said to me since my release in February of this year. I sat there, once again, defeated as I typed in the answer to that question, knowing what the response would be: “How long ago?”

“Twenty-eight years ago,” I reply.

Then I do my best to give them the elevator speech I was taught in my pre-release classes. Abruptly, I receive an answer of: “What were your convictions?”

Feeling the sense of defeat turn to agitation, I remain calm as I answer, “At the age of 16, I was convicted of murder and robbery. I served 28 years and have recently been released.”

I am tempted to terminate the e-mail interview at this point because I dread the response I know will come. Within minutes, I see: I’m sorry, sir, we cannot hire you with a robbery conviction.

I thank them for their time knowing that they will likely not even read the last message I have sent. I turn to my notepad that has the many qualifications and notes I have made preparing for this interview and add a hashmark in the margin that indicates my 92nd denial for work due to a nearly 30-year-old crime.

I am once again filled with shame and loathing for myself and my past. As a dark cloud threatens my mind and all of the stability I have built there, I take a deep breath and start typing again. I remember my path, my mistakes, and my anger. I remember how easy it is to give up and live in those moments. Yet, I also remember people I barely knew cheering me on as I prepared for my release and how they were there to help as I struggled to change and understand the world.

In my darkest times, the memories I have are of the men left standing in that dark place wishing and hoping for that one chance to be free and thinking of all the mistakes they wouldn’t repeat again. My resolve hardens as I send yet another e-mail. I will make it. I will survive and prevail, if not for myself then for the man I once was who sat in misery wishing, hoping, and waiting for that one chance to be free again.

“My Favorite Meal And A Fight” by B. Adams

Prisoners put a lot of emphasis on food because, in prison, food is the number one priority. We wake planning the day’s meals and we go to sleep thinking about tomorrow’s possibilities. Like everything else you get what you pay for. Believe me when I say: It is a rare occurrence to get a good meal.

I watched the menu – a four week cycle – posted on the wall of the housing unit, with diligence for the few good meals Aramark served including my favorite meal. My favorite meal consisted of chicken patty, macaroni and cheese, whole kernel corn, salad, and bread pudding for dessert. I recall one time when my favorite meal was scheduled to be served then I laid down and fell asleep. When I woke and realized I had missed it, I was pissed, not only because I had missed my favorite meal, but also because I had to eat a chicken Ramen noodle soup. Now my favorite meal was being served again.

This time, I was bound and determined not to miss it.

On this day after being released to go to chow, I entered the front doors of the prisoner’s dining room. The dining room has two large arrays of twenty-four stainless-steel tables, one array on the right in the front of the doors and one array on the left near the serving window. An array of tables consisted of three four-man tables welded together and bolted to the floor so that nothing moved. As I entered the dining room, I felt confident that all was well. Nothing appeared amiss, although as a seasoned prisoner I knew what things could change in the blink-of-an-eye. I stayed on full alert.

I made my way around the wall of the dining room to the serving window where I received my tray. I sat down at the second row of tables in the array next to the serving window with my back to the front doors. That was unusual for me because I always faced the front so I could see what and who was coming and going. The food looked and smelt delicious. I had just taken my first bite when I detected that the rhythm in the dining room suddenly changed from a normal tempo to a hurried tempo. Looking up, I noticed that everyone directed their attention to the area near the front door. Instinctively, I knew it was bad news and I began eating faster. Only during the chewing stage of eating did I twist around on my stainless-steel seat to see three prisoners fighting. They were throwing blows in every direction and moving fast, and I could not tell, between bites, who was fighting who. I twisted back around to my tray and began eating faster.

I knew that any moment guards would run in and either run us out or start spraying mace. I waited a long time for this meal and I thought: I’m going to eat it even if it kills me. I filled my mouth, again, with food and while chewing I twisted back around to watch the fight. While chewing, I asked, “Is that Essex?” By this time, all manners about not talking with your mouth full were out the window. Essex was in my creative writing class and living the honor dorm and I couldn’t imagine him being involved in a fight like this.

Someone said, “Yes, that is Essex.”

When the guards ran in, they stood facing the fighters with mace in their hands and yelled for them to lie on the floor. Essex still had the poor albino guy by the head. He wouldn’t turn him loose and went to the floor with him.

A big, fat female guard sprayed him with mace. It shot out in a wide, reddish-purple stream. The effects of it soon saturated the entire dining room. Prisoners ran to the back of the dining room choking and coughing. I had only a slight cough but kept eating my favorite meal. I looked around my table and everyone was gone except for one guy. He said, “You can tell who has had tear gas training in the military from those who haven’t,” and then he left. I finished my meal and twisted around to watch. Essex still had the poor albino by the head even after being soaked with mace. The guard pulled out a taser gun that gave out an electrical shock and tasered him. He screamed like a wild Comanche and turned the albino loose. The guards took the three fighters away. I reasoned the mace hadn’t bothered me because of my years in the military. I walked to the back of the dining room where everyone else stood coughing and choking. The dining room was a mess with half eaten trays left everywhere. I remembered thinking: It’s going to take some time to clean up this mess.

The guard opened the back door and let us out. Fresh air filled my lungs. It felt good. As I walked back to my housing unit, I felt content about having finished my favorite meal.

“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