“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 Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) 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 wholeheartedly 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.”

“In my mind” by student-offender

I’ve noticed with age that I’ve acquired an “I don’t give a damn attitude” when someone, anyone, interferes in my every day life. If I go to use the bathroom and someone is in my favorite spot, I instinctively add them to my hate list. Oh yes, I didn’t always have a hate list, and I’m not sure when or where it came from, but I have one now. Being of an older age, I don’t walk as fast as others do on commissary day. The ones that pass me up in what I consider to be passing in a “rude” way, I put them on my hate list. Recently, I learned that I also take people off the hate list for good deeds done. One who passed me up on commissary day, damn near ran me over, spoke kindly to me this morning about my gray cat, Roger. I took him off the hate list specifically thinking “he’s not a bad guy.” Before that, unbeknownst to him, I hated him every time I saw him.

“I remember” by Kristina, volunteer instructor

Security felt like a breeze with my shiny new volunteer badge. No invisible hand stamp, no running back out to my car because I forgot my driver’s license again. First class of the newest 12-week session, and though I’ve been in multiple times alone, it feels a little different now. This is the first session that I’m leading from the start. I’m on my own.  

The shininess of my new badge was a pleasant distraction from my nervousness. I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether most students from the last class would return (I hoped they would) or if new students would join us (I hoped they would). We had gotten into a comfortable rhythm with the small group we had. I didn’t know how things would flow with new members or with a larger group. I debated over how many self evaluations to print for our first class. I settled on fourteen, which I thought was an overly optimistic number. 

That evening, fifteen men crowded onto plastic chairs, the circle widening as more and more men entered the room. I was relieved to see most of the guys from our last session had stayed on for this one. Nine new men had crowded in as well, looking expectant and curious, some looking a little nervous as well.

After introductions and a short review of class expectations, we jumped into our first prompt. I chose a popular list prompt, where we start with “I remember” then write whatever comes after that. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and I’ve used it often to get going when I’m feeling stuck. I thought it would be an approachable initiation for those just joining the class, since we had various levels of writers joining us, from those who had never written to some who had been writing since childhood.

New class members and old ones rose to the challenge. I was pleasantly surprised at how willingly the newest students shared their writing. They remembered fourth grade fights, favorite songs, first jobs, and moments of joy, surprise, or profound loss. They reported memories that surprised them, and memories that were nostalgic for times long gone and futures no longer possible. One man recalled imagining in his younger years that this time in his life would be spent with his grandchildren, instead of sitting in a chow hall with dozens of other men every day. Another remembered the joy and innocence of childhood, and his was a written prayer that this innocence would remain in his child longer than it had remained in his own life.            

Later, when reflecting on class while preparing to write this post, I decided to get started by trying my hand at an “I remember” prompt of my own. So in the spirit of sharing as openly as these men did, I’ll share my own here.

I Remember

I remember taking freedom for granted. I remember driving by the prison in my hometown as a child and trying to imagine the bodies hidden inside the cinder block walls- what it would look like if the buildings were lifted like a lid, revealing men sleeping in bunks or heads hanging, hovering above their knees. Men sitting on the toilet or avoiding the aged mirror while washing their hands. I remember thinking I’d never survive that kind of captivity; I had believed it was dangerous and soul-sucking and maddening, and I was sure I didn’t have the grit necessary to come out alive. I remember realizing that prison can be every bit as dangerous and maddening, but that it can also be a place of hope. I remember meeting 10 men in an oversized visitor’s room and reading hope in their words. I remember feeling trusted with that hope and feeling like I could be part of it. I remember the lessons they have taught me at each visit. I remember them long after I’ve left them behind. Men in various states of existence, carrying on behind those cinder block walls. Some feeling hopeful. Some feeling forgotten. But I remember.


This is part of  a 12-week series that writer Kristina O’Connor will contribute to documenting her progress in the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop.

“Reward system” by student-offender

Owen was obsessed with the little stickers that college football teams put on their helmets. Over the course of the season, players received these stickers for their accomplishments. Owen didn’t have a clue what the specifics were, or if the reward system was individual or team-based? Season after season, as the unquestionable summer sunshine gave way to the crunchy crumbling of orange and brown and yellow leaves of fall- Owen felt like nobody cared but him. Would each tackle by the defense produce a sticker? Or just sacks on the quarterback? Forced fumbles? Owen grew tired of just grunting like a linebacker tackling a running back. Everybody else shrugged him off between plays and sips of beer and awkward crunches of Tostitos. So he did the only logical thing he could think of: he decided to develop his own sticker reward system. Since he didn’t have a football helmet, he used his ’97 Volkswagen Jetta. And since he was sick of stickers, he superglued little toy figures to the hood of his car whenever anybody on his “team” accomplished anything. For job promotions and raises, he glued little army men to the Jetta to symbolize the soldiering through that transpires in places of employment. Whenever his friends announced successful first dates, one-night stands, engagements, pregnancies, marriages-he stuck to the old-school red and blue cowboys and Indians to represent the eternal tension in relationships. And when anybody had the chutzpah to ask him why all those toys were on his car, he would reply “Why do college teams put stickers on their helmets?!” And only the keys in the ignition of the Jetta could break the awkward silence.

“I remember” by student-offender

I remember red and blue illumination dancing wildly off of tenements. I remember stale air, old tennis shoes and long forgotten Febreze. I remember Jefferson and Lincoln old and crisp. “Keep the change.” I remember metal smooth and cool air running in bringing along bickering pandemonium. I remember Timberland soles meeting city asphalt. I remember a herd of different faces, animated mixed emotions, a collective mumbled gumbo. I remember parting a sea of stale beer, cigarette smoke, friend fish, greens spearmint wafting in the air. I remember dark blue uniforms with “City Of” patches, squawking radios dispatching codes and destinations. I remember a mass of blue hovering over a spiritless form – Black Male, Mid-20s, 6’2, Identity Unknown. I remember warm tears stinging my cold face, a shattered heart, weak knees and a broken spirit. I remember 1,2,3,4,5,6 shells from a service revolver. I remember a black space, endless space. I remember footsteps 1,2,4,4,5. I remember silence. I remember tears. I remember life. 

“The simple things” by student-offender

You have to die a few times before you can really live,” – Charles Bukowski. Truly, anyone who has suffered a loss of all things has a good understanding of this quote by Charles Bukowski but especially for anyone who has been incarcerated for a long periods of time – it means a lot. Not only has the offender died a few times, but he dies daily – to friends, to family, to the simple comforts of life. The cliché becomes reality: it’s the simple things in life that matter. A walk in the woods, listening to the thunder, sitting on a front porch – these things become as unreachable to us as life is to the dead. Of course, aren’t these the very elements of life? These simple pleasures remind us of who we are. When we lose these “simple things” we cease to be alive in any real sense of the word. In essence, we have died to the world and it to us.

I have died many times in my life. My soul no longer knows the pleasures of simply being alive. It has gotten to the point in my existence that the only way I can truly feel alive again is by having these simple pleasures restored. As Ebenezer Scrooge discovered, I have also learned not to take these things for granted anymore. Unfortunately, what it took the old miser to learn in one night, it has taken me three decades.