“Embracing Humanity” by Tiffany Leininger, IPWW volunteer facilitator

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