“Reflections” by Kristina O’Connor, IPWW Program Facilitator

“We’re all just walking each other home.” –Ram Dass

It’s well into October now so there was no sun to squint into as I drove away from prison after my third visit. Instead a heavy dome of steel fog walled off the horizon and made things seem quiet and distant, like after the first snow of the season. As has been the case with my previous visits, this drive home becomes a brief time of reflection, and I think of the last few minutes of tonight’s session. We discussed what brought each of us to the writing group, a question I asked in an effort to help us get to know each other better, and more covertly, to help me remember their names. We took turns politely sharing as new members of this group, fumbling our way toward mutual respect and trust. They seem just as aware of that as I do.

Two of the guys are “bunkies,” another term for roommates, as I learned tonight. They had decided to come together, explaining they spend their time both arguing with and encouraging each other. They shared with us their friendly debates, such as their ongoing disagreement over which is their greatest demon: a society that oppresses black men or the minds that embrace their own oppression. One quoted Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind.” I nodded and listened intently, ever weary of adding unnecessary opinion to such difficult conversations. Also weary because I have taken great efforts to begin to understand the nuances of such a paradox, but I suspect not nearly as much effort as they have.

In the end, I did talk a little about why I am there, though I struggled to put this into words, despite knowing the answer well. I mentioned wanting to spend more time writing, as well as discussing and reading others’ works. I mentioned the synchronistic reconnection with Debra, finding out about the program, and wanting in. But I stopped prematurely. I know how to tell them the ways that I’m there for me: that it will help me be a better writer, that I will learn from it too, and how I live for reading the beautiful revelatory moments that every writer discovers at least once if they surrender to vulnerability.

But I am lost in how to tell them why I am here for them. That my personal beliefs compel me to feel that my own redemption depends on theirs. I don’t know how to explain that I don’t want them to feel forgotten, that I worry that we are only as strong as our weakest link. That I don’t think they are our weakest link but society seems to, and I want to shift the spotlight enough to help their strengths shine. I don’t know how to say I want to lift them up and see them for more than the mistakes they’ve made, because I’m afraid of sounding like a white hero, and even more afraid of acting like one. I want to tell them that I am not here to tell their story because I want them to tell it. I have my own stories to tell.

Sometimes as a mother and employee and citizen, days grind away at me and I feel weighed down by all the work to be done. I don’t know how to share with them that tonight, the weight of the world empowers me. I think of one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” And though I left them behind, inside those cement blocks and barbed wire fences that are out of sight in seconds from the darkness and fog, still they have carried me home.

“Writers” by Kristina O’Connor, IPWW Program Facilitator

As I rush in, late always, for my second visit to the Plainfield Correctional Facility, I’m amused that the majority of my nervousness is related to the security check-in. It’s a little unnerving, like figuring out the ordering process at Chipotle on my first visit. I dart around wondering where to set my bag for inspection, rubbing my wrists and neck for jewelry that I never wear, and expressing silent gratitude to God that I remembered to wear socks with my shoes this time. I start/stop several times outside the metal detector, remembering the procedure from my first visit but still anxious that I’ll get it wrong and make a scene. The guards have the same friendly, amused expression as Chipotle staff as they guide me through the process and motion answers to my fragmented questions. Finally through the ritual of it, I’m in. I can breathe again as we wait for the students to come in.

They come into the visiting room from different directions, depending on where they reside. Some arrive in small groups, some in pairs, and a single late arrival apologizes. They remember me from before and I relax a little. We review some agenda items, the word of the day and some reading examples, before splitting off into smaller groups so I can get some experience leading a discussion after our first writing prompt. It’s hard to focus at first from the noise of the fans-no air conditioning makes them a necessity, but the heavy humming makes it sound like we’re in a small airplane and trying to casually converse over the mechanical buzz.

I worry a little that the prompts I chose are too heavy, but they rise to the occasion. The men share their stories around the circle, discussing music, relationships, school, and memories from inside and outside. They laugh and encourage each other. I share my own story from one of the prompts and they empathize and encourage me. It strikes me how similar the whole procedure is to other writing classes I’ve taken, except most of those classes are made up of a much older and more female student body. As with the first visit, I am deeply impressed with their writing skills. They have all tried to incorporate elements of Debra’s sample readings, which focus on setting. When the groups join back together and they ask me to read my piece again, I am embarrassed but appreciative of the praise. I don’t take compliments well but I smile and read it again, making an effort to keep my voice steady in front of the larger group.

The time passes quickly and I’m thankful again for all they’ve shared. I don’t know when I’ll be back since I will soon start leading my own group at the Indiana Women’s Prison. I’m relieved by the ease with which we can make our exit from the facility, a significant contrast from entering. I’m lingering in the parking lot – already wistful for the camaraderie I feel anytime I’m part of a group of writers discussing writing – but Debra and I have families waiting so I keep my goodbye brief and head for home.

I run through the stories I heard tonight on the drive home, imagining the memories these men must cling to and I wonder how often they wish for a chance at a longer goodbye. I had expected before my first visit that trips to prison might dampen the spirit; instead I find they leave me hopeful. Seeing these men, whose trip to prison has lasted far longer than mine, bare their souls before each other and embrace the vulnerability that writing and sharing writing inevitably brings about, makes me a little buoyant. I feel lifted further by how large the sun looks tonight, fiery and swollen as it rests in the blue gray horizon, but I can’t catch all of it despite trying with every break in the trees. Finally the road rises up to the overpass I’ve been anticipating, but when I reach the peak and look over, the gauzy thin curtain of clouds has drawn itself over the orange glow. Despite the oppression, the power of its light is inevitable, and warm pink sky fills the space above the clouds. 

“Intersection” by Debra Des Vignes, IPWW Founder

Nobody warns you that empathy is an unraveling; that familiarity becomes untied when you’re no longer familiar to yourself – like when you arrive at a place where life gives new meaning. This happens to me each week in prison. I place my keys, purse, and book bag on a scanner for the first guard to search. I pass a second guard station. Then, I walk along a cold concrete floor where emotions are bare, where guard-inmate relationships are distant. I assume the felon position; arms outstretched and sign in with the purpose of my visit. Sounds of steel doors reverberate like a 12-guage shot gun. I settle in a classroom alone, locked in, waiting for eleven men to share their ideas, hopes, thoughts, dreams, and vulnerabilities with me. When I’m having a bad week one offers this advice, “While other people may be able to stop you temporarily, you’re the only one who can stop you permanently. It’s true, and I use the advice through the week and it gets me through the next. They are at a crossroads in life but so am I.

My goal is to teach them how to write, so I make a list of prompts, but by the second class I find that I am the one learning too. Scratch means “money,” wiped downmeans “robbed,” a dime means “ten years. And “The Slam” is the staple food of correctional institutions: Ramen, peanut butter, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and ranch dressing, and I learn how to connect papers by tearing off the ends to make a staple. I ask them to describe an everyday noise that drives them crazy. A favorite holiday. Amazed by the ease with which they open-up and their willingness to share secretsI lose two students along the way to early release dates – and I feel the loss harder than I expected. And I wonder was there more I could have taught them?

The room has become a sacred space we created, a sense of home that moves us beyond the prison halls, away from our past and away from our troubles – into a place where only light grows.