“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

“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 O’Connor, IPWW Program Facilitator

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 IPWW student

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 IPWW student

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 IPWW student

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.

“Vietnam” by IPWW student

On a wintery day in February 1972, I sat in my living room looking out the window at the weather and drinking JW DANT one-hundred-proof bourbon. I sat with my bottle in-hand talking to God as I often did.  The alarm beeped on my watch and startled me. It read 9:30am. At 25, I wondered: How in the Hell did I arrive at such a miserable existence? But, my thoughts evaded me. My father drank most of his life and I hated it, and swore I’d never do it and yet I drank. It had been that way since Vietnam – the drinking and hallucinating. Booze helped ease the pain I felt inside. In my state of mind, I didn’t understand how the pain came, but it did. It clung to my life like a millstone around my neck – ever pulling me down deeper into darkness. In my own wretched state, I vaguely remember telling God: I’d rather be dead or in prison than live like this.

No wind blew because snow flakes fell straight down rocking back and forth as they floated to the ground. One had to be careful because a windless day made the likelihood of an ambush very real. In the yard, snow stuck in some places but melted in others – leaving patches of white snow and green grass on the ground. A perfect place to dig a pungi-stick with its sharp-tipped stalks covered in poison, I surmised. Deep potholes in my paved, black-topped driveway filled with melted snow and quickly formed a thin layer of ice around the edges, but I knew they hid landmines under the water. The sky had low-lying gray, dark snow moving clouds. The sentries, naked trees, stood in my front yard with extended limbs ready to defend me against unseen enemy intruders. All in all, looking out my window, my day reeked of gloom. I felt only pain inside as I looked at the couch where a black ski-mask, black gloves and gun lay.

“Walls” by IPWW student

I’ve been in prison for a long time – almost thirty-three years since I was sixteen years old. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. I’ve shuffled in and out of four different facilities: two with walls obstructing my view and two without. I prefer the ones with walls.

When I was at the Indiana State Prison, they had to repair the walls that surrounded the prison. I thought I would enjoy seeing out beyond the walls after not being able to observe the scenery for so long. I was wrong. It was too painful. I couldn’t wait for them to put the walls back up. Now I understand why they kept the walls up. Really, it was an act of mercy. It would be pure torture for someone with a life sentence or even a long sentence like mine to have a look at what he may never be.

I’ve learned to keep the walls up. I see only fences around this prison, but the walls of my mind remain today. It’s the only way to deal with the pain.

“The Glimmer In My Daughter’s Eyes” by Phil Roberts

My biggest fear is that I’ll be released from prison after two years and my daughter will not recognize me.

I felt an unimaginable amount of weight lift from my shoulders the day I sign my release papers. This is the end of what seems like a never-ending journey of incarceration. I  knew the day would come, but couldn’t see, touch, smell, taste or hear it. All I could do was dream.

In my dream, I pull up to her mother’s house: my stomach churns with butterflies while she plays in the front yard. I get out of a car. The sight of me, makes her stop everything she is doing, she hesitates as if she thinks she knows who I am, but she’s not sure. After all, she was only 2 years old the last time she saw me. In my dream, she hears me utter the words, “Hi, stinka butt”, and it must warm her four-year-old soul to the point of pure euphoria. Her eyes light up wider than the first time I introduced her to strawberry milk when she was one years old. Her “pink” is what she calls it. In my dream, I bend down on one knee, brace for the joyous impact, wrap my arms around her, “I missed you Da’da,” she says, a glimmer in her eyes. Then I reply, while trying my damnedest not to cry, “I missed you too, baby.”

Here’s what really happens. In early October 2018, I pull up to her mother’s house. My daughter isn’t playing in the front yard. In fact, no one is outside on the entire block. I  get out of the car. Before I ring the doorbell, a rainbow colored hummingbird appears on the front porch’s hanging flower pot. It hovers for a few seconds, then disappears. I take a deep breath and ring the doorbell. My daughter’s mother answers. Her beauty is breathtaking, and rounds up all of butterflies I had just managed to shake off. I take five steps and there is my daughter sitting at the kitchen table eating a snack. She waves and says, “Hi”. She looks at her mother and asks, “Who is that?” My heart drops. Her mother asks her, “You don’t know what this is?” She replies, “No, who is that?” I take a few steps toward her and say, “Can Da’da have a hug?” She runs off, scared, as if I am a complete stranger. Her mother encourages her to give me a hug. She replies, as tears well in her eyes, “But, I don’t want to.”

I want to run – run far away from the pain, fear, anger, frustration, embarrassment and the guilt. I want to run fast. But, I don’t. I have to be there for her. Despite my mistakes, lost time with family, and the fear of being an inadequate father – I must try. I love her more than anything. My daughter’s mother is supportive and understands how hard the transition is. Thank God for second chances: to rebuild broken relationships and to be a better father. I’m going to prove to myself that redemption is possible and that my worst deeds don’t define who I am.

by: Phil Roberts, Contributing Writer & Indiana Prison Writers Workshop Participant