I walked into the liquor store down the street from my building and bought my usual six-pack of Harpoon IPA.
“How you doin’?” the smiling dude behind the counter asked.
“Good. Gonna be a lot better in a few minutes,” I told him.
He laughed. “Pop a couple cold ones and you’ll be all right.”
I walked out uneasy with the words I’d chosen, with the fact I really was about to “pop a couple cold ones”‘ to “feel a little better.” It’s true I need major unwinding tonight, but the fact I’m choosing a beer to speed up the process is pretty freaking ironic.
I’ve spent the last two days, 9am – 4pm, in the classroom of a men’s medium security prison, sitting in a circle with about 16 inmates and three ladies “from the outside” like myself. I’ve been listening to grown men talk about their important memories, about what goes on in their minds on a daily basis, about what they’d wish to buy if any thing were purchasable , what they’ve all most wanted to do at some point in their lives, how they feel about the people they are today. I’ve watched them struggle to find something about themselves of which they’re proud, I’ve heard them express gratitude to one another for creating this temporary community where they are comfortable and relaxed for a whole seven hours during their day, I’ve heard them talk about their insecurities, the crimes they committed, I’ve heard them reinforce to one another the importance of self-forgiveness, of patience, of compromise, of hard work, of considering consequences. I’ve heard them talk about their children, their wives, their girlfriends, their mothers, and oftentimes about the absence of their fathers. I shared too, I shared as much as they did. I cried today, and honest to god, I never imagined I might feel so comfortable letting a couple tears stream down my cheek in front of 16 ripped and tattooed, white t-shirt and blue jean-wearing strange men. “Jesus, I think I’m PMSing,” I blurted out loud. They laughed.
Some of these men have murdered, robbed, physically and emotionally damaged others. Many of them are alcoholics, crack-cocaine and heroin addicts, many of them have gotten out and back in and out and back into prison.
And yet I haven’t felt as connected to a group of people as I did in these couple days. Is that at all strange? Yea, sure, I realize how fucking weird it sounds.
I could say that I’m looking forward to making a commitment to this program because 7.3 million Americans are in jail, prison, on parole, or on probation and the great majority of them will get back on the streets, so shouldn’t we help them reinforce positive values, ways of thinking, and habits so that we can in turn better protect ourselves? I could say it’s because they might discover a thing or two that will help ease the strain in the relationships they have with their sons, daughters, wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, friends, which in turn may positively affect the lives of each of these people. I could say it’s because we need to reduce the number of incarcerated people so that our tax dollars aren’t sent to jail, so many of which are run by evil fucking corporations.
All of these are fantastic possible consequences of showing convicts an alternative to violence. But my mother said this to me on the phone today (and I’m so glad she did because, goddamn it, we all need a little encouragement and affirmation in our lives): “do it because you feel it’s the right thing to do, not because of statistics.”
I’ll say this: with the overwhelming negativity that permeates this world, I’d be a fool not grab an opportunity to help breed positivity. With all the sadness and regret that gets passed around in that classroom, has come more empathy, eagerness, effort, and honesty than I’ve experienced in months. I want to be present and cooperative in a group of people doing the same. It feels hopeful, honestly. I don’t care who or where we are; that’s the kind of stuff we should all live for.
And fuck it, where else would I get stories like this:
I was eating lunch next to Nick and Jay, when Nick said to me, “I can’t believe you’re eating state food, man. You can bring in your own lunch, you know that?” I told him, “Yeah, I know. But I didn’t today, and I’m hungry, and if you guys can eat it, then it’s no big deal.”
Nick then said, “I worked in the kitchen for a couple days, man, and that shit is nasty. Some of the people working in there are just crazy. You get used to stuff in here that you’d never consider out there. You know what, there was this one crazy dude in the kitchen once who put his own shit in the pancakes while he was cooking it.”
Jay nodded vehemently; he works in the kitchen and had just an orange for lunch that day. I said, “Oh well. Chocolate chips!”