We arrived at the prison a little earlier this week as this was our first book club meeting by ourselves without Lila, the volunteer coordinator. I had heard mention in the volunteer training about panic buttons, and asked at the front desk if that was something we should pick up. They directed us to the guy controlling security in the basement activities room, and he listened and told me he can get us a panic button if we really want one.
“I’ll be down there with you though. If you need security, just let me know and I’ll call them. I mean, it is a prison, but it’s a really good group of guys. I don’t think you’ll have any problems.”
I agree, and thank him. I’m slightly embarrassed that I asked for the panic button in the first place, but then again, I’ve never volunteered in a prison before. I’m trying to cover all my bases and I don’t regret asking.
In maximum security we met Jim and Sam from our book club on the stairs by the activities basement. Jim has finished reading the assigned four chapters, and the Sam has finished the whole book. Jim was personable, and making jokes with us and in a good mood to be coming back to book club this week. Sam was not as into it, and said that he was not going to be able to come to book club anymore. I’m happy he got to read the book, though.
Downstairs in the classroom, Jim helped us set up the classroom, putting chairs around the circular table. He suddenly let out a cry, and looked down at his shoulder: a spider almost as big as a fist was sitting on his shoulder, about to make its way toward his neck. Carp and I had no idea what to do, and Jim ran out of the room in horror before we could make a move.
Carp, who is not a fan of spiders, began looking under the chairs, and on the ceiling. Where did that spider come from? He was visibly shaken. I figured that something like that only happens once a day, so we would probably be spider free for the rest of class. Carp continued to hunt for spiders in the room. Jim came back in five minutes later, and I asked him if he was okay.
“It was fake!” he said.
No way, I said. That spider was definitely real. He left the room and brought the fake spider in, showing us its intricately realistic form. How the hell…
He tells us a guy in the prison makes them out of toilet paper, lint, twine and dyes them brown with coffee. The spider was exquisitely designed and looked exactly lifelike, with each of its eight legs having tiny joints, and his back covered in a slight fur. It was by far the most amazing piece of artwork I have ever seen in my life. I would have taken a picture if we were allowed to bring cameras into the prison.
The other guys began to filter into the class, and with spider induced adrenaline up we began our second book club meeting with consisted of Jim, Malik, Tyler, Anthony and Josiah. We begin with small talk and catching up. We talked about the KU game, college, families, and eventually the conversation turned to drugs as Jim tells us that four men were taken to the ER last night because of an overdose of the drug, K2. One of them had died.
I asked Jim if he knew the guy who died, and he said he didn’t. He said that it was strange he didn’t know the guy, because he knew most everyone in this prison after 17 years here. Jim told us that he didn’t feel sorry for the guys who went to the ER, they made that decision themselves. He then let us know that that his road to prison started with the experiments of Mr. Timothy Leary (acid).
Tyler recalled how things went downhill for him after his dad died. He said that his personality changed completely- he started smoking weed more, drinking more, and then eventually popping pills which put him over the edge. It’s hard to think of a tragedy as leading to someone being locked into a prison, if that is what happened.
Malik tells me about how his daughter is in college, but has recently dropped out. He is helping her to pay for college, and is really trying to encourage her to go back. He says that she wants to be a journalist. I tell him that is what I am aiming for as well, and all the guys are supportive and say that when I publish something I should let them know; they want to read it.
Learning bits of their personal stories really tugged on my heartstrings a bit, and I wondered if I could keep doing this. Being a volunteer we needed to set boundaries, the prison had explained in training. We were not the prisoner’s friends, we were on the institution of the prison’s team.
Lines started to blur a little more this week as we began to see the human beings inside, as you do anytime you spend time with people. How do you tell someone that we can’t talk about their personal stories when they want to share?
Turning to Harry Potter, we see how much reading everyone got done this week. Not everyone was able to finish the first four chapters we assigned, because they were working full time jobs during the week. One of them worked at a leather factory at the prison, making sheaths for knives. Another was helping to refurbish the new prison being built on the property, and another man was doing prison laundry forty hours a week.
One guy from last week comes in, and tries to return the Harry Potter book back to us. He tells us he really appreciates what we’re doing, but he is about to finish his time in prison, and has some other things he needs to focus on right now. We tell him that is fine, and he can keep the book if he wants. Tyler says he’s in a similar boat, though he can still come to class. Tyler is currently fighting for his life in a court case. We make clear to the rest of guys in the room, we don’t want Harry Potter to come before other more important things in their lives.
During the discussion of the first few chapters, the guys really enjoyed talking about Harry Potter’s resiliency. Harry is mistreated as a child, but he is not broken down. He still retains his sense of humor, and stands up for himself. Malik comments that it is like the Dursley’s need Harry, as an object for their hatred. He says it seems like they need someone to mistreat.
Josiah commented that the book was a commentary on race relations. Josiah’s forearms were stained with fresh blue and red tattoos (the colors of the pen ink used to give prison tattoos).
We read aloud most of the chapter about Diagon alley, and they read with great expression. We are going to continue reading aloud in class in the future.
For the last part of class, we assigned two writing exercises as homework, and passed around composition notebooks. The first exercise was the writing prompt, “I don’t know why I remember _____.” The second writing exercise was just to record their surroundings, to paint a picture of the sensory experiences in their environment. They will have the chance to share their writings next week.
At the end of class, Tyler asked if he could keep the pen that I had loaned him. He had commented during the class how much he liked the pen- it was ink roller tipped pen. How could I say no to someone taking a pen? I said it’s fine, but immediately regretted it as they had told us in the volunteer training not to give prisoners anything, even pens because it can start a cycle of asking for favors.
I had had a similar experience of giving a pen away to a woman at the women’s shelter that I felt similarly bad about. Even though it’s just a pen, anything is of value in a prison, ora shelter. You want to maintain neutrality, and not show favoritism. So next time, I will keep a secret stash of pens and make sure that I get them back, just for my own peace of mind. Regardless, now Tyler has a nice new pen to keep a journal with, or he can get a fresh new blue prison tattoo.
After the pen exchange, I wonder if I’m doing this prison thing right. Should I keep volunteering? Am I too soft? I realized that I have no right to back out of the book club right now. As a writer I have a responsibility to witness. And whether I am there hearing the stories or not, life is happening. The writer is called to witness it, and to grow stronger in herself by doing so.
After class ends, I head immediately for the door because I have to pee, and also because the most uncomfortable part of any social situation for me is when the structure goes away and it’s just casual small talk.
On my way to the exit door I run into a guy who we met when we first visited the prison for the improv class. He smiles as me and looks down at the ground, “I got in a little bit of trouble…” He’s not wearing jeans and a t-shirt like the others, but instead wearing a red jump suit which I assume indicates a different level of behavioral status and less freedom.
I ask him if he’ll be able to join us for book club sometime in the future and he points at his red jumpsuit and says, “I don’t think that I can anymore.”
I mumble a few things, and try to make my exit. I realize that my social interactions are not the smoothest they have ever been in my life today. And also, I just have no previous experience reacting to prisoners in jail. What do you say to someone who can’t come to your book club? Tough luck, hope your next few years here are good?
I say goodbye and reach for the door, yanking on it when I realize it’s not opening. The guys around me say, “You have to wait for them to open it.” I stop yanking on the door, and look around: no Irish exits in a prison. I felt like they can sense my fear in this moment, and they don’t quite know how to interact with me because of it.
I think leaving prison is the most shocking part of the whole experience for me. We all sit together for an hour and a half and talk as equals, and then Carp and I walk out of the prison into freedom for the rest of the week while the others head back to their cells. It’s a surreal experience, and is definitely reminiscent of slavery, the more that I experience it up close. When I thought of prisoners before, I didn’t think of vibrant, thinking, living beings the way they are when I talk to them. They are full of life just as anyone else you would meet on the street, except they are not allowed to leave the prison grounds.
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