Prison Book Club: The Writer As Witness

Reading Harry Potter in Maximum Security: Week 6

When Carp and I walk through the prison parking lot on Sundays, we’re usually in a good mood, and laughing between ourselves. We have to stop ourselves, because it doesn’t seem the place to be having a good time. Sundays are visitors’ days, and family and friends are coming to meet with their loved ones in prison. It’s sobering to see the people milling about the parking lot.

We had to tell the guys today that we are moving to another state soon. Imagining telling them felt to me like we were giving up on them, just when they were starting to open up. It felt like betrayal and I was nervous about telling them. These past months have gone by so quickly, and I have learned so much from them. I didn’t want them to think that we would just move on and forget it all.

We go through security, sign in and get our invisible ink stamp on our hand to get into prison. We go through gate 1, and then swipe our identification cards. The guard barks, “Min or Max?” and we reply with “Max” as usual. He lets us through gates 2 and 3.

We have arrived early so that we can set up the VCR player to watch the movie Harry Potter today. Walking in, we find Jim and a few others already there. They have written “Congrats Cecelia and Carp,” in chalk on the board, and are all smiling.

They ask when our last day is. Apparently Lila, the volunteer coordinator has already let them know that we will be moving soon, and will be unable to continue with the book club.  We tell them that we’ll be coming a few more weeks, but Jim hands over our gifts today. He works in a leather factory at the prison, along with a few other guys, and they have made these coasters for us out of leather. Our names are engraved on them along with,

“In grateful appreciation for your dedicated and faithful service: Thank you for the time and energy you have given to the Max Activities Book Club. We have grown because of your selflessness.”

It made us want to cry. Here I was dreading coming to prison today because we were going to have to tell them that we were moving, and now they are showering us with thoughtful gifts instead.

The inmates have the chairs and the movie all set up for us in the classroom today. Jim has brought two full bags of cookies, just as he has been promising he would. And he wants everyone to eat, eat, eat: it’s his form of thanks. The people in prison are still human, and longing connection, belonging and meaning. They want to show people their appreciation, and they want to share what they have. It’s so real it hurts.

As a volunteer today, I wanted to help the guys. I wanted to help them find a way out of this system. But this system is too big for me to tackle by myself, and I have no business in it. It’s not within my ability to help them out of their situation. All I can do is show up for an hour and a half on Sundays, but it still means a lot to them.

The guilt of leaving really starts to set in. I have moved around a lot in my life, but I have never felt this sense of abandonment. It feels like we’re giving up on them, just when we started to get to know them. It feels like they don’t understand how much we’ve learned from them- they are the ones thanking us when we need to be thanking them for opening our eyes to the spectrum of humanity, and the potential.

The Harry Potter movie plays on, and the audio of the VCR is crap and the graphics are 2002 special effects are pretty crap as well. Jim keeps offering cookies to everyone around the room, and Carp keeps taking handfuls. There are cockroaches crawling the floor as well, and Tyler gets up and stomps on one as everyone laughs.

As a writer, we are called to be a witness to hard things. But man, it was hard today. It was hard because we weren’t the long term volunteers that could have really stuck around and made a bigger impact. We were the fleeting wanderers who like to write. But I like to think that a small impact, a short amount of time, is always better than nothing. Especially as a writer.

As we are leaving, Tyler asks if we can stay in contact with them. I tell him I’m not sure, we’ll figure it out. He says okay, you’ll know where to find me.

“It’s too bad you guys are leaving,” Anthony tells us. I don’t know what to say.

“We wish we could do more for you guys as thanks, but because of the nature of our situation… if we weren’t in jail I’d take you guys our for a couple beers. Or maybe get you a few joints,” Jim laughs as we say goodbye.

They don’t understand the beautiful gift that they’ve given us. The beautiful experience of humanity. They don’t understand why we would show up to volunteer our time on Sundays for them. And they don’t understand that they have not only given us experience to write about, but have changed our lives in profound ways.

I feel bad for leaving, but I would have felt even worse having never walked through this triple door security and learning who was inside. Today broke my heart and left me stunned and humble. They want to show us all the respect and appreciation they can. They want to show that they appreciate us laughing at their jokes, listening to their stories, for telling our own stories and jokes and forging that ancient human bond, even across bars. Especially across bars.

This prison experience has been theory in practice. Carp and I are exploring what we’ve been reading in books, and checking it out for ourselves in real life. Every time we show up at prison I am a little bit nervous, but my heart is always instantly warmed when we meet the guys in the activities basement, and I am overwhelmed by the commonality of human nature in seeking community; even when coming from an environment or past of violence and extreme chaos.

It seems cheap and unjust that Carp and I get to move on from this prison and tell stories of our experiences there for the rest of our lives, but the guys who shaped our experience there might never get to live a different life from the one they are living in the prison now. I want to do them justice by writing. And I also hope I’ve done them justice in forging a genuine human interaction with them.

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