A college student learns a thing or two from the cons
A note from Utne Reader's Editors:The author participated in the Alternatives to Violence Project, in which prison inmates and visitors attend workshops that encourage personal growth and creative conflict management.
They call me Effervescent. My affirmation name. Effervescent Elizabeth, because they can't know my real name. The food is the worst I've ever eaten. They say that on Thanksgiving all the guys got violent food poisoning from the turkey. It was a day for giving thanks.
Since February I've been riding over to the Faribault prison, driving to another world. Being there is addictive. Like candy. Or crack.
Sometimes I'm the only student. Sometimes not. But always Chris, or Maria, or Nancy with their quiet voices and steady convictions. We go through security. They stamp our hands and we exchange drivers' licenses for ID badges. The rule is take nothing in, bring nothing out. I hate rules. I'm learning the language: seg, solitary confinement; the bench, time out, but for 16 hours; bubble gum, cocaine; CO, corrections officer; DOC, department of corrections; LOP, loss of privileges. I'm learning how to not sit too close or laugh too much, how to dress, how not to walk, how to smile at the COs and talk without talking. I learn how to say one thing with my eyes, another with my words.
We sit in a circle. Their faces are compassionate and wise, angry and sad. There is betrayal around their eyelids and sliding through their hair, dignity in their shoes and shave. There is trust and jealousy and fear and wonder, longing and beauty, desperation lined with determination, joy and faith. Laughter in their fingertips and beginnings on their sleeves. They are mistake makers, responsibility takers. They are men of Faribault prison. They are my friends.
Courageous Charles killed a man. They call him Pharaoh. He says he used to think he was the shit. He says Pharaoh means power and leadership. He's been to college. He makes shirts with slogans like 'Diversify Ya Hustle' and 'Legal Money Lasts Longer.' He's been in for 13 years. Three more to go. He's in his 30s. Enthusiastic Eddie gets out in March. So does Daring David, but he was out three years ago and came back. Marijuana and drinking, I think. Stuff college kids do every weekend. He has a 2-year-old boy, David. His father beat his mother. Their fathers beat their mothers. Some of them beat their wives. They haven't forgiven themselves, says Terrific Thomas. He can't forgive himself for leaving his son.
Ambitious Tommy watched armed, masked men rob and beat his mom and aunt in their heroin house. He didn't call the police. No one calls the police and gets away with it, he says. He gets out a year from June. He talks about the baggies they found and the scale and the money.
The first time Helpful Harris saw violence he was 15, stoned off his ass, and the guys were playing Russian roulette. Someone got shot. Now he's doing time that's not his.
Jaunty James has a fiancée. He plays chess with his kid on visits. Only a couple years before he'll beat me, says James. They didn't have fathers in the way they needed. They can't be fathers in the way they need to be. It's all broken. All pieces.
Passionate Pierce's family flies in once a year. He will wear his new shoes when they come. He sings about Maxine and pigeon peas and rice. Redemption songs. He hates Minnesota. He was just passing through. He didn't mean to spend his life here.
I tell them about Vietnam and the uncle blown off the tank whose name I do not know. It's my only connection to the kind of violence they were born to. I remember their last names so I can look up their offenses online later. I don't know why it matters so much. I think I just want to know that they're real.
We play goofy games and share our dreams. Miraculous Malcolm wanted to play professional hockey. He made the traveling team six years in a row. Marvelous Mark wants to start up a branch of his aunt's soul food restaurant; Kool Kristopher wants to buy a house; Charming Chasper wants a bath; Joyous Jacob, sleep; Thomas to get really, really drunk. Jazzy Josh says he's been inside so long that he only dreams blackness. Courageous wants to be a father.
They make jokes about the hot sauce, HIV sauce. They're sick. It's six months for a doctor, Malcolm says. Meth has made him old and tired. They ask me about music and Dead Prez and soccer and legalizing marijuana, and Davis says I should be president. Tommy wants to be the first black president and the first under 35. Logan has two kids. He looks 19.
Tommy, too, looks my age. He has a brother who's trans; fag, he calls him. A word I would never use, but in this world, when Tommy says it, means love. He used to never let him sit in his car; he never wanted to be seen with him. Then his brother got really sick and Tommy just got it. He says he jumped in bed and started kissing his brother, telling him about love and brotherhood. He lived. And Tommy doesn't give a fuck about what anyone thinks anymore.
Bubbles, you're a soldier, Charles says. I do what I want, what I can, I say. Which isn't true, because what I want is to go dancing with Tommy and have a barbecue in the park with Determined Dave and his kids and lead the revolution with Charles. They don't want me to go off-campus to Namibia this fall. I have inherited all the older brothers I always wanted. Stay safe, says Charles. I remind them that not a lot of people want me to be here, either. Pierce pauses. America? No, says Charles, this institution. Institution is a nice word for a place that rots people.
We make a thunderstorm together, sending our energy into sound, into the air and away from our wet eyes and damp spirits. At the beginning, I avoided eye contact. Now I hold until I hear our hearts break. Human to human. I'm living in two worlds and it's brilliant. I come back with an afterglow-exhilarated by new connection, starting over and saturated in perspective. I talk a lot about the revolution and fighting the system. I take long, hot showers and go to sleep later. I listen to more Common, less Conor Oberst, more Jimmy Cliff, less John Lennon. I party less, write more.
My life is so much better now. It's broader and bigger and more beautiful. I can never really show what it is, what these connections mean to me, how much those dingy classrooms feel like home. But it is, and they do.
Courageous knows Arabic and is learning Spanish. He asks Ayla to say 'Someday you will get out of prison' in Russian. She doesn't know, so I tell him in Spanish, 'Algún dia, vas a salir de la cárcel.' Algún dia. We watch each other cry without touching. I keep forgetting they're inside. I remember when I'm looking around the circle and I see the hard, black bracelets on their ankles. I think they forget, too. They ask why we come to prison when we don't have to. They don't know how much they change me.
I think it's like what Diligent Dillan said: We treat them like human beings. It's the only way we know. It's the only way I know. I do this to bridge worlds. These are not my stories but somehow it has all become our story. I remember them walking away, silhouettes against coils and coils of sparkling barbed wire, joking, laughing, not looking back. I want to hear a voice behind me someday call me Effervescent. I want to know that they're safe and still laughing, still crying, still trying to figure it all out. Ending the circle.
Reprinted from the Lens magazine (Summer/Fall 2006). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (2 issues) from 300 N. College St., Northfield, MN 55057; www.thelensmagazine.com.