Friends on the Inside

A college student learns a thing or two from the cons

| November / December 2006

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.