Friends on the Inside

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.

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