PRISON WRITING PROJECT
God! Why am I doing this again? What is wrong with me that I would volunteer for this? It’s not like it’s going to do any good. I can literally feel my throat closing on my air. I can’t get enough air to breath. The heat from my face has to be scorching the people in the front row. I must be beet red. My hands are all sweaty. I look down to my hands. I’m gripping the lectern like a life preserver. Can’t grip the lectern, that’s a big no-no. Is my voice loud enough? Can they even hear me? Remember to make eye contact. Not just with one person, make eye contact with everyone around the room at some point – don’t just stare at the one guy. I look back down at my hands again; my fingers are still in a death-grip on the edge of the lectern. I can feel the grain of the wood under my fingernails. I peel my fingers back from the chewed up, gnarled wood with effort. There. Small victories. I’m still talking, aren’t I? I am, I just started. I’m barely past my introduction. My story hasn’t even begun yet.
“It’s all hard. Everyone has a hard life. Mine was no different. You would think, looking around this room, that my life would be just like theirs. That I would be a hard case with a drug problem. But that’s not me at all. I haven’t even ever been high. I avoided drugs when I was a kid, and when I became an adult there was neer a moment’s hesitation about avoiding drugs in here.
“I guess there were some things that were different about me. I was adopted when I was really little. I always knew that I was adopted. My parents never made any secret about it. But that was the only thing that really stood out in my very earliest memories. I come from a two-parent home. I have a brother. We had a dog. If our yard wasn’t so big, we might have even had a picket fence. I played baseball and my dad was one of the coaches on the team. I wasn’t any good but I played baseball.”
I take a breath. I settle in. I need to relax, and even though I can feel myself leaning into this part of my story, it’s still hard because it’s not something I talk about all that much. Luckily, to the people in the room, my outward appearance has to have smoothed out.
“There are moments in time that stood out to me. Some of my earliest memories. Memories that stick in the crew, wheedling under the skin. I was abused. I remember it distinctly. I was young. Very young. Six or seven, maybe. I remember those nights.”
Another deep breath. The pain is starting behind my eyes, but I volunteered for this, and I will see it through. Without crying.
“I remember that I went and told my mother. That was an awkward conversation, but it had to be better than what was happening to me. It never happened again after I told her. She intervened, or interfered. She stepped in and saved me. And we all quietly moved on from there
“I had normal teenage years. I got in trouble. I had fun. I was an outcast and a rebel. But I had a few girlfriends and the odd friend or two. I bought a car, then bought another when that one broke down.
“The big surprise was when I graduated High School early. I was rather unprepared for it, and my parents hadn’t prepared me for college. I thought that with my test scores and overall grades that colleges would be easy to get into. I was wrong, and I was without a plan when the summer came to an end. I went into the Marine Corps at the end of the summer just to have something to do with myself. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was there.
“It was less than a year later that my mom died in a car accident. It didn’t matter that there was a drunk driver involved so that I had someone to blame. What mattered was that my mom was gone. The woman that I relied on died on the side of the road while I was out in California playing at being a Marine. I got out of the Marine Corps early – my heart wasn’t in it. I had joined so that I could be someone that she could be proud of and with her gone. I took the opportunity to get out while the gettin’ was good. It wasn’t until I was back home that I came to realize what an integral part my mom actually played in my life. I mean, she was my mom and I loved her, but I didn’t know what it was that she meant to me until she was gone. She was the lynchpin that made everything else work. She connected me to my family: my mother, my father, my brother, and the entire side of the family that she came from. Without her, those relationships floated away. Without her, I was left without my savior. I began to realize that I was really adrift. I had no anchor and no motivation.
“A few months after I got out of the Marine Corps, I met a woman. She was older. I was nineteen and she was thirty-two, but that just made it more exciting. I was going out with a much older woman and I was extraordinarily please with myself. It didn’t hurt that I was getting lucky on a regular basis for the first time in my life. I was able to see myself with her for the long haul. I was able to see myself building up a life with her. Unfortunately, neither of us was great at making mature decisions. And we made some bad ones. There was a fight. A man ended up dead, and my girlfriend and I started decades-long prison sentences.
“I will never try to minimize what I did. I won’t try to shunt the blame off on my girlfriend or life or special circumstances. I did it. I made the mistakes. I linked a man and he is dead because I acted impulsively. I own that, and I have owned that for the last twenty-five years. So many times in those twenty-five years I have missed my mom and wished beyond hope that I could talk to her and lean on her. That’s one of the hidden punishments of prison: the loneliness and aloneness. The isolation.”
I take another breath. I hate that I am bringing this all up, but the feelings that hit me so hard a moment ago have passed. The worst of my story, at least on the personal level, is over. I’m into the speech now and I’ve finally relaxed a little. I’m just talking to a crowd of individuals, just one person at a time.
“I was nineteen then, when all this happened. I am forty-five now. That was a lifetime ago. I have since spent more years in prison than I ever spent free. I don’t know how to put it in any other way, but that I am not the same guy I was back then. I think of my life as having stages. I was a precocious child and a lost teenager. Then one day, I was the guy that made a series of mistakes and killed a man. There was some time to adjust to my new life in prison, but then I became the man I am now. The institutionalized prisoner. The person that doesn’t care all that much if I get out because it’s become little more than a dream that can’t happen. I have been that guy for twenty years now.
“You’ve heard sob stories and excuses. I don’t have either. I did it. I have no excuse. I had a life. It wasn’t any more or less of a disaster than anyone else’s. And I threw that life away.
“However, there is a part of me that still rails against the punishment. It’s a part of me that looks at the unfairness of it all. I feel like I am being punished for something that other guy did before I even came into existence. It’s true that I would never have existed without him screwing up and making it possible for me to end up in prison with no hope for getting out. I never would have matured emotionally if that other, younger me didn’t kill that man decades ago. But I am not that guy. I don’t even know that guy. And I doubt I would like that guy if I met him today. But I’m still serving his time. I’ll continue to serve his time for years to come.”
My eyes flicker up to the guy with the paddles. He holds up the green paddle indicating I’ve met my minimum time. I don’t care about that. I know this is a speech contest and there are rules that have to be followed, but I only care about the job I’m doing right now.
“No one thinks the prison system is perfect. Very few people think that it works. I did become more of an emotionally mature man because of it, but that was more of an unintended side effect than any rehabilitation effort. You’re here today to hear a speech contest. I wanted to give you something more. I want to put the prison system into context. I want to give you some backstory.
“This is another unintended consequence: the Mandatory Minimum law went into effect two months before I committed my crime. It makes it so that I now have to serve thirty-five years straight through before I am even eligible for parole. People that came in on the same charges just two months and a day before I got my charges have been out of prison for more than ten years now. The Mandatory Minimum law was once called the Truth in Sentencing law. But which truth? I am a criminal, true enough. But am I so much more of a criminal than those guys that came before me? I made a series of of mistakes on one day, should that mean that my entire life should be forfeit?”
The yellow paddle flashes in my peripheral vision. I’m almost out of time, but I have to get through this and luckily enough, I’m almost done.
“It is true that I am a better man because I am here. Without a doubt. But I have long since stopped growing and changing. I have reached my full potential, yet I have more than another decade to sit and wait for the maybe possibility of getting out. I’m not going to become any better in that time. I’m not going to mature any more. This is the reality of Mandatory Minimums. This is what it does. It’s your tax dollars at work. Is your society any safer because I will be here for the next decade? No, probably not. Does it really make you feel any better to keep me here? Only you can answer that. But here, I will be. Here, I will stay. The only remedy for this is a change in the law. A revocation of the Mandatory Minimums. Allow people that have changed the ability to prove themselves.
The red paddle is held up and now I really am out of time. I have to wrap it up in the next thirty seconds or they will clap me off the stage. I take one last look around and make direct eye contact with our guests of honor.
“I would like to thank our esteemed guests for coming out this evening. Thank you for your time. And thank you for any consideration that you might give to people like me when you leave this place.”
I walk back to the table. There is applause, but there is always applause at Toastmasters events. My spot is on the left of the center aisle and I quickly make my way back to my seat next to one of the few friends that I have here. I can’t get my butt in the chair fast enough.
“You do know that you just told an entire room full of inmates that you were sexually abused, don’t you?” my buddy whispers in my ear as the Toastmaster is starting the introduction for the next speaker.
“Yeah. You do know the difference between then and now, though, don’t you?” I whisper back. He doesn’t answer, so I lean in.
“Six-year-old me was maybe forty pounds and taken advantage of. I’m one-ninety-five and all muscle-y manly man,” I tell him.
“A muscle-y man that misses his mommy,” he says.
“Yep,” I say. “Shut up.”
I’m not the last speaker, not by a long shot. There are a couple of other guys: a white guy whose voice is high and grating, a black guy who projects way too well. While they speak I have time to run through what I remember of my speech. I have time to remember what I screwed up and left out. I have time to remember what I definitely could have done better. I just hope that I hit all the main points. I had notecards, but I don’t even remember seeing them while I was up there.
The other guys are done with their speeches and there is more applause. Then there is time for the judgment portion of the speech contest. I don’t win, but I didn’t expect to. I have been to several other Toastmasters events and I have given speeches at some of them. I’m not a public speaker and don’t plan to make it a career. But I can’t hardly call myself brave if I’m not willing to do anything outside of my comfort zone. Plus, today I had a message. And today I had a large audience. I only volunteered because I thought I would be the best representative for the job. If I screwed up our one opportunity to get a message into the ears of our most distinguished guest, then I screwed it up. I wouldn’t want to leave it to someone else and then blame them because I didn’t have the guts to step up.
There is more applause and it pulls me out of my reverie. I give a half-hearted clap and look up when the guest of honor shows up and gives a short speech filled with generalities and catch phrases about rehabilitation and getting back out into the world, making a positive difference. The fact is, without his help, I probably won’t ever get that chance.
The meeting breaks apart and there is time to mingle. People crowd around into all-too-familiar groups. There are always the guys that flock to the warden and the administration types. I’m not one of those. I only want to talk to the one guy that can do anything for me, for us. I want to be there, front and center with him, to see if my speech made an impact. To see if it made any sort of difference at all.
“Senator, I’m glad to meet you. Thanks for coming out tonight,” I tell him as I extend my hand. I’ve never met a senator before, state senator or national. I’m not really sure what to expect and the only thing I knew coming into this is that he’s one vote that could change the law.
He takes my hand and gives me a two-pump handshake, like I was a normal man. I wasn’t really expecting that. I was perfectly prepared for him to just look at my hand sideways. That’s the treatment I’m used to. That’s the treatment we get. I couldn’t begin to imagine the last time I even tried to shake the hand of one of the staff members here. The other inmates are a different story – they shake hands like it’s the only human contact they’ve ever had. It gets downright weird the way they hug it out all the time. But the staff keeps its distance out of disdain or because it’s protocol. Either way, it’s understandable, given the mood around here.
“It was interesting. An interesting speech you gave,” he replies.
“Thank you,” I tell him. I open my mouth to try to find something, anything to talk about so that I can direct the conversation into Mandatory Minimums, but I pause for a split second. And just like that, he’s gone. His attention is pulled somewhere else, to someone else’s needs. I might not have gotten the time to talk to him about sentencing reform, but I have to hope that I got through to him, at least in some little way.