Graduation In Prison

            Yesterday, I attended my second Exchange for Change graduation, which was more like a performance given by the guys who’ve completed one of a number of writing classes, mine included. This experience was different than my first one. Getting through security at Dade Correctional Institution was not scary, like before. I guided my friends through the process—hand over ID, take off shoes, walk through metal detector, wait behind locked door, wait again behind another locked door. They were nervous about visiting a prison for the first time.

            This time, when I entered the visiting area, I knew the inmates would be wearing their prison blues and roaming freely around the room. I knew they would be kind, and welcoming and polite, because they are my friends now. I know their names and their stories. Twenty-five of these 200 or so men have taken my memoir classes. We write with vulnerability and honesty. Me included.

            “Be careful,” friends said when I first started volunteering in prison. They told me scary stories of people they’d read about who tried to help prisoners and were murdered later.  I understood my friends’ fear, but after my first visit to DCI, I knew my friends needed to meet these men in order to change their perception of the people we incarcerate.

            Mike Gonzalez, Allen Dorsey “One Draft Rev” and Eduardo Martinez “E” were the first to greet us. I introduced my Writing Class Radio co-producers, Andrea Askowitz, Virginia Lora and Misha Mehrel to the men I have come to value and route for. “Misha just told a story on our last episode,” I told Mike. “Misha, Mike’s story was the one we aired two episodes ago.” It was so nice to connect the men—my outside friends to my inside friends.

            I spend every Tuesday from 11-1pm inside DCI teaching memoir writing as a facilitator for Exchange for Change. I encourage the men to write their true, personal stories. Mike says he now hears my writing tips even when he writes letters to his family. Like what? What is this story about? Ground the reader…who, what, when, where? Mike told me that his sister listens to our podcast and that because of it, she feels closer to him. Barnett said that telling his story has made him feel more open and free. Willie said that he finally understands how to get his thoughts on paper. Willie’s thoughts tell of a past filled with discrimination, neglect, violence and regret. Some of Willie’s stories tell of childhood love. It’s obvious to me that Willie could have gone in a different direction if another path was available to him. It wasn’t.

            E was the MC. He is talented and was as humble and as funny as ever. E spoke without notes and performed his piece without flubbing a cue. Genius was the word tossed around by the audience post performance. Genius doesn’t do him justice. His words, his voice made me cry. Not just because his words about mistakes and youth and life in prison touched me, but because his talent is real and valuable and is wasted in here, for life, without parole for something that happened when he was 19 years old. Remember when you were 19 and malleable and stupid and thoughtless?

            Andrea met Luis Aracena and Juan Esquivel, two of my inside students whose stories I’ve shared with her. Stories we intend to share on the podcast. Luis stood strong while he performed Second Chances. I know from his stories in class that Luis served this country then lost his mind and his fight with cocaine. This country put him in prison when he needed some rehab and some love and a second chance. Juan’s poem spoke of a freedom only available in his dreams. ‘You see, I have not held my sons Juan Jr. and Roger for 19 years…I wake up, and all that I see is the cold, concrete coffin that envelops me. My life was like a sinking ship headed to the bottom of the sea, where no one would find me. Buried under the waves that shattered my dreams until Exchange for Change rescued me. Since then, I fly away on the wings of my pen, flying free through my writings and my songs.’ Juan ended his story with a song:

            Dear Butterfly, fly away.

            You don’t have to live inside the prison gate.

            Dear Butterfly, fly away.

            Share your beauty with a free heart today.

            On the way out Juan handed me a note that read, “Allison, thank you for caring the way that you do! May your beauty continue to fly into the hearts of those whom society has cast away!” I shake Juan’s hand, smile and sneak a hug. Hugging is a no no in prison. But I sneak a hug with Barnett and Willie and E because they are my friends and I need a hug as much as they do.

            I rode home with Andrea, my friend and vice chairman of Exchange for Change, Sonesh Chainani and his mom, Sheila. “How can we get these guys out of here?” Sheila asked. Sonesh has a law degree from Columbia but doesn’t actively practice law. Sonesh shook his head at his mom. Andrea was disgusted as Sonesh explained the three strikes rule, minimum mandatories, the appeals process. I was frustrated. I just kept saying, What a waste. What a waste. Andrea and I agreed that we need to get their stories out. The world has to know these men, understand them, so we can convince lawmakers to end these long prison terms.  We need to motivate our friends to give to organizations that are making a difference in the lives of underprivileged children who need education and love and the option for a successful path in life. Groups like The Seed School and Educate Tomorrow help inner city and foster care children. Groups like Leap and Exchange for Change help prisoners move through life in a positive way as better human beings. Podcasts like Planted in Miami highlight powerful work the South Florida community is doing.

            Before I met the men at DCI, fear and ignorance said, “Lock them up for life.” Now that I know more, I refuse to let fear win. If you want to make a difference, please go to make a donation. Any amount will help.

I Went to Prison

By Allison Langer

Yesterday, I drove to the Dade Correctional Institution with my friend, Sonesh. He sits on the board of Exchange for Change, a non-profit started by Kathie Klarreich. Kathie started teaching writing workshops in prison in 2009 and began the writing exchanges in 2013. Kathie invited me to the performance so I could meet some of the students I'd be teaching come summertime.  I met volunteers and supporters from UM, FIU, FAU, and Ransom Everglades. All had families and careers, and yet still made time for this program. I found out about Exchange for Change this past spring when Ransom English teacher, Josh Stone did a Tedx talk at Ransom Everglades. He inspired me to volunteer. 

I've never been to prison before, so I had no idea what to expect. I wore loose jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers, no jewelry and only mascara. My long, blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail. There are no phones or electronics allowed inside the prison. I was told to bring only my driver’s license and a few bucks.  We cleared security, which was like TSA on steroids: shoes off, belts off, walk-through the metal detector and a thorough pat down. Then, we were guided into a large room with a giant mural of Frozen on the brick wall, rows of chairs and men in light blue scrubs. Only they weren’t doctors, they were prisoners. David Jeffers, AKA Carolina Blue greeted me. He was a lean, well-groomed 6 ft tall light-skinned black man with a sweet smile and warm eyes. I was confused. He did not look like a thug. His energy was warm, not angry. Could he work here? I looked around. All the men were in the same blue uniform. Holy shit, these are the prisoners.

Carolina Blue handed me a brochure with stories written by the inmates. He pointed out his piece. "Let me know what you think," he said.  I didn't have my reading glasses, so I said I would read it when I got home.  I told him I would be teaching there in the summer and asked him to sign up for my class. I asked him how he'd gotten here and waited for his answer. It was hard to imagine this gentle man ever broke the law. Clearly avoiding my question, he told me that he'd transferred from another institution. Then I asked again, "What did you do to get incarcerated?" He smiled...said he would have to tell me another time. The next man I spoke with, Eduardo Martinez is 37 years old. He's been institutionalized for 17 years and has a life term. He told me that at 20 years old he made some really dumb decisions. He was in a scuffle and a gun went off and someone was killed. He left behind a pregnant girlfriend. His son visits, but not often. Eduardo was attractive, very fit, had such a kind presence. Yet his arms and hands were painted in tattoos...colorful art that blended together. His eyelids had a tiny design that I could not make out.  His words were smart and he was happy to tell me his story, so respectfully, he spoke of the wife he'd met and married in prison. "Will you take my class and write that story?" I asked, and he nodded with a smile. 

After socializing from 9:30-10:30am, one by one, the men got up and told their stories. How their young 20 year-old-selves made huge mistakes. How they have matured and learned from their time. How they wished they could get a second chance to contribute to society. Make it up to their mothers.

At 11:30 am, an alarm went off, the prisoners walked outside for lineup and each was accounted for. I thought of my own children, specifically my 7 year old son who is defiant and strong-willed and hyper and easily bored. When he was 3 years old, I took him to Parent Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT). During our first session, the doctor told me that if I didn't get his temper under control he would end up like the kids she visited in Juvenile Detention. Is it just about self control? The PCIT didn't work for us. We have a different therapist now. My son requires love and patience and I require the time and the information to give him what he needs. He cannot end up here. 

By 11:45, the men were back in their seats and the program resumed. The inmates told stories that revealed their chaotic childhoods devoid of a father and infused with an often-addicted or unavailable mother. Not every one of the men came from this type of background, I suspect, but it seemed like 99% grew up in a tough neighborhood with a mom only half there. I live in Coral Gables, with good public schools, nice neighbors and a very low crime rate. I know what it takes to parent one difficult child and two other children. I have two jobs, bills, responsibilities and stress. But I am there when the kids come home from school. I can drive them to enrichment activities and sports. I can help with homework, talk about their day, cook their favorite dinner, make them feel special. I wonder what these men would have become if they'd had attention and love and a peaceful home? If their choices would have been better? It's not too late. And I believe that.

We left the prison at 2:30pm. I was drained and inspired and grateful to meet those men and to hear their stories. I have new heroes and they live at the Dade CI.

I never thought I'd say this, but I cannot wait to go back to prison!