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!