Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Ticket to Prison

                                                            My Ticket to Prison

            It was my ticket to prison.  Following the guard’s direction from the loudspeaker, I pushed the ticket machine button. “128” was printed on what looked like a raffle ticket for a drawing.    
            “Drive to the top of the parking lot, park and then wait with the others until your number is called,” the faceless stern voice commanded.
            I soon found myself with the other visitors.  We huddled together in the early morning icy wind.  After the two-hour drive, it felt good to stand up, but the wind made me yearn for the shelter of the gatehouse down the hill. It was surrounded by coils of ribbon wire, overshadowed by the guard tower with the black, one way glass. 
            One lady kindly asked me if this was my first time here.
            She told me the routine, what to expect, adding that it was a cold, heartless place to visit. 
            She and her mother had been coming to see her son for several years now, and it was always a hard thing to do.
            “We’re his only connection to the world, to family,” she said.  
            “It’s the only thing we can do for him, coming here every week,” she said.
            Her voice dropped and she looked away.  I could see a tear in her eye.
            “Numbers 120 to 130,” the voice crackled over the loudspeaker.
            We moved hurriedly down the hill into the gatehouse.  Paper money was changed into dollar coins for the vending machines, and people took off their jewelry, shoes and belts, and handed their driver’s licenses to the guards. 
            When my turn came, I identified who I was seeing and then set off the metal detector.
            “Glasses, too.”
            As directed, I moved, blindly, sideways through the metal detector, satisfying the stern faced guard glaring at me.
            We all had the back of our right hand stamped, with invisible ink.  When we left, a guard shined an ultraviolet light on our hands, making sure we weren’t inmates, that we hadn’t switched places and were organizing a great escape. 
            I reassembled myself and sat on a wooden bench with some of my cohorts, waiting for our turn to walk in small groups through another steel door and across the yard to the visitors’ building.
            Once inside, I was directed to several rows of plastic chairs and low tables, more appropriate for a fourth grade classroom than a prison visiting room.  There were a few vending machines on one wall, offering chips, sodas, and coffee. 
            The room was dimly lit with a few florescent bulbs and small barred windows near the ceiling.  The dark cement floor sucked up what little light came through the windows.
A large modern painting of a tree leaned against a gray wall, near a large chair on a platform, where a guard sat, staring out over the assemblage of visitors.
            There was nothing else in the room that resembled life on the outside, and I wondered if the painting hadn’t been hung yet, simply because it was so out of place here. 
            We were grandmothers and aunts, a few girlfriends, two guys who might be brothers of inmates, and a lawyer.   He looked out of place, in his three piece suit and large three ring binder.  He paced and looked at his watch, anxious to get on with the rest of his day and finish up his business with his client. 
            The rest of us had our prison visit clothes on.  The rules said no blue jeans, no blue shirts or jackets.  Blue is the color of inmates here, and the prison wanted a clear distinction.  
            We waited, and waited some more. 
            A few inmates came in, embracing their loved ones and then sitting on the opposite side of the small tables. 
            We waited some more, and I saw the kindly mother and grandmother look at their watches and the big clock on the wall.
            I caught their eye and shrugged.  They nodded and shrugged back. 
            Finally, my young friend came out of the side door.  He and all the other inmates were clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, with blue lanyards and their prison ID cards around their necks.
            We hugged and took our seats.
            I hadn’t seen my buddy for four months, since he got sent upstate to adult prison, after serving all the time he could at the youth prison where I go every week.  He’s got seven more years to go, and had to move to adult prison when he turned twenty four. 
            What got him here was something that happened when he was thirteen, when life was crazy, chaotic, without guidance and direction.  He was arrested at seventeen, and treated like an adult in court. 
            The system pounded on him, maxing him out, making sure he got the presumptive sentences reserved for the worst of people.
            But he’s not.  He was a kid himself when he came to prison, never been in school, never really parented and raised to be a healthy young man. 
            The youth prison was good for him.  He finished school, and let his curiosity lead him to becoming an expert gardener, craftsman, and artist.  He taught others, taking on leadership, gaining the skills and confidence of a healthy, productive young man.  He’s everything you’d want a young man to be in this world. 
            We talked for the next hour and a half, two friends catching up on our lives, and the news from the youth prison. 
            His dad died last month, a heart attack ending a troubled life, leaving the relationship with the son in prison still unresolved, still unhealed.  The anger and bitterness now mixed up with grief, with the emptiness of not being able to go to his father’s funeral, to take care of his widowed mother, and the rage and violent life of the younger brother. 
            We tested out the vending machines’ offerings of soda and coffee.  Starbucks has no worries about the competition here. 
            My friend has a good job, managing the kitchen garden.  He’s ramped up the composting, and is planning new crops for the summer.   His eyes twinkle as he tells me of his plans and the new watering system he’s designing.
            He’s saving his money for a guitar.  Prison rules wouldn’t let him bring his old guitar with him, but he’s scribbled out some new songs, and another guy has let him borrow his guitar once in a while. 
            I can’t send him a guitar.  He has to buy it from the prison canteen.
            “They worry that you’d send in drugs with the guitar, you know.”
            We laughed.  He’s too serious of a musician to think about smuggling in drugs or being a criminal.
            “There’s ‘yard night’ in the summer,” he tells me.  “I’ll have my new guitar by then.” 
            You can bring your guitar with you, and guys play and sing, and tell stories.  They even barbeque and turn the prison yard into a house party, at least for two hours on a hot summer night.   
            I don’t ask him much about life here.  I can tell he’s not wanting to share, not wanting to explain the emptiness, the boredom.
            He grins when he talks about the botany book I sent him.  College level stuff, and good for his mind.  He reads it every night, soaking up the science, the methodology.  He redraws the illustrations, creating new works of art in his cell. 
            Last year, he petitioned the Governor for clemency.  About twenty people added letters of endorsement, from the youth prison’s school principal to most of the volunteers.  The prison staff weren’t allowed to endorse the petition, but loaded up their letters with assessments and evaluations of what he’d accomplished. 
            We attached his portfolio of botany illustrations, and photos of his wood carvings and wood burnings, and the multi-layered wooden bowl that won a special blue ribbon at the county fair.  We sent copies to legislators, and we wrote to the Governor.
            Nothing has happened with that, and now he’s in this prison of 800 men, medium security for the next seven years.  Or, until the Governor might decide that he needs to be out, needs to be working on his bachelor’s degree in botany at Oregon State University, and creating fine works of art for the world to enjoy. 
            We didn’t talk about all that.  The silence from the Governor’s office lies like a stone in my heart.  It’s too painful for him, too.  Seven years more is a long, long time. 
            The guard in the chair boomed out, “Visiting is over.  Inmates to the rear.  Visitors to the front.”
            We stood, and I picked up our empty coffee cups.  Awkwardly, we moved to the end of the table, and hugged one last time.
            “I’ll come again soon,” I said. 
            “Oh, you’re busy.  I’m doing fine,” he said.
            He doesn’t lie well, and looked down at his shoes.
            “I’m not too busy for you, son,” I said.
            “I’ll be back,” I said. “You’re an important guy to me, you know.”
            For the second time that day, I saw a tear form in someone’s eye. 
            And when I got back to my pickup, there was more than just a tear. 

---Neal Lemery 2/5/2017

Monday, December 19, 2016

Simply Listening

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
            Leo Buscaglia

            It is the simple things in life that are often the most meaningful. 

            A young man and I were working on his math.  He’s been working hard and now the formulas and methodology of his algebra was making sense to him.  My tutoring today consisted of listening to him explain his processes, and watch him work his problem, applying his knowledge, and seeing him find the answers.

            “I think I understand this now,” he said. 

            Pride filled his voice, and he gave me a seldom seen smile. 
            “What else do you need to work on?” I said. “You’ve clearly got your math under control. 

            He looked down at his shoes, then out the window.  His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, as he pondered my question.  A minute, then another passed without an answer.

            He cleared his throat, finally cluing me in.  His therapist needed him to make a list, a list of challenging events in his life, times when he was abused, and was abusive to others. 

            This would be the last barrier to complete therapy and move on with his life, to becoming free of what has burdened him, held him down.

            He looked away, tears filling his eyes. 

            “It’s so hard,” he said. “I can’t seem to get started.  I can’t write it down.”

            “Hard because?” I asked. 

            He fell silent, still looking down.  A tear ran down his cheek. 

            “It’s…. it’s overwhelming.  There’s just so much,” he said.

            We sat there, letting the heavy words fill the air.  It was hard for me to breathe, the air now thick with his emotions and the weight of this task. 

            “Take a breath,” I said.  “This is a safe place.  We’ll take this on together, and work on it just like we do with math.”

            “In math, one of the first steps is to write down the problem, give names to what you’re working on,” I said.  “One step at a time.”

            He looked at me, and I nodded.  Another tear ran down his cheek.  He took a deep breath, then another, re-inspecting his shoes.  A few more minutes passed. He gave me a slight nod.

            “I can be the writer today” I said.  “I’ll be your secretary.” 

            He looked away, over my shoulder, and started to speak, beginning his story with the last time he was in a difficult situation, a time of chaos and pain. 

            I picked up my pencil and began to write on the tablet we’d used for our math, starting a fresh page.

            He spoke almost in a whisper. I leaned closer, barely able to hear his words.  The room was silent except for the scratchings of my pencil against the paper, and his soft words, his voice cracking and choking over them. 

            I gulped, feeling my own sense of revulsion, panic, horror, and angst build up in my gut, as he told one story, then another, and another. 

            Working backwards in his life, he moved quickly from one incident to the one before it, giving me two or three sentences, names, ages, what happened, how he reacted, how he felt.  At first, it seemed jumbled, but I began to see the order, how he’d been preparing his story, rehearsing and editing it in his mind, probably for months. 

            He spoke fast enough that each story was only a line on my tablet, often just fragments of sentences, a first name.  I wrote quickly, finding myself near the bottom of page two before he took another breath and looked down at his shoes.

            Once, I had to prod, a few words of encouragement.  His look told me he thought I’d be a harsh judge for this story, condemning and berating him. 

            “It’s OK,” I whispered.  “It happened, so it needs to be on the list. No judging today.” 

            He took a big breath and let it out.  Another long minute of silence.

            The first time, I can’t remember much,” he said.

            “I can’t remember,” he finally said.  “I was two years old, and there was something, something with a friend of my dad’s.” 

            “I don’t know, but there’s something,” he said. 

            “It’s OK,” I said.  “When you’re two, you probably don’t remember a lot, at least consciously.” 

            We talked about the conscious brain and the subconscious, and how different parts of the brain have different tasks, and work differently.  And how we deal with trauma, and don’t deal with it very well. But, our body remembers, in ways that aren’t always clear to us.

            He nodded, relating all of this to what he’d learned in therapy and his psychology classes, and in all the thinking he’d been doing. 

            He looked at the list, shaking his head.

            “Wow, that’s a long list,” he said. 

            “A good list, “ I said. “You’ve done good work today,”

            Our time was coming to an end, and I needed to leave. 

            I tore off the pages I’d written, and handed them to him.

            “Here’s your list,” I said.  “We’ve written it down, so you don’t have to keep it in your head any more.  But, you’ll have it if you need it.”

            He looked at me, penetrating deep into my eyes. 

            “Oh,” he said.  “You mean I don’t have to keep all that inside of me, thinking about it all the time?” 

            “No,” I said. “You have your list, on that paper. Kind of like a grocery list, or a list of chores for the day.”

            “It’s a reference, I said. “You can put it in a safe place, and refer to it if you need to.”

            “And, once you’ve put words to all that, then you’ve named the problem, you’ve identified it, and you don’t have to keep thinking about it,” I said.

            He nodded, and let out a big whoosh of air. 

            “So, the problem,” he said.  “Kind of like a math problem then?   Write it out, apply the formulas and work the solution, huh?”

            I nodded, and he chuckled.

            “Just like a math problem,” he said. “One step at a time.”

            “Uh, huh,” I said. “Just like a math problem.  And, you can solve it, right?”

            “Yes, I can,” he said. 

            “Yes, I can.”

---Neal Lemery 12/19/2016

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Restringing Guitars and Young Men

            Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility.  In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens. 

            We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results.  Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

            The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.   

            They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy.  The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives. 

            I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise.  I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour.  Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

            I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have. 

            Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there.  It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument.  The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me. 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves.  I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say. 

            My guy has had a rough year.  He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.   

            He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man. 

            Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole. 

            The thought of being successful in life is a new idea.  For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures.  My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming. 

            My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

            My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame  and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls. 

            Today, though, he moved ahead.  He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me.  With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers.  His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done. 

            We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar.  We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming. 

--Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016
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