Family Day at the Youth Prison
The young man I’ve been mentoring invited Karen and me to Family Day. Its a big deal and only happens once a year. Its also graduation day for the high school seniors there, and Thomas tries to lure us there with the promise of free food and playing catch outside after lunch.
We show up and stand in a growing line of parents, siblings and grandparents, overwhelming the staff who are checking us in. We need to sign a release of liability form, making me wonder what risky stuff we are going to get into today. The program doesn’t hint at any bungie jumping or hang gliding.
The half basketball court we usually have our visits in is filled with rows of chairs, and big comfy chairs in the front row. There’s a lectern and two stacks of diploma covers, and another stack of framed awards. Two graduation cakes fill up the rest of the table. The room fills up with inmates and staff members, including the prison superintendent, who is running around, acting nervous. The place is used to maybe a dozen visitors. There’s over a hundred here today.
A few minutes later, the head of the state youth prisons arrives, as well as our state representative, the local school superintendent, and two school board members. The usually blank walls of the institutional room are filled with art made by the inmates, and long paper chains, giving a feel of a festive event at the local high school.
The program has a poem, written by one of the graduates:
Even though I am locked up
I know one thing is true
It doesn’t matter where I am
I’ll still be loved by you.
You stand by me thick and thin
And help me when I’m down
You always know just what to say
To take away my frown.
In times of need you hold me close
To chase away my fears
And when I’m hurt or torn apart
You wipe away my tears.
In my dark times you stand by me
To guide me towards the light
You always know just what to say
To make me feel alright.
So with that said, I’ll say it loud
We’ll always be together
You’re my sister, brother, mother, father
Family is forever.
Dan White, May 17, 2011
The superintendent calls us to order, with some families still straggling in. Its standing room only. She calls for the graduating class to enter. Fifteen black gowned young men solemnly process into the room, having used one of the dorms to don their graduation gowns, mortarboards and tassels. The room erupts in applause and we stand to salute the graduating seniors. Big smiles brighten their faces, as they take their seats in the front row, settling into the cushy seats of honor. My first prison graduation. Theirs too.
They young men act nervous, not used to being in the public eye and receiving attention for doing something good. We listen to the superintendent, and then the head of the Youth Authority, and then our State Representative laud the graduates and extol the virtues of education. The head of the Youth Authority tells the story of how one man, who was an inmate many years ago, is receiving his masters degree at Portland State University next week.
Somehow, probably for lack of money, there wasn’t a graduation last year, so we witness the class of 2010 and the class of 2011 graduate, and I realize, again, how long some of their prison terms really must be.
The school principal, the school superintendent and the two school board members give out the diplomas, to cheers and applause, the young graduates beaming with pride. They stand as a group, and move their tassels to the right side, the graduating class now officially recognized and honored.
More awards are to be made, and our young man, Thomas, is surprised to receive one, to the loud applause of his peers and the staff. “Most improved peer relations”. He beams with pride, stunned to being recognized. There is a lot of that going around here today.
A few minutes later, his mother finally arrives, sending Thomas prancing over to her, glad to see her, but conflicted, as he’s been angry with her after she said she wouldn’t come. There’s been about a box of tissues soaked with tears over the relationship in the past few weeks, and my wife and I give them the space to reconnect and have their conversation. Our boy has had quite a bit of therapy getting himself ready for this, and his shoulders are tight with tension.
The room dissolves into handshakes and hugs, as the graduates accept their accolades, and a number of inmates and the staff change the room over to tables and chairs, and get the food ready for the big lunch.
We wander outside a bit, finding some fresh air as we cool off from the ceremony, stretching our legs and enjoying the peace and quiet. Soon, lunch is served and we stand in the long line, and finally get our burgers, hot dogs, pizza and salad, and the biggest cookies in the world.
Thomas finds us a seat at one of the round tables in his dorm, one of those institutional tables where the round seats are welded to the frame of the table, so you can’t pick up and throw the chair during a riot. Somehow I expect Paul Newman in his prison garb or some other prison movie character to sit down beside me. We munch our hamburgers with Thomas’ mother, and we all work through a safe conversation about the food, and the weather. I’ve heard a lot about mom, but we don’t go there. Thomas and I will save those thoughts for one of our quiet visits, one on one.
We get a tour of Thomas’ sleeping room, rows of steel bunk beds against the wall, with a few cots in the middle. Everyone has a few plastic drawers for clothes, and a plastic cubbyhole for some books. Each inmate gets some wall space for pictures.
Thomas proudly shows us his bunk. He’s been here long enough he’s about the senior man around here, so he gets a top bunk in the corner, with a tiny window looking out into the yard.
He’s got a big array of family pictures, but none of his dad. He struggles with his relationship with his dad, who died when he was fifteen. Yet, the little teddy bear on his pillow, that looks well worn and well squeezed, has a tag with his dad’s name on it. Thomas tells me the bear has his dad’s name, he talks to the bear every night, and feels close to his dad. Its deeper than a love-hate relationship. A few hours in the solitary cell beating on the wall last month is part of it, too.
I look around the room. Nearly every bunk has a teddy bear, or other stuffed animal on the pillow. Most of them are as worn and well used as Thomas’. I check out the pictures. Oh, there’s a lot of family pictures, and some of Jesus. One man has a long prayer to the Virgin Mary, and drawings of saints and crucifixes. But, about half the young men only have pictures and drawings of animals, or sunsets, or trees and mountains. No people.
I wonder what all the stuffed animals in the room say to each other, every morning after all the young men leave for their breakfasts, and their days at school, and in therapy. I bet a lot of them are soaked with tears, and got well squeezed in the darkness and silence of the night.
We go outside and walk around the track, and check out the high school building next door. The inmates helped build it last year, they’ve done the landscaping, and there’s a lot of pride here. Some good things happen here, and I suspect education is seen as a way to get ahead and make a new life.
The staff members are everywhere, showing us the place, and being happy with working here, and with changing some folks’ lives. They make a big difference here, and their work doesn’t go unnoticed by the inmates. Its safe to grow and change here, and to just be a kid and be normal, for once.
We get to see the sweat lodge, and the slide show in the main room the kids have produced gives us a hint for some of the spiritual work going on in this place. People are finding their identity here, and able to put some of their nightmares behind them.
I see one of the dads in one of the classrooms, and offer my hand to congratulate him on his son’s graduation today. He’s one of the regulars here, sitting at one of the tables in the basketball court every Wednesday night, quietly talking with his son. He tells me how his son is working on some college classes now, doing it by correspondence, and how he’s grown since he’s been here.
The dad tells me he used to be one of those lock ‘em up and throw away the key kind of guys, especially after his daughter was raped when she was 15. That is, until his son got arrested for a sexual assault, and got the mandatory seven year sentence, just like Thomas. Funny how when it happens in your own family, you see a different side of things. He’s proud of how his son has grown and what a difference the staff has made to how his son looks at life and is able to change.
We shake hands again, as members of the brotherhood of the Wednesday night visits, mentioning how few people come very often to visit these young men.
We wander back to the big room, and stop at the canteen, ordering some good coffee drinks, enjoying them with Thomas. His mom leaves, wanting to head back to Eugene, leaving Thomas holding the coffee drink she bought for him, and a soda. He’s too wound up after all that to just sit with us, so he heads outside, Mom’s parting drinks to him clutched in both hands. He needs to clear his head, settle down, and sort it all out.
When Thomas comes back, he’s short a drink, and tells us he gave it to a young man who had no family visiting today. The fresh air outside has settled him down a bit, his shoulders resting a little lower, his smile coming back.
We head back to the canteen, to get some family pictures taken. Thomas beams as we stand on either side of him, smiling for the photographer. As we wait for the pictures to be printed, Thomas comes up to me, and asks if I could buy a soda for another guy.
The other guy didn’t have family today, and no one has visited him for a couple of years. He’s got cerebral palsy, and Thomas thinks I should buy him a pop. Besides, the guy wants to meet me, he says. And, who could say no to this request.
A few minutes later, a man child comes up to me, clinging next to Thomas. Thomas introduces me to Nick, who grabs my hand, but looks down a bit, almost embarrassed to be here. I ask him if he wants a soda, and he shakes his head.
“My treat,” I say, and Thomas nods eagerly. Nick stammers, and tears cloud his eyes. We get in line for the cashier, and a minute later, we can make our order. It takes a bit, and Nick struggles with his stammer, but manages to say he wants a Mountain Dew.
Then, I ask him what kind of candy bar he wants, and he starts to cry. Its a new thought for him. He looks at me with disbelief, unable to speak. I look over to the cashier, who is this pretty rough and tough young man, pretty sure of himself. He graduated today, and was beaming all the way to get his diploma. Now, he stumbles over his own words, and finally gets Nick to say he wants a Snickers. I know Nick is melting his heart, too.
I pull the buck 75 out of my pocket, thinking this is the best money I’ve spent in a long, long time.
A minute later, we hand Nick his Mountain Dew and his Snickers, and he is so excited, he almost drops his soda. Thomas saves the day and helps Nick get a better grip on his treats, telling him that this is a gift and that Nick is a nice guy, and deserves to have something nice today. Nick stammers and cries again, thanking me and thanking Thomas and then running off because he can’t get any more words out of his mouth and can’t figure out how to act.
Neither can I.
I don’t dare look directly at the cashier. He’s about ready to bawl. And, I sure don’t look at my wife, or even at Thomas. The room seems to fall silent, as I start to realize what is going on, and what this means to our new buddy, Nick. Its an O’Henry story, the message exploding deep in my heart, of what we’re doing here today.
A bit later, we’re a mile down the road before it dawns on me that we’d forgotten the photos, back where we ordered the Mountain Dew and the Snickers bar. Back where we learned the real meaning of Family Day.