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Doing time

For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.

The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.

You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.

For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.

And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.

I am learning so much more than I am teaching.


1 Richard Greene { 02.08.17 at 10:46 pm }

You were right this is a good one. Very hard for me to take it in. I do believe that all men are redeemable but to be face to face like that would test that belief. Both Moses and Paul were murderers and lived to change the world.
I am against the death penalty on the grounds that it is unevenly applied and that the innocent sometimes killed.
I think of the vets I have met and known that in their service they killed others and how that is a chasm within them that is never crossed by me. Maybe some of what you are learning can be directed that way.

2 Lauren { 02.09.17 at 3:23 am }

I don’t know, really, how you live with the knowledge that you have taken someone’s life.

3 Katherine Gries { 02.09.17 at 2:37 am }

Right on, Lauren. Many things become apparent when you spend time inside. Some “system” – eh? Those ties between education and incarceration…

4 Lauren { 02.09.17 at 3:24 am }

I believe the statistic is that more than 50 percent of incarcerated people in the US have not graduated from high school.

5 Steven Finster { 02.09.17 at 7:15 am }

Some Corrections Officers (COs) refer to their job as “doing life, eight hours at a time.” Very few, in their entire trial service year, have gleaned as much insight as you have in two hours at a time twice a month.

My first few years as an officer, I found myself avoiding looking up inmates in the system fearing I’d not be able to treat them equitably. Now I find that I afford them the same respect they afford me, regardless of their crime. Simple courtesy goes a long way.

It has been wonderful to see the growth and change in some of the men with whom you have been working. Speaking of Life “with,” you should ask James about the CURE project he helps to manage. I think it will be a very pleasant surprise!


6 Lauren { 02.09.17 at 8:02 pm }

Thank you, Stephen, for these comments and for the incredible (need I say TIRELESS) work you do. To others reading this stream, it is because of Stephen that I am able to do the work I do at the prison. He facilitates (and goes after) all kinds of opportunities that contribute to the personal growth and transformation of the men inside.

7 Lisa McNamara { 02.12.17 at 12:47 am }

I actually find myself wanting to know the backgrounds of the individuals, because i have found that it seems far too easy for those of us on the outside to assume that no matter the crime, it’s a result of a character flaw. What i’ve learned is that so much has to do with the individual’s circumstances prior to having committed the crime. Too many people come from backgrounds of deprivation, desperation, untreated mental disorders, or violence. It also seems that our public schools—under-funded, overcrowded, and forced to teach to testing standards—put little emphasis on teaching human empathy. Literature, music, humanities–those are the ways in which children learn how to connect to others, how to put themselves in another’s place. When those subjects are de-emphasized and children aren’t taught to think critically and to evaluate the consequences of actions, a part of our humanity fails to develop. I have heard from so many people who work with inmates that they learn more than they teach–and that may be true. But even more than teaching writing, you help teach those men how to become people worthy of respect, both yours and their own.

8 Lauren { 02.13.17 at 10:07 pm }

I DO think it’s important to know the complex mix of factors that result in crime and imprisonment. Absolutely, Lisa. I just wanted, at first, to simply know the men in the room in that moment.To your point about education: Close to 50 percent of those in prison did not graduate from h.s.

9 Lisa McNamara { 02.13.17 at 11:16 pm }

Yes, i saw that statistic and that’s exactly what stunned me! So sad that so many young people can’t or don’t stay in school and that so many public schools are unable to provide what kids need most. And i fear that won’t change for the better anytime soon. Working as a teacher is just god’s work.

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