What I Learned In Prison
Yesterday, I went to prison.
I had never been to prison before, but I’d seen the movies. I knew of the cut-throat underworld where the convicts are barely kept in line, and even then, only by the sheer will of armed guards. And eventually, all hell breaks loose. Sometimes a bus carrying convicts would pass me by on my way to work, and I’d shudder thinking of the Con Air escape scene.
So you can imagine just how scared I was. The compound was surrounded by long chain-linked fences covered in way too much barbed wire. I mean, that has to be too much barbed wire, right? As soon as I stepped on the grounds, a guard yelled at me. I asked, what for?, and got no answer. I was wrong and didn’t know why. Reality hit me. The time for judgement had passed. In this place, I couldn’t defend myself.
Upon entry to the facility, I passed through three separate rooms where I was scanned, searched, and frightened ever more. Some of the guards handling me looked young, like in their early twenties maybe. I scanned their belts and couldn’t find a gun. How were these guards going to protect me?
Before leaving one room, I’d worry about what I’d find in the next. Finally, I went through the last door, and entered a large room that was my destination. It was filled with men in blue jumpsuits. Not in line or in handcuffs, but roaming freely. The guard that brought me in left through the same door we entered. One of the men in a blue jumpsuit approached me, a grin stretched across his face, and he said,
“Hi! My name is Waldo. What’s yours?”
That, I didn’t expect. I had to repeat my name after swallowing the lump in my throat. He smiled wider and introduced me to his blue-clad friend, Dante, who would be the host for the event.
The visitor’s room slowly filled with “outsiders”, as people from the street are called on the inside, who came for a Spring graduation at the Dade Correctional Facility. A seemingly ironic ceremony for a class with life sentences.
It was an networking event unlike any I had ever been to. Inmates genially approached outsiders, striking up friendly conversations, filling the air with laughter. The air was also filled with live music performed by the all-inmate band, The Skinny Lizards. After a few minutes, I was more comfortable, and I was also having more meaningful conversations than at any other networking event before.
“Before I got in, I thought it was gonna be like in the movies. Dog eat dog. Every man for himself,” said Luis Araceno, a young-looking inmate. “But it wasn’t at all like that. Yea there are some guys that still try to be slick, but there were a lot of older guys learning and trying to do good, so those were the guys I hung out with.”
Finally, the event got started. The people that had brought the educational program to the prison introduced themselves. Exchange for Change trains inmates to write letters, stories, and even poetry! And that was what the graduation became. A poetry slam by the inmates of Dade Correctional Institution.
For over an hour, the mic echoed…
“There aren’t any bad guys. Only bad choices.”
“Get out of the prison of your mind.”
“It’s me that has to save myself.”
“Take responsibility for your choices.”
“Don’t blame anyone else.”
Over and over, these ideas reappeared, coloring the philosophy of the inmates in the program. Ideas of self improvement, emerging from within the prison. Selfishly I thought, “These guys won’t read a blog called Best Damn Me. They’d write it!”
They also took turns honoring a hero of theirs called Louie Hernandez. Louie is an inmate, published author, spoken word champion, and has been honored by outsiders for his inspiring words the way they would a songwriter. One inmate shared a memory of Louie when his family visited the prison after getting his outside recognition. He didn’t tell Louie’s family that he thought that Louie was one of the most honest and courageous people he knew, like he thought they must know. Louie told him, “You should have. They don’t know me like that because that’s what I became in here.”
Louie wasn’t at the ceremony because he is in the hospital. After fainting in the middle of the lunch line, they discovered that he has cancer. At least one person at the event, a UM professor, wondered whether the facility’s healthcare could use some help, an active question in the sociological field. Louie’s unfinished story brought tears to the eyes of outsiders and inmates alike.
After the poems were shared, outsiders were invited to the mic. One by one, they said…
“There is so much talent in here.”
“There is so much hate out there, and so much hope in here.”
“You’ve inspired me.”
Afterwards, I understood why I was so scared about going to the prison. Like Luis Araceno, I had learned about what prison was like from movies. Mayhem looming just above order, hanging by a thread. I had no idea how wrong I was. Now when I see a bus from the correction facility, I think of the guys I met in prison, and I thank them for teaching me that I can’t judge a book by its cover… and that I shouldn’t believe everything I see on TV.
The event was truly transformational. Never have I seen or heard of the outside community connecting with prisoners like this before, and I was lucky to be a part of it. I was ready to go back outside, and share my amazing experience with everyone.