Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flavored Drink

It was probably three weeks ago when Bill announced he would be doing a presentation IN the prison. He and the gentlemen he had been speaking with would be doing a panel presentation to the men awaiting release--a chance to build a hopeful vision for their post-release experience, to warn them of pitfalls, to help them stay focused on success and avoid bouncing back.

Oh, and Jenny, I'm going to need you there with me...

Whoa, what? Run that by me again? IN the prison? You want me to go IN the prison? With you? WHAT?

Which brings us to 6:00 last night when I pull into the parking lot of the Orange County Corrections building in Hillsborough. The razor-wire-trimmed fence was eerily lit by the streetlights, but behind it is a simple courtyard, a few buildings, the smiling face of someone I know holding her sweater around her in the cool fall night.

We were half an hour early, but not at all alone as several people were getting out of cars as we were, and all celebrated a little minireunion in the parking lot. Volunteers, people we know from the Unitarian Church in Hillsborough, and friends Bill had known "inside" were all gathering in the parking lot, hugging, slapping backs, catching up.

We wandered eventually through the entry way where the guard asked for ID. He looked at my license, looked at me, "What's your last name?" Really? That's what you want to know at this point? Holding my license...? "Um, Edwards." He looked again at my license, clearly had trouble reading it, held it to the light, bent close, leaned over, jiggled it... "OK." And let me pass.

The other side of the fence led to many more greetings, hands shook, names going by, Ted, John, Stone, Blink, Chris, Tim, etc. Handshakes were accompanied by locked eyes as I tried to get a sense of who could be trusted and who not. A recent (work-related) training taught me that only 25% of people in prison are sociopaths. The rest can make solid, trusting relationships. I wonder how much information you need to tell the difference. (This, btw, is a minimum-security facility, so the 25% number will be much lower.)

We stand around as a few gentlemen inside the dining hall re-arrange the tables. People are chatting; Josh, the photographer who has been documenting Bill's experience of the American Dream, is there as well. We take a second to notice the menu, photocopied pages tacked to a bulletin board, encased in a glass-faced cabinet that has a HUGE padlock on it. We wouldn't want anyone to steal the menus...

I notice some highlights, the little details that make the daily experience real. "Flavored drink" is served at several lunches. The day they serve hamburgers (with buns), "mustard" and "ketchup" are listed as individual menu items. There are vegetarian alternatives, and one day it's "cheese sandwiches." Mmmm, tasty. And while I know lots of people like liver and onions, I assume I'd be eating the cheese sandwich on that day.

We head inside, and it's another flurry of handshakes, name after name sliding by, gentlemen in green pants and white t-shirts. Some hats, some beards, everyone smiling, everyone really nice. Some of the "wives" at the event try to sit, unnoticed, in the back with the volunteers, but we are called out and must sit on the back-facing seats at the front, part of the panel discussion to come.

Blue starts the presentation, letting everyone know we'll be talking about jobs, housing, money, transportation, and relationships. He offers the prompting question about jobs, gives the floor over to the speakers, and one by one, men who have served time at this facility and are now making their way on the outside, tell their stories. One started back as a landscaper, hated the work he was doing, but within a few months of being out is making more than I am. Another told of the struggles of rejection after rejection because of his record, but he persevered and eventually got hooked up--making it now, with the help of his wife.

I eventually got up to speak—after some of the women told their stories of how they met their now-husbands. I chose to talk about one small piece of our journey together—to focus on the people who support you, cut out the people who bring drama and strife. This was a theme that would come up again as the evening wore on. Don't let the toxic people get you down. It's better to go it alone than with people who hold you back. The crowd had been attentive throughout and listened politely to me as well, but the phrase, "sometimes the toxic people are in your own family," got the largest response as I spoke. This was something they knew all about.

The speakers shared their stories of resiliency, perseverance and success. They assured the listeners they would succeed with the right preparation and appropriate help. Look, we did it. If we can, you can.

I had noticed a friend in the audience--his presence blocked from my view till I stood up to speak—and I went to him afterwards. He has a few more months to go, and is preparing to get out. He said he looks forward to spending time with his now-grown kids (he's been in about six years) and hoping for grandkids when the time is right. He's smiling the whole time we talk. Every time I've seen this guy, he's been smiling.

I figure if you can smile in there, you can make it out here.