Jailhouse Journal VIII

We make lists to organize our lives. Lists of food. Of errands. Of goals. “To Do.” They’re concrete things that measure our productivity, our ambition, sometimes even our feelings. This week for class, we focused on list making. The men had some experience making lists during our first class when they made lists of things that are yellow, verbs that start with “c”, and breakfast foods.

This week, however, the lists dug deeper. A guest lecturer came to class to lead a discussion on lists, and the power they have in writing. Their hidden meanings. Their unveiling significance. She read some examples of list writing from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” and Jim Harrison’s “I Believe” and Nick Flynn’s “Same Again.” I watched the men begin to understand the power of lists, watched them intrigued by their puzzle-like quality, their randomness and yet thoughtful construction.

I made a list of my own as I sat there in the classroom: a circle of red shirts, a ring of brains, hearts that pump, beating vessels, heating chairs, feeling, listening, learning, wanting, writing, changing.

I ran into an old friend last weekend. He’s a sheriff at a county jail outside of Pittsburgh. Although a bit taken back that I was teaching creative writing at a jail, he still believes that I’m improving their lives while they’re behind bars. Giving them something positive to meditate on, providing an outlet that encourages growth and supports creativity. But he’s been exposed to the county jail system for years, and he knows that the majority of inmates who end up in jail return soon after they’re set free.

“You might change one, one out of a hundred, maybe,” he said taking a sip of his beer. I looked behind him, past the pool tables and neon beer signs, taking in the cliché-ness of his statement. I’ve heard it before. While working with inner city elementary school kids a few summers ago, I heard the same “You might change one life.” And all over again, I find myself asking “Is it worth it?”

I don’t think it’s about changing one life. I don’t think it’s about helping someone take a 180-degree turn. It’s more complicated than that. Especially with a group of adults who have made decisions that have put them behind bars, or who have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what makes this time so interesting, so crucial and so significant is that most of these inmates have no idea what their near futures hold. An uncertainty permeates the walls through which they walk, day in and day out. Most of them haven’t had a trial yet, haven’t been sentenced or acquitted. They’re kind of in limbo, in purgatory. Waiting.

Watching. Respecting. Reading. Reflecting. Regretting.

Filed under: Prose