[Ed. note: This is an excerpt of Gaye D. Holman’s book “Decades Behind Bars — A 20-year Conversation with Men in America’s Prisons.” The interviews with prisoners were conducted initially at Kentucky State Reformatory and the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Oldham County, with the follow-ups 20 years later across the state. We also interviewed Holman about the book, which you can read here.]
For two decades, I walked through steel gates, into sally ports, and across prison yards into a world unfamiliar to most people, a world that was home to thousands of convicted felons. I was educating inmates, and in a few years, I became coordinator of my community college’s prison program, which gave me free access to all of the area prisons. I taught sociology in three male facilities and a women’s prison, and helped establish college programs for men and women in ﬁve community-custody facilities. I worked with the wardens and deputy wardens and their bosses in the central office.
In 1994, after 10 years of working in Kentucky prisons, I received a sabbatical from my school and permission from the Department of Corrections to conduct a study among the male inmates at two medium-security facilities in the Louisville area. Fifty men worked with me, discussing in writing and personal interviews every aspect of their complicated lives. My idea was to bring their voices alive, to explain the prison experience and the things that brought them there by using their own words. The men opened themselves to me, digging into emotions that some said they had never spoken of before. I produced a manuscript, used it for various projects, and ﬁled it away.
I am no longer working in the prisons, but I am involved in re-entry efforts, helping released men get a new start in the community. Recently, I came across a man who was in my ﬁrst prison class. We reminisced about the various men we knew, and I started wondering about them. I scoured our state’s inmate website, seeing if I could ﬁnd people I remembered. I found some of them still in prison, their appearance greatly changed from my memories. Many had hair thinned or gone. Some had gained weight. All had aged considerably. Few looked really well. I had kept up with some of the other, more recent students after their parole or release. They had called me over the years as they were freed, and gave me occasional updates about their lives. I hadn’t forgotten the men, but I had forgotten that earlier study.
One day it came to me like a lightning bolt. I had a wealth of data and information — information of a depth I had not seen elsewhere. It was now exactly 20 years later. Twenty years after 50 men had openly shared their hopes for their lives, things they feared, things they would work for. Where are they today? I wondered.
I approached the Kentucky Department of Corrections, and jumped through the hoops of forms, description of the proposed procedure, and multiple layers of approval. I received permission to conduct a follow-up study. They kindly agreed to update the whereabouts of the men in my original study. To my great surprise, of the original 50, 15 were still in prison. Nine had been released and were on parole, still under the control of a parole officer. DOC could help me contact those men. The others had served out their sentences and I would be on my own to ﬁnd them. I knew that two of them were dead.
I found I was reluctant to insert myself into the lives of those who I hoped had moved on since their time in prison. My interest kept turning to those who were still incarcerated so many years later, and I decided to focus on them. The original project was to talk about prison and what imprisonment means to a man. Now, I wondered, what does it mean to a man to be locked away most of his life? The original subjects were all college students at the time — which means most were among the brightest and most motivated inmates. Their discussions years ago had been insightful. What would they say now?
In addition to the remaining men in the original study, I added two more men to the list — men who had been in prison in 1994 and with whom I had kept in touch, but who were not part of the ﬁrst study. A third man was added whom I got to know through re-entry efforts just as he was returned to prison. He too had been in prison in 1994 and most years since. One of the original group was released before I could make contact with him.
After rereading all their writing from 20 years ago, I wrote each of the 17 men a personal letter. I explained what I was doing, sent him a form to sign giving his permission to be part of the study. I asked questions that arose from what he said so many years ago. I also sent a long list of generic questions to each man. And then I waited to see if I would hear from anyone.
The letters started arriving. For both sides, it was like hearing from old friends.
The former students remembered things about me and our classes that surprised me and that I had forgotten. One man said I was the ﬁrst person he had heard from in three years; another shared he had advanced Huntington’s disease, his writing scrawled almost illegibly across the pages. The ﬁrst letters often shared news of the death of parents; little was said about other personal relationships that I knew they had at an earlier time. They agreed to help with my new study.
I was worried about the cost of postage and paper in an environment where money is important and most often scarce. They said not to worry about it. They were glad to cover it. I heard from all of the men, and a fascinating correspondence began.
Today there is little available to help the public understand the nuances of imprisonment. But it is important that everyone knows more than the statistics behind the broken system. We need to know, at a very personal level, what it means to incarcerate someone for most of his life.
This book expands the public conversation about incarceration. Here the men speak ﬁrsthand about their experiences and their personal changes over the years — for better or worse. This book has a solid academic foundation, but it is a book for the masses. It is a book for anyone who has seen a shackled, expressionless man on TV and wondered what he was thinking or what brought him to that point. It gives us an honest and sometimes surprising look into the lives of men who have caused serious harm, who have lost everything, but who still ﬁght to be seen by themselves and others as meaningful individuals.
Through the words of the inmates — from both the 1994 study and my more recent correspondence — readers will learn what daily life in prison is like. They will hear what imprisonment means to an individual. The readers will gain an understanding of both the positive and negative influences that the long-term prison experience brings to inmates and all involved with them. They will learn what forces save some men and what forces destroy others. Perhaps the readers will understand what it really means to lock up a man for decades.
The men in this study are housed in state correctional facilities, which are run by state authorities for those convicted of a state felony of more than one year. Inmates convicted of federal crimes serve their time in federal institutions.
While all the inmates have spent time in jail, most of their incarceration has been in prisons. Jails are used to incarcerate those waiting for trial or transfer and those with misdemeanors or felonies with less than a year’s sentence. Jails operate differently from prisons and are not included in this book’s discussion.
Private prisons are run by for-proﬁt corporations and contract with local, state and federal facilities. The debate on the use of private prisons has been long and heated.
The individuals in this study are representative of our nation’s incarcerated. The difficulties they face, the effects of their incarceration on their families and friends, and the horrendous costs to our society, monetary and otherwise, are universal. The words from these men in Kentucky could have been spoken by any prisoner who has spent decades behind bars.
I have kept the identities of most of the inmates in this study anonymous by changing their names. Although some insisted I could use their real names, I know of their vulnerabilities while incarcerated. I would not want their trust in me used against them in the future.
The same is true of most of the staff and administration who are identified only by their positions. I conducted my interviews with them mostly off-site, over meals or coffee. Correctional employees are a tight brotherhood with intricate social networks. In order to talk openly, many required anonymity.
This book is limited to male inmates. In working with both male and female offenders, I have observed that the lives of these two incarcerated groups are surprisingly different. The women have a powerful message as well, but the two experiences cannot appropriately be covered together. At another time and place, the women’s experiences can be studied, but within the covers of this book, we are entering the walls of male institutions.
Each reader will bring his or her own experiences to the conversational table. Each will come with a different personal agenda. Some readers may have been victims of crime and are hurting. Others may have incarcerated family members or friends and will be distressed. Some may be involved in law enforcement or have family members who work in the justice system and see things from that perspective.
To enter the criminal justice system is to enter a subculture unfamiliar to many. A glossary is included at the end of the book to help the reader understand the vocabulary that is common in everyday prison life. A list of issues to consider is included at the end of each chapter to stimulate thought and further conversations. Notes and a bibliography are offered if the reader becomes interested in learning more about the innumerable related areas.
I’ve tried to present this material objectively. I lay responsibility on the readers to examine the feelings that wash through them upon reading about these men and to reconcile those emotions with their preconceived thoughts. As the author, I am motivated by the hope that in this process, new conversations will be started and new questions voiced.
The ﬁrst time I walked across the prison yard alone and unescorted, there wasn’t a soul in sight. It was “count,” a time when the 1,100 medium-security male inmates were frozen in place, their heads being carefully counted and often recounted. I remember feeling apprehension, but it was more the ﬁrst-day-of-class jitters than worry about my surroundings. That was soon to change.
The officer started yelling at me the minute I entered the school doors. “You’re late,” he barked.
I withered as he fussed and complained about the difficulties I had caused.
“I can’t leave ’em in a room by themselves,” he continued. “Can’t have ’em bunched up like this either.”
The inmates, crowded uncomfortably on wooden benches and standing shoulder to shoulder in the hallway, watched with amusement as I stammered about miscommunicated starting times and offered apologies.
The officer’s anger soon turned to stony silence as he pivoted and led the parade of teacher and students up a stark tile-walled stairway, around several corners. On the way, one inmate whispered to me, “Don’t let him bother you.” We stopped at a room where green plants lined the windowsills and trailed their leaves from the top of the bookshelves.
“Find your seats and sit down,” the officer barked at the men. “And don’t put up with nothin’ from them,” he said to me before disappearing to take care of other duties.
Still shaken from the experience with the officer, I looked at my new students who were watching carefully to ﬁgure out what would happen in this encounter. They were like all new students — eager, apprehensive, waiting — but I knew they were all convicted men. I had been told they had killed, raped, abused. In those days, they were all still dressed in their own clothing rather than in khaki uniforms, so they looked like any all-male class. Some looked curious. Others were amused. Most had sympathetic, welcoming expressions as if they knew the emotions that ﬂowed through me. An exception sat in the far back corner. A hulking young blond with a set jaw glared at me. I recognized his face from weeks of news stories — he had shot a cop in the head in a high-proﬁle undercover drug deal gone bad.
Off to a rough start, I decided to come clean. I told them I had just returned to Louisville. This was the ﬁrst class I had taught for the college. It was the ﬁrst time I had taught an all-male class. It was the ﬁrst time I had taught in a prison. I admitted the incident with the officer had me a bit shaken, and I apologized that they had to wait and be put in a difficult situation. I said I would help them with sociology; they would have to help me learn how to operate within the prison. It was the right tone. Only later did I learn why.
The students were happy being assigned to “the plant room.” “It’s pretty,” someone with a country twang said.
I was happy too — a sociologist having the opportunity to get to know ﬁrsthand about prisons. We were back on the right path. But as we started this journey together — 22 male felons and a 44-year-old, ﬁve-foot-tall woman barely topping a 100 pounds — I had no idea where my road with them, and the hundreds who came afterward, was going to lead. They were to change the direction of my life and the way I perceived the world around me.
During the ﬁrst 10 years, I came to know the prisoners personally. I slowly passed their subtle tests, establishing the delicate line between authority and respect. I was in a unique position. I was not an employee of the Department of Corrections (DOC), but had free access within the institution. I followed the rules to a T, but it was clear that I refused to get into the area of discipline and write-ups, as I wanted to stay free from the identiﬁcation with Corrections. I didn’t have to follow the rigid chain of command that shackles new ideas and problem-solving. I was free to knock on administrators’ doors.
And after I aged a bit, even the officers relaxed a little. In the early days, they did not approve of women working on the yard in male institutions and seemed convinced that romance, or worse, was the inevitable outcome.
I was often amused as I realized that, in some ways, I gradually became invisible to the people who worked there. Knowing that I wasn’t part of the DOC chain of command, employees talked freely among themselves and interacted with prisoners in a way that I don’t believe they would have if they thought I could be involved in write-ups or disciplinary actions against them. I saw and heard things that helped balance what I heard from the prisoners. It gave me a clearer perspective on the reality of things that happen behind bars. Trust and respect are key concepts within the prison population. Both have to be carefully established and always adhered to. I learned not to ask or push too much, but by developing a sensitive “internal antennae” system, I came to detect things to question or rethink.
The appreciation the men felt towards many of the outsiders coming in to work with special programs went a long way in eventually getting to know them. When they felt respected, the men began to lower their defensive facades and share more of themselves. But volunteers had a challenge not to get overly involved, to not forget the areas of gray that surround the sharing of any anecdotes. Volunteers were often used for sympathy and became foils in inmate manipulations.
Over the years, I sorted through the confusing maze of establishing trust mixed with mutual respect, understanding, appropriate skepticism, and a greater tolerance of ambiguity.
To understand prison, the men who reside there, and the people who keep them there, one has to like the color gray. In a system where everything is painted with the extremes of black and white, good and evil, trusted and untrusted, the reality is between the two, in the gray area of understanding. Over the years, within the conﬁnes of the razor wire-topped fences, I have seen some of the most hardened convicts do the kindest of acts. And I’ve seen those trusted with their care and rehabilitation resort to nothing short of cruelty. it remained a constant struggle to deal appropriately with ﬂawed individuals (both officers and inmates), acknowledging their strengths while being aware of their shortcomings.
Over time, I learned about the men’s families, their lives and their crimes. I learned how prisons worked. It was a fascinating, if troubling, journey that I took with these men. As a free, law-abiding citizen, I struggled to reconcile the men I knew with the legacy of fright and hurt that they left behind them with their acts of violence, deceit, or thoughtless mistakes. I shared society’s emotional reaction of hot anger when a friend was kidnapped and raped. I felt it when my car was vandalized and things stolen.
As I came to know these criminals personally, I faced the fact that I could not dismiss them as uncaring, useless animals. They were men and women — human beings who hurt, cried, laughed, loved and hated. Most of them had been victims themselves. Many of them agonized over what they had done. They looked for answers to how they could have hurt so many people, destroyed so many lives. Some struggled to change. Some were convinced the change to a better life would be easy, that once they were free, life would be ﬁne. Others, more realistic, knew what was in store for them and were frightened of the future. Some had given up hope that they or their lives would ever be different. Some planned future crimes. But even those who said things would never work out for them in the legal world still struggled internally to develop personal codes to make their lives worthwhile, or at least sensible.
United States has well over 2 million people locked up in our jails and state and federal prisons. We have the dubious distinction of imprisoning a larger percentage of our citizenry than any other nation in the world — well ahead of Cuba, Russia and China. And although the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, our prisons hold one fourth of the entire world’s incarcerated.
Increasingly, there is a long-term population within our nation’s prisons that needs attention. Since 1984, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has quadrupled. Today, one in nine inmates is serving a life sentence. A third of those inmates serving life will never have a chance at a parole hearing. Many others will be considered for parole but refused release. And not all men with life sentences committed violent offenses, nor were all of them adults when they committed their crimes. There currently are more than 2,500 children in the United States with life without parole sentences. Their incarcerations will cost us billions before they die of old age. These extraordinary ﬁgures don’t include the offenders who do not have literal life sentences, but whose penalties far exceed their life expectancies.
Our state and federal budgets are being strangled by the costs of imprisonment. Correctional spending is the third-largest budgetary item in most states, falling behind only health and education. Our appetite for punishment costs taxpayers 80 billion dollars a year. As the costs rise, correctional needs suck away new possibilities to improve education, health care and infrastructure for society as a whole.
The public has little awareness of what it takes to effectively run a prison, even with the most bare-bones budget. They have little understanding beyond what they see and hear on TV about what prisons are really like. They are conﬂicted about what prisons should accomplish.
With economics as the driving force, a controversial but positive move has started to reduce the populations housed in the nation’s jails and prisons. Young drug offenders are given second and third chances and placed in community treatment programs. Some offenders with lesser crimes are brought up for early parole consideration. Hopes rise throughout the institutions, but inmates who have lived long years behind bars are ﬁnding their expectations of early freedom dashed.
Our society does not openly discuss why we are sending people to prison at increasing rates even though the crime rate is dropping in most states. “Out of sight, out of mind” describes society’s attitude about incarceration. As a whole, we are not interested in what happens to offenders once they leave society and disappear behind the razor wire. Prisoners become invisible to us as individuals. Many people say that is OK, but they do not consider the monetary or social costs that must be paid for the care of the wayward. When we lock up people in the United States, we want them behind bars for a long time. But it is not the best practice for any of us. We have to consider the larger implications of our policies.
The thought of votes in the ballot boxes keep politicians and even justices afraid to make decisions they know need to be made. They worry that if a high-proﬁle felon reoffends, the blame will fall on their shoulders.
Much needed discussions are beginning to take shape, thanks to the stark ﬁgures produced by national think tanks such as the Pew Research Center, the Sentencing Project, and the Brookings Institution. In the past few years, books and articles have been produced that look at the troubling statistics and explore the inequalities of the correctional system, the self-perpetuating prison industrial complex, and the conﬂicting laws and sentencing processes of our land. The disparities at all levels are troubling.
We desperately need to have these discussions, but there is still something missing. The conversations fail to address important elements of the dilemma. There is a disconnect between the mood of the public and the intellectualization of the problem.
“What is the purpose of incarceration?” We should be asking. Is it for rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence or incapacity? Those four goals are not always compatible. If rehabilitation is complete, how many more years of a man’s life should be given for retribution? Or is deterrence as a lesson for general society the desired goal? There is much to talk about, and the average citizen needs to be involved in the conversation.
I am different for having spent years with these men as they struggled with their lives. They have placed deep trust in me and have taken much time and energy to help me with this project. They hope, as I do, that the sharing of their experiences will contribute to public conversations about imprisonment or, at the least, cause the readers to think. As one man, now in his 34th year of confinement, said, “I’m glad to help. I’d like to think that my life had some meaning beyond some lines on a rap sheet.”
‘I’m weary all the time’
An Introduction to the Men
How to speak of the journey since 1996? I’ll tell you, a lot of turbulent water has passed under this old bridge since then. I’ll be 57 in May and I feel 100 …. I’m weary all the time.
As the letters arrived from prisons around the state, I scanned each envelope with anticipation. Familiar names on the return addresses ﬂooded my mind with memories. Each envelope was stamped on the back with a variation of the standard prison warning: “Prison mail uncensored. Not responsible for content.” One institutional stamp informed me that, in the future, the inmate’s dorm number must be included on the correspondence or he wouldn’t receive my mail. The long arm of orders, regulations, and warnings reached out to pull me back into the correctional mindset.
I soon learned that the opened envelopes were a door to deeply hidden pain and sometimes I breathed deeply as I started to read. It was a joy to hear from each of the men, but the straightforward way they shared their experiences tore at my heart. The unembellished sharing of facts reﬂected deeply held feelings. They were more insightful, more introspective because of the years they had spent locked up, thinking.
As our letters ﬂowed between the prisons and my mailbox, I saw the ways the ensuing years had changed these men. Most letters reﬂected their younger selves — just more extreme. Some had become more bitter. Anger had become deeper. Others had become more wary, the emotional walls around them thicker. But a few men had become surprisingly mellow. They had found direction and purpose in their lives. A few were becoming unhinged.
I puzzled about their changed personalities.
Each of Michael’s letters was ﬁlled with surprising honesty and candor. I have known this man since he was 10 years old and our paths kept crossing over the years. I was his caseworker at McDowell Hall when he lived at Kentucky Children’s Home. KCH was a nurturing state institution for emotionally-disturbed children. The troubled children were not considered delinquent, but were emotionally scarred and out of control at home or school. Michael has few speciﬁc memories of those years except for a tall fence surrounding the place. His memory is wrong. There were no fences, except around the swimming pool, but in his mind, he has been in prison all his life.
From KCH, he was moved to the Youth Reception Center when his actions crossed the line into delinquency. I saw him again years later at Kentucky State Reformatory and then some time later at another correctional facility. He was out for a few years, but always returned with a charge related to aggression or violence.
Michael is now 57 years old. He has grayed and grown a short stubbly beard and a light mustache. He is lean and short, only 5 feet 4 inches tall. The keen intelligence and humor evidenced in his letters are there in personal contacts, but his insecurities, emotional instability and underlying anger are more obvious and boil just below the surface. DOC says his risk assessment rating is “very high.”
Michael is always friendly when we meet. Each time we ﬁnd each other, we talk over old times. But I never got to really know him as an adult until we began to exchange letters for this project. His letters are all open and candid.
Well, where to start? To state for the record, I don’t think you’re asking all that much of me, so it’s not like I’m making a grave sacrifice. You are my only contact with the outside world, and the personal feelings I share with you can’t do any more damage by you knowing them, than the events that caused them. Retrospection can be painful and sometimes a learning experience. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Sometimes pain is the only proof I have I’m still alive.
His sense of humor remains intact.
If you think you need to expand on your earlier work to help others and more people, then by all means — Hook me up to the gerbil wheel. ☺ I would be glad to help…. With all that said, it’s a pleasant surprise to hear from you. I am chagrined that you found me in prison again, where unfortunately, I seem to spend all my life.
How to speak of the journey since 1996? I’ll tell you, a lot of turbulent water has passed under this old bridge since then. I’ll be 57 in May and I feel a 100 … I’m weary all the time.
As we wrote, Michael caught me up on his family. I sensed his isolation.
Aunt Bea, did I tell you about her? She’s dying of heart failure, haven’t heard from her sister in a while, so I don’t know if she has passed or not. She was like a second momma. So other than you, Ms. Holman, there is no outside world right now.
Well, some would say that I’ve done so much time that prison is my home, but I’ve never felt that way. In truth, I’ve always been in prison, and when I get out, it only means my cell got bigger with a bigger yard. I’ve always been doing time. So yes, I am a very sad man. And yes, in the past I tried to kill myself twice. And while I do not consider suicide as an option, I do cry out to God to take me out of this life where I have no use. I don’t feel that way all the time, but it is a pervasive feeling.
There is a new seriousness, a new thoughtfulness to Michael. “I’m not the most stable person you’ll ever meet,” he said years ago, and that may still be true. But he seems tired of his troubled life. He wants something different, but doesn’t know how to get there.
Michael’s journey is not over. After the research was done, before this book was completed, Michael was released from prison and placed in a halfway house. He refused his medication, couldn’t handle healthy relationships, and ran away with only three months left in his sentence.
Wayne will soon be released after spending 31 years behind bars. In the prison setting, he was always very quiet and private around me, but ready with a gentle smile and polite nod when we passed on the walkway. We occasionally talked about his family, but nothing deep and never a lengthy conversation. It is only through letters that I’ve gotten to know him as a person.
I often wondered how Wayne managed to survive within prison as he is slight — ﬁve feet six inches and 113 pounds. He showed no signs of aggression or anger. He didn’t talk much to anyone. Yet he seemed to get along ﬁne and had the respect of the other men. He explained in letters that when he was ﬁrst arrested and in the county jail, the older men noticed his privacy and liked it. They talked with him and taught him about the “convict code” and how to survive without problems in his upcoming prison stay. He took care of himself and overlooked things that were going on around him. He minded his own business and it served him well.
For men with long sentences or life sentences, you go through a wide range of emotions at one time or another whether you want to admit it or not. When you ﬁrst get sentenced to a lot of years or life, you’re shocked, angry, in disbelief…. You wonder how will I do this much time. Then it’s up to you. You have to mentally prepare yourself. As the old convicts use to say, you had to hook up your wagon and do it, or let the time do you. I mean you have to prepare yourself. What are you going to do once you get to prison? In order to do that much time, you more or less block out the outside world.
At one time or another, every one of us has gotten angry and felt like there is no hope, but for some unknown reason, we all keep going. When I got served-out in 1996 after doing 13 years, that is when I really felt like giving up, that I was never getting out. The worst thing that I had to do was make the call home and tell them that I would not be home for another 20-something years.
After the shock of getting served-out wore off, I was determined not to let them win. I was either going to die standing on my feet or I was going to walk out the door one day a free man. Like a lot of men doing long sentences, you just do one day at a time. Never looking forward or behind you.
I had asked in my original letter what they missed most. Wayne addressed that, too.
What I missed most? You really try not to think about it when you’ve done or have to do a large amount of time. Thinking about the outside world while you’re in prison makes doing time hard and slow, at least for me. But it’s probably the small things that everybody takes for granted: home-cooked meals, sitting under a tree, or looking at the stars, and being with family.
Wayne will be a free man in a few months, having served out his long sentence with some time subtracted for good behavior. He is 48 years old. He has caring parents who moved to the Louisville area after his crime and who have visited him every week for the past 31 years.
As my serve-out date gets closer, it seems surreal being locked up all this time. It’s like being in limbo. Everything changes around you, but inside your little bubble, everything basically stays the same. Anyone who has done a large amount of time who tells you they aren’t nervous or a little afraid of getting out is lying to you and themselves.
Without my parents’ love and support over the past 31 years, I would have been another casualty of the prison system…. They have been taking care of me my whole life. It is time I was there to take care of them for a change.
I suspect Wayne will have more adjustments than he and his family anticipate as he asserts his role as an independent adult after so many years.
It will be a struggle, but I think Wayne will be ﬁne.
The most alarming letter arrived with my name and address scrawled across the face of the envelope at an angle, the penmanship large, uneven and shaky. It was from Stuart. Something was clearly wrong and different. His letter was written on notebook paper, his cursive handwriting weaving large and uneven across the lines.
Nice to hear from you…. I would love to help. I have one small problem to share. In 1999, I was diagnosed with Huntington’s. It’s a nervous disorder like Parkinson’s.
They shake and jerk; muscles and mind shrinking. I can’t swallow. I got it from Mom in a gene…. My writing is terrible, my memory is good, emotions unstable.
After exchanging a number of obviously painfully written letters, I received permission to go see him. It was good to spend time with him, but the changes were startling. Stuart, his body shrunken from earlier years, had difficulty standing — his movements were stumbling and uncertain. His arms ﬂayed continually and spittle ﬂew from his mouth as he struggled to form his words. He had become bald, his face covered with a thin gray beard. His mind was intact, but I struggled to follow his words. I did not see evidence of anguish or frustration. Instead, he seemed at peace.
Stuart has received a lengthy deferment, ensuring that he will never leave the institution alive. An appeal was turned down based on the results of a psychiatric evaluation that concluded that he should stay where he is as he would sexually offend again. When he told me that, he did not argue against the decision.
Recently, after spending almost a year in segregation because of behavior that probably stemmed from his progressive disease, prison officials saw that he would be more properly placed in the healthcare facility. There he has a small room to himself and staff and inmates to help care for him. He waits patiently for the day he believes the Rapture will come and he will be with Jesus.
“I look forward to it,” he says with excitement.
We talked about Chicken Hill, the cemetery on a green rise tucked in the heart of the prison property. He is content.
Cam was a student who always drew our teachers’ attention with his deep insights, skilled way with words and poetry, keen good looks and magnetic personality. I followed him over the years with interest as he had attended high school with my sons, and as a mother, I identified with him and his parents.
Without effort, Cam attracted female staff and workers, often causing him trouble when his liaisons were discovered. One of our own teachers became too attached to him, causing a crisis for me as the coordinator, but that is another story. I thought he would be one of the ﬁrst to write. But there was silence. I followed up with another letter. And then a third. He ﬁnally answered.
Gaye, Everything is ﬁne between us and I am truly sorry for not responding before now and to have disappointed you. My intentions, of course, almost always good, don’t always seem to pave the road beneath me at times. Especially as of late, they seem to be ﬂeeting thoughts at best. Procrastinating doesn’t help! Nor does existing in the Cess Pool of the DOC. I’m in a rut…. Nothing to be alarmed about because it isn’t something I can’t handle — if it were — I wouldn’t admit it….
The last line says it all to me. “It isn’t something I can’t handle — if it were — I wouldn’t admit it …”
I hadn’t set out to make him feel guilty. I just wanted him to know how valuable his input was that he had written and shared 20 years ago. His response let me know that the years had taken a toll. While Cam always shared his emotional depths in his schoolwork and writing, outwardly he was a young man in control. That response and the tone of the rest of his letter showed the same characteristics. But underneath the charm and humor was a man who wouldn’t outwardly admit the pain, even while the anger and frustration rose subtly to the surface.
Another letter, arriving much later, talked about the emotional darkness that had overcome him during the long years he had been locked up. He said he was trying to climb out of the deep pit, but he didn’t know if he could succeed. Later letters and things I heard about him indicated he was still struggling with himself and the administration.
Billy, the only African-American in the original study still left in prison, is an angry man, but has been eager to help with the project. He speaks much of racial discrimination in the prison system, but his anger, which pops up often, seems more anchored in hurt and disappointment than in race.
His mother died just after we began the correspondence. I sent him a sympathy card and her obituary, which cemented our relationship. He answered every question I asked, even though my lists were meant to be of a pick-and-choose nature. Though short answers, they said a lot.
In his ﬁrst letter, before his mother’s death, Billy spoke of his family’s closeness or non-closeness, and I felt his pain. What he didn’t say spoke more clearly than what he did say. “Some of us are very close and some of us are distant. I’ll give more input at a later date and time. It’s hurtful to speak on now. So circle this question, Mrs. Holman, and we will discuss it later.”
Later came sooner than expected with the death of his mother. In his sadness, he began to open up about friends and family.
I have no friends! Those who I considered a friend never wrote to me, never came to see me, and never sent me a single postal money order that could of helped me out tremendously. Not saying that any of them owed me anything because they didn’t. It would have been the thought that counted, especially if you say that you are truly my friend to begin with. As far as family, I can only communicate with them through writing letters. And most of the time, they won’t even respond back.
Why? Only they know why. I can’t call because everyone has blocks on their phones, and don’t want to accept a call from me.
Billy continued on, though, shifting from gentle nostalgia to anger with each letter he wrote. His inner conﬂict showed through. “I keep going through difficult times with faith, willpower and determination to overcome and be a free man, and wanting to succeed in life at something worth living for other than being a conﬁned, locked-up black, African-American male.” But he admitted he is angry. “I am angry every day! Because of the choices I made in life that put me in the horrible place. And strain and heartache and pain I placed on my loved ones. I’m angry now just writing this because it’s where I’m writing it — from ‘Prison.’”
Grant is also an angry man, a bitter man, even though he doesn’t realize it. I believe he sees himself as a gentle soul, and he was always a genuinely caring, quiet person — and helpful — but he was angry 20 years ago and he still is today. He has an outwardly subdued, soft-spoken demeanor. He does not get into trouble in the institution. But his conversations point to an internal burning anger. His many years in prison as a persistent felon have not been kind to him. In his ﬁrst letter, Grant tried to apologize for an incident that had occurred years ago in which he had lost his temper. He said that it was good that he learned from it. The attitude he mentioned does not speak well of his adjustment. “I learned a very valuable lesson. The lesson was that I’m not, nor will I ever be allowed to be a human anymore. To people like you, I suppose I’m to be pitied and to others, about 75 percent, I am to be disdained.” He concluded: “Listen to me, Gaye, I have nothing but grateful respect for you. Prison is hard and I was simply pushed over the edge by the simple reminder of the truth that inmates (me) was at no time to be considered human, nor to be trusted. My fault for thinking too much.”
He has taken all the suggested classes and received the degrees that were offered. He has held responsible jobs on the yard. His DOC risk assessment rating is low. But he has been denied parole six times in the 24 years he has been eligible for release. His sentence expires in 2043. He is 66 years old.
Duane was in some of my ﬁrst classes back in the days when he was involved in the underworld of prison — gambling, drug dealing, stores. Even then, he was a likable, interesting soul. He and another man anonymously left candy on my desk each week. When I discovered their identities, they brushed off their kindness by saying they had plenty of money, giving me a wink. Duane had grown up in prison, but even back then, he was trying to ﬁnd a new way through his life. Now, it seems, he has changed completely. He is one who has mellowed and grown. “The thought of being incarcerated all of my adult life doesn’t play a factor to me because you are aware I haven’t spent 30 years in prison lying around. I have allowed myself to grow out of childhood into adulthood. I don’t think as an eighteen-year-old boy, but instead I think as an adult.”
Duane claimed his life was completely changed by a religious experience. He was known for years as a major player on the yard but was respected by all, and letters I received from others mentioned him often.
“Duane got religion,” the men penned in disbelief. His life story will be recounted in a later chapter.
And then there was Bob, who was released after 26 years, soon after we reestablished contact. He produced a piece he entitled “Musings.” It began:
The fact that I have been in prison for a long time comes as no shock to many. I put myself in prison and accept total responsibility for my actions that got me there. Ah, what did you do, you might ask? If it matters that much, look me up and ﬁnd out for yourself. I was certainly not a choirboy, and on paper, I look anything but a saint.
But remember one thing: I’m not the same man/idiot-child I was all those years ago. As time marched on, post-incarceration, and as society changed, so did I. I grew older, grayer, balder and, in my humble opinion, wiser. An axiom: The person who does not learn from his/her incarceration and who continues to be caught up in “Groundhog Dayitis” is truly an idiot. (Forgive me, Lord, but a raca by any other name is still a raca!) I was a fool for about ﬁve and a half years. I was an angry, litigious horse’s butt. I escaped, had a transcendent experience (which is a whole other story) and ﬁnally extracted my head out of my hinter regions — something I’m still doing by the grace of God.
The letters kept coming. A few wrote once or twice and drifted away. Others wrote pages of helpful answers. The responses to my many questions were wildly diverse and, at times, confusing. Some men said a particular institution was the most unfair, cruel prison in the state. Others claimed the same facility was the safest and best. Some complained about the declining quality of the guards. Others said they got along ﬁne with most of them. All decried in chorus about the quality of the young people coming to prison these days. Like older people on the outside, they fussed about the youngsters who had no respect for themselves or others. Most of them saw the majority of other inmates, both young and old, as disgusting, troublemaking, non-thinking animals. But the youngsters were the worst, they insisted.
As the correspondence became deeper, the issues for me became clearer. I had to understand what these diverse men had in common. I sensed there were common threads that ran between the angry and the mellow, between the adjusted and the malcontents. I began to ponder what was at the heart of the changes that I noticed, both good and bad. I began to understand the impact incarceration had on the lives and psyches of the men.
I was fascinated with how the men dealt with the reality that they may never leave prison. I saw how this closed society molded individuals and how outside forces reached within to save some. I saw things that gave men strength in prison, but which might not hold them up when they were released. I saw some things that I can’t explain.
Like them, I feared for their futures but grasped their hopefulness. •