Guest Contributor: Anne Bocchini Kirsch
My relationship with words goes back as far as I can remember. I’m a writer from a family of writers – my nonno’s ability to define any word in the dictionary was renowned, my mother is a professional editor who created new space across 5 decades and continues to do so. I took my natural ability for granted. Writing was something I did when asked, but without purpose. I had little recognition of the true power in a well-told story.
I was incredibly lucky that my general education included a plethora of writing classes ranging from poetry and creative writing to essays to scientific and legal writing. Although I left school in 2002 at the demand of an oppressive husband, I brought my writing with me. I carried it secretly through a decade and a half of domestic violence and suffering where I was temporarily silenced, but never completely destroyed.
I was incarcerated in 2015, which concurrently extracted me from the nightmare of my marital home and thrust me into the next horror of a year and a half in segregation. As one of only 3% of people who refuse a plea and go to trial, my process was protracted and intensely adversarial. I struggled to stay sane enough to fight my case in the confines of an empty room with no human contact, no professional support, and a phone call only twice a week. Suddenly my half forgotten natural skill became my means of survival. It was the contact with my family, my only way to express myself, and a way to pass days that stretched to torturous infinity.
When I was finally released to the prison population in 2017, one of the first things I bought was my typewriter. My spoken voice was nearly gone from trauma, but on paper, I could reach out and be understood. I thought I was restoring myself, but it wasn’t long before a woman approached me for help with her parole packet. She had a compelling story, but a limited educational background – a problem all too common among incarcerated people. I decided to take the job, and suddenly storytelling was more than a pastime, it was a path to freedom for the women I helped.
I spent the next 3 years writing for people, helping them explain their situations, their remorse and their growth to the Courts and the Parole Commission. I took the creative and legal writing classes available to me, and enlisted others to do the same. By 2020, I was collaborating with other writers on the prototype of the parole packet I use in my work today, and then COVID struck. In-person activities dissolved overnight and the prison went into lockdown. Fear gripped the entire institution, the entire world.
Suddenly, with many of us living behind locked doors for 23.5 hours a day, writing took on a whole new dimension, just as it had for me the year and a half I spent in segregation. In order to stop all the programs from being crushed, I transformed the Celebrate Recovery program into a correspondence class, working with the Chaplain’s Office to distribute books, collect lessons, and hand out responses. I personally wrote back to each lesson, trying to encourage others through the dark times and offer what support I could.
As COVID stretched into an endless horizon of empty days, our administration sought ways to bring activities to our rooms that could break the monotony. Among those things was CorrespondARTS – an unlikely and unique program to begin with, particularly in a prison, but one that was certainly welcomed in a time of total despair. We readily did the assignments, looking forward to the manila envelopes of feedback and lessons that got slipped under our doors and finding ways to share them in our brief outings so we could collaborate, edit and improve.
One of the assignments was to write a letter to your future self. My future self was, I imagined, the woman who would one day walk out of that prison and into the world. That woman would be tempted to take the easy road, walk away, and forget the past as most people do when they are released. But, I expected more of myself.
“On the first day of my next life”
I know you’re exhausted. You never wanted to fight, but they drafted you anyway. They ignored your conscience and objections, deployed you to the front-line trenches of abuse, deprivation and servitude. You already knew how to fear, but they taught you to hate. I need you to harness that.
You experienced an injustice, but you witnessed a thousand more. I know you’re scared. I know you’re relieved to be free. I know you want nothing more than to hide somewhere they can never hurt you again. You probably think you deserve a little peace. But you can’t have it yet. The war’s far from over, and you left good people behind enemy lines.
So go ahead, take a moment to gaze down that long, quiet road to the Northern Territories. Travel it in your heart, then lace up your boots. It’s time to end this conflict.
Remember every wound, every indignity, every insult. Everything you experienced and everything you witnessed. Give in to outrage, but never anger. Seek change, never vengeance. Remember that the colossal enemy is composed of individual people. Good people, trying to do the right thing. Educate, don’t destroy.
You already have all the weapons you need. Stories capture the imagination better than a roadside bomb. Words have more stopping power than an AR-15. It’s easy to throw a punch. Find some real courage and start a conversation.
I know I’m asking a lot of you, but I’m not asking you to do it alone. I have no idea what your world looks like, but I know there are other people in it. People who want to help. Find them. Work together. Become the voice of healing and compromise. Suppress fire with peace.
I reread that letter the day before I walked out of prison. I started my job the next morning as PREPARE’s Director of Advocacy. It was not the world I’d imagined, but as I’d predicted, the good people were there. It is not yet the world I want to live in, but I’ve joined in the hard work of bringing a community together, and as long as we stick together, there is hope for the future.
The following artwork was submitted through the Who I Am Today project, a program created by Anne which collects the art, photos, and stories of incarcerated people with long sentences who have done positive things with their time. They hope for legislative change in Maryland that would allow them to receive a second chance.
Anne Bocchini Kirsch is a graduate of the CorrespondARTS program at Maryland Correctional Institution – Women (MCI-W). She was released in 2022, and continued her collaborative work in parole advocacy with PREPARE, an organization that seeks to draw state agencies, community organizations, and justice-impacted people together to facilitate rehabilitation, parole success and positive reentry. She believes that everybody is capable of redemption, and wants to invite the world to witness the transformations she’s seen firsthand.