Beyond our Prisons

“Sometimes you gotta get ‘pulled away’ from your life in order to realize that you were already ‘away’ mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

                                                                                         -Glenn Robinson

Glenn Robinson is 33 years old. J.R. Furst is 31. Glenn Robinson is of African American descent, and J.R. is white-ish. Glenn was hustling, stealing and providing for his family by the age of 12, while J.R. was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Glenn is serving 40 years at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA. J.R. is not serving 40 years. These two individuals started corresponding—via handwritten letter—in November of 2012. Together they founded Beyond This Prison.

THE STORY

Bold Italics = Glenn’s Voice

Standard Font = J.R.’s Voice

Most of my friends are either dead of in Angola State Pen serving life sentences. As for family, well, I only have a few that are still on this journey with me. Everyone isn’t built to withstand the struggles and sacrifices that are to be made when dealing with an incarcerated loved one.

I had totally blocked contact with family & friends, because I figured that was a perfect solution—blocking all communication from the outside world. It turns out that I was only paralyzing myself.

Imagine going in for surgery. The anesthesiologist puts the needle in your arm. You lose the ability to move or speak, but you are still aware and can still feel. They wheel you into the operating room. You’re trying trying trying to let the doctors know that you’re still awake. They’re about to SLICE INTO YOUR SKIN! Stopppp!! Stopppp!!

…All is lost though. Your efforts are futile. Everything except for your mind and heart are comatose. You simply can’t connect with the outside world. As the knife cuts into the skin, you SCREAM bloody murder, but no one can hear you.

That’s sort of what my young life felt like…

In the environment where I grew up, everyone has some kind of motive for their affiliation, so trust isn’t something you give away easily. It’s actually been in prison (where I’ve resided since I was 17) that I’ve learned that everyone isn’t out to gain off of me. Prison has taught me how to love, respect, appreciate, trust and accept people in a whole different light. In here, you’re alone! You can own your reality and grow as an individual, or you can die inside of a barricaded mind.

My ‘waking up moment’ came in the form of writing. One night, I felt so isolated and so deranged that something just popped. I’d gotten so low that I ended up coming out the other side. I was 16 years old.

I’d gotten stoned with some ‘friends’ of mine. Smoking marijuana was not pleasant to me, but I didn’t feel well anyways, so what was the difference? We drove around doing nothing. I was dealing with three different kinds of fog: the misty one descending on the city streets, the smoke of the marijuana in the car, and my foggy mind. That’s a lot of fog!

Later, after having been released from my duties as a ‘friend’, I was in my room feeling demonic. Feeling sick. Feeling ill. Feeling like a monster. I turned on the television to distract myself, and I also turned on a Bob Dylan record. I needed all the white noise I could get.

Bob Dylan was loud. The television was louder. I wasn’t touching the volume dials of either, but it felt like the levels were rising. My ears felt like they were going to bleed. It was too much!!!!!! I lost my sh*t. I flipped. I reached a boiling point. I wanted to scream, but I’d lost my voice a long time ago—if I ever even had it. Because I had no voice, my body screamed for me. It heaved itself, and it awkwardly fell into the chair at my desk. Without full control of my motor skills, my hands flopped onto the keyboard like dead fish…

That’s when it happened. The chair was like an electrical outlet, and my tailbone was like a plug. Once the circuit was connected, my spine straightened, my shoulders pulled back, and my eyes focused. I regained the motor skills in my hands…and BLAST OFF. My fingers moved like gigantic spiders across the keyboard. My body was literally shaking. As fast as my fingers were moving, I would’ve liked for them to move faster! The energy surge was that strong.

I thought to myself, THIS IS FREEDOM!!!! I FEEL FREEEEE!!

Well, I’ve chased that feeling ever since. Everything I do in my life is an attempt (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) to be in touch with my core truth, and to express and nurture it in a courageous way.

Through chasing this feeling of freedom, I came across Glenn Robinson. I needed an ally. I needed to create a resonance chamber. Unconsciously, my Yang was looking for a Yin—and the cosmos obliged.

I checked out www.writeaprisoner.com, and I scanned through hundreds of profiles. Out of all those individuals, I just happened to find Glenn. Right from the first letter, I got this sense from him like, “It’s about time, J.R., I’ve been waiting for you!” We hit the ground running.

I’d gotten on www.writeaprisoner.com to meet new people and to try and establish healthy relationships with some down to earth, unbiased individuals. II was basically just throwing rocks in a big pond trying to create ripple that stood out from the others.

I was self-conscious of how J.R. might be viewing me. I’m a young black man that’s doing time for a capital offense, and I came from a rough upbringing. He, on the other hand, is a well-bred white guy from the other side of the tracks. Usually my type is looked down upon by his type—or so I thought.

After a few correspondences, though, I learned that he’s a genuine brother with a beautiful outlook on life, and that he and I are 2 soljas fighting the same war—just from separate sets of circumstances. It’s a war of bringing people out of their mental & spiritual prisons.

I’d spent my life dealing with internal incarceration and he’d spent his life dealing with external incarceration. His world looked like what my world sort of felt like, and vica-versa. Both of us sought freedom. In fact, as I did more and more research, I found that most humans are looking for freedom on some level. Whether it be that nice sense of freedom that comes from finally clocking out of work at 5:00, or the freedom to marry whomever we choose, or the freedom to be out of debt, or the freedom from anxiety, anger, fear and stress. Most of us seem to want to feel free.

Large swaths of society (consciously, or unconsciously) see color, status and background as an important factor when getting acquainted. That’s an ugly disease that doesn’t exist between myself and J.R. He’s become a brother to me. He’s a vanguard and a second spirit. When you’re going through hardships in life, it’s isn’t about who started that journey with you; it’s about who helps you cross the finish line. It’s about the ones you can count on to help you make it through. That’s J.R.! He’s a right-hand man…sort of like a 1st grade homie.

It’s as if we’ve been through life 2gether. We’re the best of both worlds! “The Gangsta & The Gentleman”! Through viewing our friendship, hopefully the world can see that true friends aren’t built off of color or upbringing. We are BEYOND This Prison!

As part of our co-founded organization, I edit chunks of Glenn’s letters, have them illustrated, and then post them on www.beyondthisprison.com. I host Youth Programs where we connect youngsters with their own incarcerated pen-pals, and they create art based off of the correspondences. I also facilitate all inclusive workshops called UNSHACKLINGS where we run highly participatory activities using prison not only in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense as well.

Over the past 3 years, Glenn and I have composed hundreds of handwritten letters, written dozens and dozens of emails, and have a phone conversation on at least a weekly basis. In December, I took an epic 54 hour Greyhound bus ride to Louisiana to meet him for the the first time.

The journey’s just beginning…

JRWeez

J.R. can be contacted at beyondthisprison@gmail.com.

More from NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

About this post: These pieces will appear in Concertina, Joseph Bathanti‘s forthcoming book of prison-related poems, from Mercer University Press. Bathanti is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, where he is Director of Writing in the Field and Writer-in-Residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project.

Recidivism

From the Latin: recidīvus “recurring” and recidō “I fall back” and re “back” and cadō “I fall.” 

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Before working in a prison, I had never heard the term. A guard, Albert Overcash, took me out on escape with him – a violation that would’ve meant his job. Albert knew the guy on the run – Clarence Vessel (alias Weasel) – and didn’t think it mattered one way or another if Clarence were caught or stayed gone. “I’m sure not hauling him back to the camp,” Albert vowed.

Clarence, a revolving-door drunk, had never hurt anybody. They’d pick him up, drunker than ten men, for loitering or pissing against a dumpster, stealing potted meat at Kroger. Give him eighteen months. He’d serve six active, bump out, then back in for Mogen David, Wild Irish Rose, MD 20-20. DTs, black-outs, his gray matter eaten up with rotgut.

Albert laid this all out to me. Before I knew anything. Before I had a notion of time and captivity. He didn’t want to be a prison guard; but, my age, he had a wife and new baby girl. In high school, he had had a tryout with the Cubs, then got his girl pregnant and dropped out before graduation to work, copped a GED, and finally picked up the job at Huntersville Prison: simple enough if you could navigate the application and clear the PIN check. A shitty job with shitty wages, but stability and benefits. He was chipping away on a degree in Criminal Justice at Central Piedmont. He smoked reefer and drank malt liquor. Thin hair fell over his ears; he wore gold bracelets and necklaces with his uniform. The old guards didn’t like him. He thought every last bit of it was a farce.

We just rode around the day Clarence Vessel ran, relieved we didn’t run up on him. As dictated by procedure, Albert communicated over the CB to the other vehicles involved in the chase: 10-4 and What’s your 20? On his chest, he wore the silver Department of Correction nameplate: M.A (for Maynard Albert) Overcash. We crossed into Cabarrus County, stopped at a roadhouse for beer and corndogs, listened to Led Zeppelin, threw darts and drove back to the Unit.

I don’t know if Clarence was ever found. 60 to 70 percent of the men and women sent up go back to prison at least once during their lives – not even taking into account the ones who never get out. Those numbers seemed so absurdly impossible that I dismissed them – Albert’s kind of joke, a stab at irony. He worked third shift, all night – the dead man’s shift – when the prison unleashed its haints and diabolical. He’d hole up in the sergeant’s office, between the two wings of the cellblock, packed each with ninety convicts, bunked three-tiers high, some very dangerous men, and read Stephen King. Albert and I went to the Capri on opening night and watched The Shining. He insisted we sit in the first row. Those bloody, desiccated monsters hurtling through the screen into our faces. We were both twenty-three. He knew I was trying to be a writer. He had a drawer full of stories he promised to show me.

But for all that, he invested in the wrong person, forgot the first principle of his profession: Never trust a convict. Contraband (another term): a buzz, some tiny shimmer to elevate Albert above the yard into the book he was dying to write – maybe about a young white prison guard with a new family who gets roiled up with a black convict cook, perhaps the two are secretly in love, and sells his soul for a weedy lid of dirt-clotted home-grown.

Albert got popped. Ended up trailing time himself at a minimum camp in Anson County: 6 months active – like Clarence Vessel. Often that’s how it starts: a fellow catches piddling time behind an innocent high, wrong place, wrong time (same way Albert explained Clarence). Could happen to anybody: one lousy misfire and you find yourself a convict, sporting prison greens, in constant peril. Perhaps that life even becomes you.

After that first jolt, Albert flopped back and forth to the penitentiary, mainly possession and public drunks, dibbing and dabbing, and finally he ran. He’s out there somewhere, right now, his name on a fugitive warrant.

 

Freedom Drive

At Camp Greene, I picked up two inmates rigged out in street clothes for work-release interviews at Jack’s Steak House on Freedom Drive. A petite convict named Short Dog,

all mouth, never stopped, the almighty dozens – what the inmates termed jooging

a nervous conspiratorial laugh, toothpick, black leather jacket, and black toboggan.

Like a warhead. And a husky woman I had never seen before: Debbie, from the Halfway House on Park Road. Garish make-up, close afro, decked in hot pants, platforms, skimpy red tube cinching her considerable breasts, yet practiced in her dainty airs.

She and Short Dog lounged in the back seat of the state car: a blue ‘74 Valiant that bore the North Carolina Department of Correction decal on its front doors: a downward arrow that suddenly U-turned Heavenward, symbolic of the restoration engendered by a stretch in prison – the DOC at its most allegorical. The car had a bright yellow commonwealth tag and a CB that was to remain engaged whenever the vehicle was in operation. Along the drive shaft was a bracket to rack and lock a shotgun. I had switched off the CB. We listened to the radio. Autumn of ’76, Dylan’s Desire: “Hurricane” and “Joey.” The inmates liked those songs – the blood and danger.

We plopped in a booth at Jack’s. Debbie, red lipsticked mouth, batting eyes, blush caked on her high brown cheeks, propped her big breasts on the Formica – a carnal chaingang icon – Short Dog grinning gaudily, balancing the shaker in a drift of salt, worrying that toothpick around his mouth like a compass needle. The manager asked them a few questions, and hired them on the spot. Inmate labor was cheap and dependable.

On the way back to the camp, they smoked cigarettes, and held hands. We dropped by the Dairy Queen and together slowly ate the white pristine cones. Short Dog, later on the yard, finally clued me that Debbie was no girl, but Dwight, a transsexual, not the same as a he-she, but an inmate who had crossed over prior to going down; therefore the State was obliged by law to keep the hormones coming and everything else, including, if and when, the irrevocable surgery.

Debbie – everyone called her the girl – wore Honor Grade fatigues on the yard, but come lock-down shed to teddies and camisoles, a straight-up female – you couldn’t tell the difference – with a vicious body and lingerie living in the penitentiary dorm with 180 men who hadn’t had a woman in years. And she fought like a gladiator.

Convicts arriving on the transfer bus figured they’d caught the best time on the State.

A nightmare for custody, the Department didn’t know how to classify her, what pronoun was appropriate. Technically she was not a woman, so they couldn’t transfer her to Women’s in Raleigh. She was clearly not a man.

I didn’t know a damn thing, and that was never more apparent than that afternoon on Freedom Drive when I could not distinguish a man from a woman. I was just driving the car, digging Dylan, and a 50-cent cone from the DQ. In fact, I had been thinking: Mother of God. But not a desperate or even imploring Mother of God. Rather, a prayer of thanksgiving, near euphoria, that my life was just starting and the world was so utterly strange.

New Ways to Look

By Joe Donovan

About the guest blogger: Joe Donovan loves words, dislikes shoes, and would probably rather be in a tree right now. He is passionate about prison reform, restorative justice, and peace education, as well as about writing and other forms of creative expression. He is currently a senior at Georgetown University.

Joe interns with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which serves juveniles who have been sentenced and incarcerated as adults in the Washington, DC jail. Participants take part in a poetry and creative writing workshop, through which they use writing as a tool for self-expression, reflection, and personal growth. Free Minds continues to offer services after members age into the federal system (because DC has no state prison system, incarcerated youth are funneled into federal prisons around the country after turning 18) and provides reentry support when members finish their sentences and return to the community. Free Minds also connects members and their writing with the community through its outreach programs, On the Same Page and Write Night. For more information, visit freemindsbookclub.org. To read and offer feedback on poetry written by the incarcerated youth of Free Minds, visit their blog.

I’ve had the joy and Second Semester Senior privilege of taking a sculpture class this semester. It’s been incredibly refreshing and has reminded me just how important creativity is to feeling like myself. Pushing my need for creativity and expression to the side has been too easy for me throughout my time in college, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to rediscover that side of myself. Just as importantly, it’s been a chance to explore the connection between creativity and the process of working for dignity, solidarity, and social justice.

For our first assignment in the class, each student constructed a “space frame,” a hollow cube/rectangular prism made by gluing wooden rods together. Then we had to fill the space with Art. The class started just as I began my time with Free Minds, and I was (and remain) hugely inspired by the strength and beauty of the members’ writing and stories.

I had been particularly touched by a poem written by young Free Minds poet DW, “They Call Me 299-359,” the title poem for Free Minds’ literary journal. The poem captures both the dehumanizing force of the prison system and the power of self-expression to overcome that force, and so I decided to base my sculpture around DW’s words. Here’s what came out of it:

It’s easy to look at a person in prison and see nothing but the cell they’re in.

1

We can fool ourselves into thinking that’s all that’s there – it’s easier to put a human in a cage if you don’t see the humanity.

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But if you’re willing to change your perspective even a little bit, what you see starts to change. And things get more complicated.

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There’s always a story there if you look for it. Here’s DW’s poem They Call Me 299-359, which tells a little slice of his.

“Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband / Guilty by appearance and judged by my race / Guilty until innocent in the words of a DA

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Lost in a cold dream called prison / Four sharp corners, eggshell paint, dusty gray floor

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They call me 299-359

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Correctional officers view me as a stupid savage / I push the pen so that I remain happy

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Mama and Daddy, these are the unwritten words of your baby’s diary

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My orange jumpsuit and number are only the book cover / So please don’t judge / My words are pure as gold / Not aware of the success that these lines hold

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I operate this pen to fight the war mentality / So please understand me

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They call me 299-399 / Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband”

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Words can build new, beautiful realities even in the ugliest places

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But the work of seeing people for who they are is never completely finished

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We have to keep finding new ways to look

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Because seeing beauty requires standing on the right side.

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Since writing this poem, DW has served his sentence and returned from prison. He is taking college classes while holding down a job, and likes to be known as The Poetry Man.

Between the Bars Blog: A Space for Stories, Dialogue, and Opportunity

Charlie DeTar, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and social justice activist, has been concerned about our criminal justice system for many years. He has watched the prison population skyrocket to over two million, and the gap between the number of African Americans and Caucasians behind bars grow exponentially. Knowing that one in three Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, DeTar can’t help but draw parallels between the prison system and slavery. “The Fourteenth Amendment only outlawed slavery for those not being punished for a crime,” he says, “but what we have here is a dramatic accounting of the same practices of slavery that were going on 200 years ago.”

DeTar also recognizes the significant challenges that men and women face when they return to their communities after being incarcerated. Finding housing and employment can be quite a challenge for those with criminal records, as can accessing public assistance of any form. With so few resources available to formerly incarcerated men and women, it’s no wonder that the recidivism rate is over 50%.

Armed with this information, and passionate about providing a forum for the voices of incarcerated people, DeTar decided to create a blog where prisoners could post their stories. Between the Bars was initially launched as both a service and research project last October, and was met with an immediate influx of letters, stories, and poems from incarcerated writers. However, DeTar and his colleagues ran into some barriers to the research aspect of their project, and had to temporarily shut down the site. They re-launched in April, and already have been contacted by between 400 and 500 prisoners. Nearly 200 have sent in at least one post or profile.

When DeTar and his team of volunteers receive a post from someone in prison or jail, they scan it to the blog. Visitors to the site can assist in the transcription of the post, and are encouraged to comment on the posts that speak to them. These comments are then sent back to the writers, creating an opportunity for dialogue. For those behind bars, this is a valuable opportunity to feel connected with the world outside the razor wire. By “giving people a platform where they can speak in own voice,” the blog enables writers to form “a personal identity outside the dynamic of prison.” This identity, as well as the social ties they have fostered through Between the Bars, can be carried with prisoners when they are released, helping them to feel more connected to their community and more prepared to face the challenges that await them on the outside.

For those visiting the blog from the comfort of home, Between the Bars provides an opportunity to learn about life inside our nation’s correctional institutions from the perspective of those most affected by them. DeTar hopes the site will help “break through the tendency people have of viewing people in prison as “untouchable class”, and inspire more compassion and activism. Prior to creating Between the Bars, DeTar spent a great deal of time reading work by incarcerated writers, and was “fascinated by their inside perspective. Even the most mundane stories,” he reflects, “drive home just how unproductive the whole experience of prison is…if people on the outside can see what life is like in prison, if they see prisoners as humans, as complex individuals with hopes and desires, they might start working against the sense that tells us to treat them as the fearful other.”

DeTar reports that Between the Bars now has a waiting list of almost 150 prisoners. Due to the tremendous success of the project, he and his colleagues (all of whom are volunteers) are exploring ways of more efficiently managing the site so that they won’t have to turn anyone away. In the meantime, they will continue to post letters and send every comment back to the writers. The most important thing supporters of the blog can do, says DeTar, is post comments – the writers long for the chance to connect with us.