“Why should we let you in?”
I’m at a Sonic Drive-In, speaking with a woman charged with educational/recreational programming for the Del Valle Correctional Complex, a fancy name for a county jail in Austin, Texas. A guy who recently began venturing into the jail to teach creative writing has asked me to help. But I have to be vetted, scrutinized by the gatekeepers worried that my status as a former convict will be, I don’t know, upsetting or something to the prisoners with twiddling thumbs and atrophying brains sitting in the county jail. The fact that I empathize with them, and they with me, and that I may actually present a positive alternative seems to be irrelevant to the administration’s search for motive – why in the hell does this guy want to come back?
I walked Texas prisons for 27 years, published dozens of poems, essays, editorials and a serious non-fiction book while incarcerated. I’m now a graduate student at the University Of Texas School of Social Work. I think I may be what the creative writing program needs to reach a hardhead or two, to maybe inculcate in them the idea that there are paths other than those they are on, outcomes other than halfway houses, the streets, or hanging with those homies with hits in their hands and despair in their eyes.
I’m not aching to go back into a jail or prison, to hear the gates closing again, the keys jangling on the hips of the guards mouthing their contempt for any “hug-a-thug” programs instilling respect instead of self-hate. I know, however, that my return is necessary, and not just to sate that gnawing sense of ”gotta do something” in my gut, but because nobody appreciates an ex-con walking the halls like another convict. They know it’s all too easy to just move on, to cleanse the memories of blood and steel and wire and to let go, and they probably expect that. They wouldn’t think less of me for not putting myself through this inquisition. But I would. And to excons, self-image is crucial. It’s not how others see you, because most will always hold you in suspicion, if not outright contempt. It’s how you see yourself that keeps you straight.
So here I am, with a woman who didn’t invite me to a restaurant or coffee house, but to a rinky-dink outside patio of a cheap burger joint, the waitstaff clackety clacking around on their skates wondering why we’re not in our cars instead of in the brisk breeze of a Texas December. She doesn’t beat around the bush, asking me before I can order my fries why they should let me in.
I tell her that they don’t have to invite me in; that it’s not important that Jorge Antonio Renaud get into a prison, but that it’s crucial that an excon be allowed back under the wire. I tell her it’s essential that the men and women in her jail need to believe – down in the cellular structure where the mystical processes of will and belief are born and nurtured – that there is indeed hope for them, for their lives and for their future. I tell her that it doesn’t make a difference how many teachers and social workers and counselors tell them those same things, not if they haven’t been to prison and then seen the dismissive judgment that immediately appears in the eyes of employers and apartment managers and realtors, all those well-situated, properly dressed and educated gate-keepers of the American dream assigned to keep us out.
You see, in our case, it’s not “been there, done that,” but “left there, had that done to me.” People can hand us pamphlets and give us directions and offer up advice, but if none of those people have actually stood before that judge, awash in guilt and drowning in that socially mandated shame and then found the wherewithal, determination and straight-up guts to make a go of it after release: well, many of us may not believe it can be done.
As we talk, I see her attitude shift somewhat. She’s maybe not used to well-dressed excons speaking in coherent sentences of polysyllabic words. I tell her that’s part of the problem: lots of us look and speak that way, but the image of the shaven-headed, tattooed, inarticulate brute dominates, and images color the perceptions, and the expectations, of free Americans. It’s too complicated and time-consuming, and requires too much actual thought, to parse individual complexities, so we accept the media’s easily understood stereotypes, which stand in for the group.
All cons are addicts. All cons will misuse your trust. No cons can be trusted around children. All excons will eventually return to a criminal lifestyle and then to prison.
Since those stereotypes inform the curriculum of all training taught to volunteers entering any American prison, is it any wonder convicts don’t believe much of what those volunteers say, even if the message is positive and affirming? I’m not saying the convicts should feel this way: I’m saying almost every message that reaches their ears is negative, pessimistic and overtly disbelieving of their abilities and their possibilities. Teachers who passionately speak of inclusion and of the dignity inherent in all humans while visibly recoiling from shaking a convict’s hand don’t do much to overcome those messages.
But a message presented by one of their own, of responsibilities accepted; of dignity demanded; of failures mitigated by small successes: those messages resonate with convicts because they don’t preach; they testify. And testimony driven by the backbeat of a fresh poem is like no other, especially if all involved are writing and reading their own testimony, redefining themselves in images contrary to the dreary pictures they’ve always been limited to.
I don’t know if Del Valle administration will allow me into the prison. The woman said she’d recommend me, but nothing has happened yet. I’ll keep trying, because there’s a parallel to something the Narcotics Anonymous literature says, about the incomparable value of one addict helping another – there is nothing so redemptive, so mutually beneficial to convicts as the voice and help of another convict.
Jorge Antonio Renaud is an award winning writer with the Pen American Center, and a “Prison Issues” writing resident of Blue Mountain Center. He is a member of the Texas After Violence Project, and his book, Behind the Walls: A Guide for Families and Friends of Texas Prison Inmates, is available everywhere.
- 7 Ways to Support Those Behind Bars (criminaljustice.change.org)