Dimensions

By Albert H.

I sat up on many gloomy nights staring at the cell walls. And the small ray of hope ebbed itself through me in a small cell where you are able to only see the embers of dust present themselves as snowflakes dancing in the shadows with their angry, dirty faces. For many decades, I’ve adjusted to incarceration: the faint smell of the zoo and predators move themselves back and forth hoping that some soul would reach in, not to harm, but to feel the warmth of a kind heart. Existence for me became a 4×10 foot cell, in many cases, and as I reached out my arms the cell becomes smaller in size. Dimensions are an illusion. What they don’t compute is the toilet, bunks and sink. In some prisons, I can put a hand and shoulder against one wall and it’s not a far reach. Your existence is a cement dungeon, dry, stripped of all feelings. In these circumstances two men will get to know one another well and some will form a tight bond while others will want to kill each other before the first week is over. Cell size will depend on the relationship. I’ve seen so much violence and grief. For there is a camouflage of bloodshed and a reflection of a man’s eyes through the mirror, and I’m hoping to get a glimpse of some other soul, but really, we only see the screams and a sense of not being heard. I remember the fights behind the walls at another prison in California, and the smell of copper and the blood engraved blanket we wrapped with a man’s flesh and a body being carried out. We chose the life because we were born into this life.

Albert H. is an inmate currently living at Plainfield Correctional Facility. He is a participant of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Once released, he plans on continuing to write and spend time with family.

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On why I work with inmates and chose to submit their writings to the Spirit & Place Festival blog’s 2018 theme: “Intersection”

by Debra Des Vignes

They notice birds that sing prison songs in plantation fields to condemned men with hopeless dreams. In 2017, I founded Indiana Prison Writers Workshop, a creative writing program for those living in Indiana correctional facilities, where I lead a group of inmates through different writing prompts. The questions they ask: “How have our lives come to this and what will we find waiting for us on the other side?”

As I meet these men in their brown jumpsuits each Sunday, their lives intersecting with mine, I am struck by their poise, candor, and eagerness to express their vulnerabilities. It’s true, the sliver of light that appears through a window in an airless room, gives one an odd perspective of the world, and I no longer observe them through my narrowing eyes. We write about crime, the lives that stretch ahead of them, and the intersections we all face each day. At times, the walls around us feel heavy, but we persevere – unearthing deep emotional issues that were once too painful to let out. At times we jump back into our shells and silence settles among us like the weight of the sweltering sun on a muggy day, until we feel light again.

There’s a reason why so many inmates use storytelling as a coping mechanism, a tool to get through the day, the weeks, the months, the years. Being in prison strips one of their “self” where each day, from morning until bedtime, there is a fight to maintain one’s sanity. At times, Chris’ eyes go wide. “Oh, man, is this class for me?” He describes the writing program in this way: “We were immediately given permission to see ourselves as majestic creatures who are allowed to come and go as we please, fly free, and feel the wind beneath our wings. As caged birds we sing our little hearts out!” he proclaims in awe of the freedom he was given. “Now I’m writing a novel.”

These men are not numbers assigned by the Department of Corrections, but true artists. Writing builds confidence. It gives them hope at a time when hope is the one thing keeping them alive. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a new life, where fast-paced tempos once matched a hectic pace of a life, gives way to a calming melody of self-reflection. And where birds, once invisible in some trees, are now squawking. We’re all at an impasse.

In 1950, there were 265,000 prisoners in the U.S. Today, more than 2.3 million inmates sit behind bars in federal, state, and county prisons and jails around the country.