Sharks and Butterflies

By Chris L.

The analogy of the menacing and the majestic is a common theme throughout the observation of nature – be it human or animal kingdom. A convicted felon is labeled as a “menace to society,” but a butterfly can also be a prisoner, when trapped inside a caterpillar.

The allegory of a cell being a cocoon of evolution can easily get overlooked – especially when popular thought is to keep a shiv sharp…or get shiv’d by a shiver of sharks. A room full of incarcerated men were asked if they’d rather be a shark or a butterfly. These hardened criminals reacted in a mini uproar of tangible sighs, razzberries, and dismissive hand waves with disdain and disbelief that they were even asked such a preposterous question.

Their collective mind fixated on the thin fin cutting thru the water – and that extra row of teeth revealing itself when they’re about to sink into the flesh of their prey. It was unanimous that the guys saw themselves as sharks. It was then explained that those big fish go stir crazy after they’ve been in confinement, and they can’t even swim straight upon release.

Butterflies on the other hand…they are better for their confinement. They went into it as crawling caterpillars and came out with wings and flying colors. The activity within a chrysalis is a programmed mix of destruction and growth. Some cells die, and body parts atrophy. The same is true for a cellhouse in the penitentiary.

Nevertheless, there are certain cells in this majestic creature in the making – as well as the rare diamond in the rough residing in a cell – that have been in place since birth, ready to rapidly expand.

The butterfly reveals itself as completely transformed, with the ability to fly over the limitations of its past. Setting its own standard for newfound freedom.

The Return

By Branden A.

After spending eighteen years in prison, I felt like a baby bird taking his initial flight. I now had the entire universe to explore at my own free will. It was exhilarating, a feeling of being uncaged and free, but what was I coming home to?

Hired by the Indiana State Hospital within two days of release, I was making a living by working at a temp agency in the food service department. With my family and childhood friends in my corner, I felt hopeful about my future but the lights beyond the prison walls aren’t always bright.

I saw darkness. Humanity didn’t progress while I was gone, it declined.

Technology baffled me to the point of great confusion. I didn’t know how to email or tackle the basic things people take for granted.

Also, my hometown had become a war zone. My nieces and nephews had grown up alone – the cycle of incarceration – ever present in their lives. In my neighborhood, drugs were still there and the dealing game was strong. A lot of my childhood friends were still caught up in that life. I had to learn to distance myself from them. The lifestyle breeds jealousy, greed and criminal activity. It was still around me.

In addition to technology and the streets, I had a tough time adjusting to my work environment. I was lied to, passed over for opportunities of advancement and felt undervalued. I realized that everything I had learned in prison – studying culinary arts and receiving certificates – didn’t matter in the workforce because of office politics: who you know, and what you’re willing to do. Stress and anxiety weighed me down.

I quit my job with no safety net to harness my fall.

Two months had passed without employment and it tested my core but also revealed something – how I can endure – especially after almost two decades of incarceration. Still, I was completely broke, broken and embarrassed. I stayed in my house for two weeks, too embarrassed leave. I dove into my safe space, searching inside myself for answers.

I shared my disappointments with my mom. I began to set boundaries with friends and started to build up the confidence I had developed in prison. With a change of mindset, I was now ready to forge ahead, and move at my own pace, feeling out the culture like a blind man reading braille. I discovered a harsh truth: freedom isn’t free. To be free means sacrificing on a level I was not used to. I was used to feeling important and needed. It was my biggest adjustment.

This made me question who I was on the outside. It wasn’t easy.

While my prison neighbors (grown men with kids and wives who had once upon a time had ordinary lives) held monkey-style wars, I read. While the light in my cell stayed on for 24-hours and flickered a neon glow on my face, I learned. I continued to stick with it once I was released. I contacted my writing teacher to figure out how to continue to rise in my new environment. I wanted to build on the spark ignited while on the inside.

My sanctuary had become writing and I needed it now more than ever.

While in prison, I started writing on a serious level. I had a lifetime pass in the prison library where I spend an agonizing four years in solitary confinement and where there are only two choices: grow or give up. My choice was always to grow.

Within a month of being released from prison and through the work with the writing workshop, I was asked to do talks and readings in Indianapolis, including radio shows and writing contests, and people in my life were amazed with pride. How did the neighborhood knucklehead become a voice and community leader? How did a man that knows nothing about this day and age come home and change a community vibe by just being present? I had once been a street thug with no deep understanding of who I was, trapped in my warped sense of pride.

Was it the talk with my mentor, Mr. Sams, before he was released from prison? He showed me how one can make a difference by solely believing in himself as well as in others? Or, was it the writing teacher, Mrs. Deb, who had sparked a greater purpose of change because I could now could see the special talent that was talked about? This gave me a vessel to hone my voice. Or, did it take me getting kicked out of one prison and sent to another facility within less than six months of my release? I had been labeled a notorious gang leader. It could have been the loss of my father and big sister while gone that was a wake-up call to my soul. I missed too many events. It was time to see the light and be the light, to shine.

Maybe it was a combination of all the people who lifted me up.

My neighborhood is filled with pockets of meth, heroin and pills that was once dominated by crack rock and cocaine but it doesn’t mean I am a product of it. I’ve come too far for to go back. My worst ordeal – imprisonment – made me the best version of myself. I took time to reflect, learn and grow. Without the downfalls, I wouldn’t know which way was up. I’m showing the world how to live, love and smile through adversity. I was gone for a long time but now I have returned.

Branden A. is a thirty-six-year-old survivor of an eighteen-year-sentence. Newly released, he is taking the skills learned throughout his life and honed in the DOC to become a successful writer, which he perfected while in the creative writing workshop.

My Community

by Brandon

Right outside my narrow penitentiary window is a vibrant never-ending landscape just beyond my reach. Every day, I sit and watch the world move and shake with the grind of living in this new day and age, and I remember.

I am almost two decades removed from my era and the world that I knew. I remember a time when things were different, when my parents listened to grown folk music like Al Green, Sam Cooke and B.B. King and threw late night house parties and got drunk. They did dance routines while I drew pictures and told jokes, and it was all good fun for everyone as I wafted through liquor fumes and cigarette smoke. I remember a time when kids were made to go outside and play. I remember my sister and I would debate all the awful things that would happen if we dared drink.

Then, I remember when it all ended: when court-cases heartaches separated my friendships, when gang banging became my way of life, when the Department of Corrections became my plight, where guns transformed into knives, and wrongs replaced my rights.

I cannot forget solitary confinement and realizing how far down the rabbit hole that I went. Surrounded by the suicidal swings of being buried alive and someone still trying to keep a glimmer of false hope inside, even after my Daddy and sister died. I struggle on, remembering where I came from, what I lived through, and the future that I’m headed toward.

I am meant for greatness. I’m meant for more. I can’t wait until the day I can only remember looking out of this narrow caged-in window with the shitty view and instead embrace the feeling I had leaving behind a mountain of misery that kept my soaring spirt shamefully glued to the floor and having pride with my head held high, leaving out the oppressive penitentiary door.

Brandon A. is an inmate currently living at Plainfield Correctional Facility. He is a participant of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Once released, he plans on pursuing a career in culinary arts by operating a food truck while continuing writing.

Intersection

by Debra Des Vignes

Nobody warns you that empathy is an unraveling; that familiarity becomes untied when you’re no longer familiar to yourself – like when you arrive at a place where life gives new meaning. This happens to me each week in prison. I place my keys, purse, and book bag on a scanner for the first guard to search. I pass a second guard station. Then, I walk along a cold concrete floor where emotions are bare, where guard-inmate relationships are distant. I assume the felon position; arms outstretched and sign in with the purpose of my visit. Sounds of steel doors reverberate like a 12-guage shot gun. I settle in a classroom alone, locked in, waiting for eleven men to share their ideas, hopes, thoughts, dreams, and vulnerabilities with me. When I’m having a bad week one offers this advice, “While other people may be able to stop you temporarily, you’re the only one who can stop you permanently.” It’s true, and I use the advice through the week and it gets me through the next. They are at a crossroads in life but so am I.

My students wear tan-colored jumpsuits that button up the front over white T-shirts. Sneakers are all white. My job is to teach them how to write, so I make a list of prompts, but by the second class I find that I am the one learning too. “Scratch” means “money,” “wiped down” means “robbed,” “a dime” means “ten years.” And “The Slam” is the staple food of correctional institutions: Ramen, peanut butter, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and ranch dressing, and I learn how to connect papers by tearing off the ends to make a staple. I ask them to describe an everyday noise that drives them crazy. A favorite holiday. Their first love. Amazed by the ease with which they open-up and their willingness to share secrets – then I lose two students along the way to early release dates – and I feel the loss harder than I expected. And I ask myself, was there more I could have taught them?

Author Samuel Johnson said, “Everything that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shows man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable.” More than the humid smell of eleven bodies joined in a room each week – what permeates this place isn’t the stench of suppressed energy, testosterone buzzing like a thousand-volt live wire – it’s the sacred space we create – a sense of home that moves us beyond these prison halls, away from our past, and away from our troubles – into a place where only light grows.

Under the Mat

by Phil

Two inches of cotton wrapped in plastic, formed and fitted to resemble a mattress placed on top of a steel frame is where I lay my head every day with two sheets and two blankets and a pillow that wasn’t issued. Nope, I had to make it. That pretty much describes every bed in prison – just to give you a little insight on how we’re living. But, what makes each bed different? It’s not how the bed looks. It is what’s under the mat: a lot of legal mail and paperwork from the courts, pictures of loved ones showing support, swimsuit magazines and hood books of all titles, state envelopes, newspapers, some version of the Bible, a fairly new jumpsuit only to be worn to visits that is creased and neatly folded to give that “fresh” appearance, request slips to counselors that will never get a reply, broken down razors for a haircut and a line. And there’s that one thing we all hate to see: a calendar. But for some reason we still take a peak – that itself gives us a reason to never come back and put the things we cherish most, under the mat.

Phil is an inmate currently living at Plainfield Correctional Facility. He is a participant of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Once released, he plans to start a not-for-profit for performing arts helping minority youth. I’d like to show them the alternatives to running the streets.

Happy Birthday

by Phil

Can you believe that at age 29, I’ve never had a birthday party? Sucks, right? Imagine being seven or eight years old, going to your sister’s birthday party, or even a friend from the neighborhood and not having a party of your own. No cake or ice cream. I’ve never made a wish. I’ve never blown out candles. I don’t know what that feels like. I’ve always wondered: what do people wish for when they blow out the candles while they’re making their wish? I wish I had a birthday party.

Phil is an inmate currently living at Plainfield Correctional Facility. He is a participant of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Once released, he plans to start a not-for-profit for performing arts helping minority youth. I’d like to show them the alternatives to running the streets.