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.

Only Human

by Daniel

I am only human. There’s nothing special. I’m just me. I have no super powers that allow me to fly faster than a speeding bullet, freeze time, or control the weather and storms with the power of my mind. I consist of bones, skin, muscles, blood and hair, to name a few things. I am very lucky as I have had faulty parts replaced and have a computer keeping my heart going and in sync with my body. I have a million dollar plus body and to the eye you would never consider it true. Scars and imperfections seem to dominate not only physical imperfections, but also mentally, emotionally, and even socially. I’m not a great catch or that good compared to many that I know and see. I am just me. I am only human.

Daniel B. is an inmate currently living at Plainfield Correctional Facility. He is a participant of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Once released, he plans to finish his sentence on house arrest and get back in touch with his church family.


by Foosie

I’m only human but that doesn’t diminish my perfection in the slightest. When I was born – I was perfectly loved – and nothing has changed since that day. So, let me be one of the first people to ever tell you that I’m perfect.

Born out of wedlock to an OG who already had two kids by two different Dads…perfect. Born a tone of brown that hasn’t always been held in the highest esteem when it comes to pulchritude…perfect. Big nose…perfect. Big lips…perfect. Gap tooth smile…perfect. The water beads off my skin like candy paint fresh from the carwash…perfect.

Tattoo of a lost soldier on my arm…perfect. Gun powder dust on my sleeves…perfect. A mug shot instead of a graduation picture…perfect. Blood on my hands forever…perfect. I woke up this morning…perfect. I have hope for tomorrow…perfect. I’ve got a story to tell…perfect.

Perfect…Not in thought or in word or in deeds but in reality. Perfectly flawed and perfectly loved. And He is. So am I in this world.

Foosie is an inmate currently living at Plainfield Correctional Facility. He is a participant of Indiana Prison Writers Workshop.