Book signings are great for stories, as every author knows. Everybody has one they want to tell you.
I’ve had my share as I’ve done readings for “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup.” There was the teenaged woman who lived on the streets, but finally got a job and a room for “me and my baby.” The grandmother who lost a son and daughter to crime. The Viet Nam vet who did lots of drugs until Jesus found him.
At one recent reading, I couldn’t help noticing the woman, last in line, staring down, clutching my book. When she got to me I wasn’t sure she’d give it up to be signed.
“I’m almost afraid to read your book,” she winced. “I have two boys locked up. I hear bad things happen in prison.”
That’s all she said. Then she asked me to sign her book, took it back and left.
Seeing the stunned look in her eyes, I knew I hadn’t eased her mind. I’d read the chapter about Dario, a young student of mine who was in solitary confinement in the county jail where I taught. A hard chapter to write. A hard chapter to read aloud. A hard chapter to listen to thinking about your locked up sons.
She was right, bad things do happen in prison. Especially if you’re young. Department of Justice statistics—on sexual assault and physical abuse (done by staff as well as other inmates); on medical treatment denied; on arbitrary harsh discipline—bear out her fears out.
That evening, leaving the bookstore, I wish she hadn’t bolted like an animal in pain. Because, if I had had time to think, I would have offered her a few fragments of hope. Strange words, I know, coming from a guy who for ten years taught minors jailed with adults and has chronicled prison’s brutal culture.
Still, I would have told her that as bad as it was, there were a few good people who work in jails, who in their own small ways tried to make things better for inmates with their hardheaded compassion.
Like Correctional Officer Huston. He was a strong advocate for kids. Tough as he was on administration for their mistreatment of minors (he was always in trouble with corrections for his outspokenness), he was equally tough on the kids he worked with. He held them accountable for their crimes; didn’t let them blame “the man.” Still they listened to him because he didn’t hide behind his badge. “I was trouble,” he told them. Cut school. Stole cars. Did drugs. Saw buddies locked up. “But I got out, off the streets. If I could, so can you.” And they began to think maybe they could. For once somebody had faith in them.
Rev. Wilkins was another one of those glimmers of humanity. A scruffy-dressed chaplain, he was everywhere: in a hallway with an inmate after an upsetting family visit; in a corner of a chaotic cellblock sitting with a boy whose mother recently died from AIDS; in bible study trying to answer some knotty question posed by a troubled believer. Inmates were drawn to him, especially my students, because most of them never had a father. They knew he loved them—yes, loved—and would do anything for them in jail and out—jobs, clothes for an interview; a place to stay.
And then there was Fabiola who was hired by corrections to develop a young offenders program. She designed a model block that gave jailed minors unprecedented supports with the aim of keeping them out of jail once released. Like past projects, corrections poured resources into it. New prison reforms made great public relations: newspaper articles; TV broadcasts; tours by state politicians. But then inevitably (I’d seen it happen before,) perversely, administration started sabotaging its own program. But that didn’t stop Fabiola. She had spent 20 years helping troubled kids and didn’t give up. She continued to fight mightily against corrections’ inertia.
There were other good people in the county jail where I worked. The kitchen manager who made sure guys with no money for commissary had night time snacks; the social worker who helped a kid get his long withheld psych medication; or the inmates who shared whatever cookies, soups, and beef jerky they had to celebrate a new jack’s birthday.
None of those good people made the bad go away. If anything their caring highlighted how cruel and bankrupt our criminal justice system is. But prison life would be even bleaker, more intolerable without them. I wish that mother had stuck around. I would have told her.