When You Know, You Owe
Don is excited to give me his new phone number, but he can’t remember it. I’m not surprised. He just got the phone yesterday. Until then, he had never held a cellphone in his hand. Until last week he had occupied a 6’x8’ cell in a maximum security penitentiary. Prison had been his home for the past 34 years.
Don was one of the original three members of the Lifers' Writing Group I started almost four years ago at the state prison. Eventually, there were ten members, all convicted murderers serving out life sentences. We met twice a month for several hours in a grim room in the place that had housed them for decades where they wrote stories about their incarcerated lives. During this time, I listened and learned. While I talked to them about the power of words, they listened and learned, too.
Once, one of the men told me, “Our only freedom is of expression.” It was a freedom they cherished in a way those of us who are free from incarceration cannot really understand. Two of the men had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. They would die in prison. Don and the others had a chance for parole after serving 25 or 30 years of their sentences. The length of their stay was dependent on when they were sentenced and what the “matrix” was at the time. However, there was no guarantee of parole. Both Jimmie and Michael, two of the other men in the group, had been denied twice. Nonetheless, Don told me last fall that he was hoping for a 2026 release date.
It’s common knowledge among inmates that most surprises are not good ones, but Don was one of the rare few who received a good surprise when he was granted parole. The surprise wasn’t because he hadn’t “earned it.” In fact, he had been doing everything right for decades—counseling, therapy groups, education (he had earned a bachelor’s degree), steady work with increasing responsibility, a savings plan, no disciplinary reports ever—but doing everything right doesn’t always work out. When he found out about the parole, he was so excited he had to take me aside during the writing group to tell me. Saying it out loud, announcing it to the other men, would be disrespectful, he said, careful to keep his voice low.
Before I started the writers' group, I had never been inside a prison. I had never known anyone who had served time. My knowledge of life behind bars came from old Hollywood movies and various Netflix series. Now, I am not nearly so ignorant. As another of the men, a recovering meth addict and dealer said to me once, “When you know, you owe.”
By starting the group, I knew, or I was coming to know. I knew about the bells that regulated their days, about the call passes that allowed them to leave their cells to come to my writing group, about the monitored phone calls and opened mail. I knew how many showers they were allowed to take each week, what their hourly wage was, what they ate for dinner. I knew they had done bad things, very bad things, to land here. I knew that Don’s re-entry would be the greatest challenge of his life, and I knew I had to tell these stories.
Lauren Kessler is an award-winning author and (semi-) fearless immersion reporter. She is the author of ten works of narrative nonfiction, including Raising the Barre; Clever Girl; and The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her books have been BookSense selections, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times bestsellers, Wall Street Journal and People magazine "best" selections, Pacific Northwest Book Award winners, and Oregon Book Award winners. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O Magazine, salon.com, Utne Reader, the Nation, newsweek.com, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, and elsewhere. Kessler is an international speaker and workshop leader.
She founded Lifers' Writing Group for inmates of a maximum-security prison, teaches storytelling for social change to nonprofits in the U.S. and abroad, and works with traditional journalists who want to hone their storytelling skills. Follow her blog at www.laurenchronicles.com. Her latest book, A Grip of Time: When Prison is Your Life, will be available on May 1, 2019. Pre-order at your favorite bookstore today.