Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Little More Gray

By Isaac Sweet

A few years back, I was affirmed by my peers at the Washington State Reformatory to serve as a mentor in the prison's pilot mentoring program, Men Facilitating Change (MFC). We are a group of like-minded, mature prisoners willing to engage with youthful and less experienced ones. Our mission is positive change, whatever that is and whatever it takes. This experience has been educational, inspirational, and gratifying.

The structure of the MFC program is interactive. We have our own self-help manual compiled from a number of different sources. We meet twice a month as a group, once with mentees and once without. All other meetings are mentor/mentee one-on-ones. Our group meetings with our mentees are unique and productive. During these meetings all individuals, mentors, mentees, and staff are encouraged to share their stories and experiences. We'll periodically discuss materials and questions from our manual, and essentially plant and cultivate seeds of change. In the mentors-only meetings we discuss topics for upcoming meetings and potential improvements to the program. The one-on-one mentor/mentee meetings are where I feel I'm most effective. They give me an opportunity to get to know my mentees, and to get a feel for their viewpoints, which helps me tailor my message individually.

My first mentee in the program was an 18-year-old named Garrett. I noticed him in the gym on his first or second day here. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was clearly new and looked lost. I pointed him out to my friend and fellow mentor, Jacob, who marched us right over and facilitated an introduction. We mentioned the program and encouraged him to participate. Initially, he looked a little skeptical, but after learning more about it in orientation, he filled out an application, and requested me as a mentor.

Garrett was a real challenge. A big, fresh-faced kid, he still viewed the world through the lens of youth. He had the look of one of those actors in cologne commercials, and a strong personality. He craved attention. He was a magnet for mischief, and not the insignificant kind either. My experience helped him navigate several potentially difficult situations, and frustrated the guys trying to have some fun at his expense. It was stressful. Everyday there was new drama and he managed to step in just about every metaphorical pile of horseshit he could find. He really put me through it. I credit him for turning my beard gray.

I learned a lot about being a mentor on the fly. I made my first mistake early on when Garrett asked, "What's your take on gambling?" Our relationship was in the beginning stages. I was afraid that if I was too rigidly opposed, he might disregard future guidance, and possibly view me as a "power-lame." I responded that, as long as it was a small group of friends absent the card-sharks, and it was low-stakes, it probably wouldn't be too bad. A few short trips to the card table later, Garrett was in debt to some guys who wouldn't have been opposed to rearranging his face to collect. I should've known better, and actually, I did. It was poor judgement, I explained to him, and apologized. Then, I coached him through the process of negotiating a debt reduction and payment plan. I also took the liberty of introducing myself to the fellas who took advantage of the young newcomer and congratulated them. That was my way of letting them know I had an interest in the boy, and his wellbeing. This experience is just one of many stressful endeavors which contributed to my graying beard.

Another was when Garrett had a negative experience with his cellmate. The guy was my age and about 280lbs. He was covered in tattoos and looked every bit a convict. Things started out okay between the two, but Garrett's youth quickly wore through the guy's patience. In a few short weeks their relationship soured. Garrett wasn't afraid despite nearly insurmountable odds, but climbing into a tiny cage with an enormous, antagonistic man who is potentially itching for a fight takes some nerve. Especially, when the man's track record includes multiple instances of institutional violence. I still don't know how much was courage, and how much was youthful ignorance, but Garrett climbed in that cage every day unsure whether he would emerge the next. Coaching him through this led to more gray in my beard.

There were other situations too, like the shower incident.  As previously mentioned, he's a pretty good-looking kid and somebody noticed that in the shower. Fortunately, the peeping Tom scurried off before Garrett could explode. This occurred immediately prior to lockup on the night before my first one-on-one meeting with Garrett. He was angry, traumatized, and convinced he should beat the guy up for being a creep. I am adamantly opposed to violence and was steadfast in my commitment as such (however, had there been some physical contact, I may have had a lapse in judgement.) Nonetheless, I was clear about my position, and that Garrett maintain a nonviolent response. After this, when Garrett found himself in a pickle, I'd ask if he wanted me to get involved. But this particular time, I didn't give him that option. It didn't happen again.

Garrett has an incessant need to have something to do. One of the greatest obstacles I encountered with him was finding productive activities for him. I was convinced he needed a job. I needed him to have a job. His predilection for mischief was wearing me out. During our mentors-only meetings, I lobbied administrators to allow Garrett (and preferably all mentees) to join the prison's workforce. Our program was new, and administrators were slow to deviate from standard protocols. Their steady resistance served to galvanize my resolve and embolden me. I think they generally agreed that everyone in here would benefit from utilizing their time constructively, but it still took about six months. Eventually, they tired of my requests and budged. I had lobbied my old maintenance supervisors to give Garrett a chance in the event the administration authorized him to work. Things worked out poetically, and Garrett spent the last four months of his prison term employed in the prison's mechanical maintenance shop. 

Working in the maintenance shop did more than just keep Garrett out of mischief. It opened his eyes to a whole new world. The world of tools and machines, and ultimately construction. Before this work experience, he had only been introduced to a few handtools by his older brother. He hadn't spent much time in the garage watching or helping his dad because his dad wasn't there. He was inspired by the prospect of using his hands and accrued knowledge to gain meaningful employment. Four months in the prison's maintenance department (ambitiously terrorizing his supervisors and coworkers) changed his life.

I've been incarcerated since I was eighteen. I don't have biological children, but before Garrett was released, I told him if I ever had a son I'd want him to be like him. He shot back that he'd always wanted a dad. We just kind of sat in that moment. Then, after nearly an entire year of daily interactions and coaching, Garrett went home.

My former mentee-turned-adopted-kid, Garrett, overcame some typical obstacles to employment upon release. He landed a job at a machine shop in his hometown of Wenatchee. He learned to operate a couple different models of CNC machines that punched out airline parts. He's a smart, ambitious kid so he excelled right away. But standing around waiting for a machine to finish its task became difficult. There simply wasn't that much floor to sweep, and Garrett has traditionally struggled to stand still. The solution? He began operating a second machine simultaneously. Management didn't mind, but his compensation didn't reflect much appreciation, and... there was a girl in Seattle.

Everybody knows what happened next. The boy packed up his country values, his modern-day Atari, and everything else he could stuff in a pillowcase, and lit out for the big city. Her name is Sierra.

Garrett has been free for nearly two years now, and we've stayed in regular contact. Every time I receive a message from him or hear his voice on the phone, I feel a sense of relief. Actually, it’s more than that. I can't explain it, but it feels good, like I need it. Speaking of which... A while back I saw on the news there was a shooting a few blocks away from where he lives. I was locked in my cage, but I started sending emails immediately. Sierra had the presence of mind to text me back that they were both okay. All Garrett did was laugh at me and said, "With all the people in Seattle, what makes you think I'm going to be the one to get shot?" This coming from the kid who turned my beard gray! And he wonders why I worry?


Garrett works as an apprentice carpenter, and his job site for the next several months is nearly walking distance from his little apartment in downtown. He's had some ups and downs but he's doing pretty well. He was pretty excited when he got his orange work vest. It meant he was official, permanently employed. He's also taking college classes, though he is a little frustrated about school. His aspirations of becoming a lawyer seem further away now. Apparently, there are law school graduates working as paralegals due to a lack of demand. I encouraged him to relax and think through his next moves, but finishing school is a step in the right direction.

He and Sierra hit a rough patch. They were splitting the rent, but a few months ago she moved out, which left him reeling emotionally and financially. Since then, they've continued to bicker electronically each day, then meet up nearly every night at one of their apartments. I've continued to talk to both of them either on the phone or electronically, and I've tried (halfheartedly, because they are both awesome kids, and together, they are a power couple) not to influence their relationship, but there was once when Sierra sent me a pretty sad message. I responded by calling her while she was on the freeway. (Incidentally, she was en route to pick up Garrett and take him to her place.) I told her to stop trying to make him conform to her idea of the perfect boyfriend. He's not. He's an idiot sometimes, but she's been training him for a while now, and all relationships are complicated. I didn't say that because I think she deserves to be miserable putting up with his crap all the time, but because she's even more miserable without him.

I followed that up a couple days later with a brief text that said, "It just dawned on me that without him you're miserable all the time, but with him you only have to be miserable when he's awake!" I explained my intention was to put a smile on her face. It worked.

Garrett and Sierra
Garrett sure loves that girl. No other girl on the planet can ruin his life the way she does! He tries so hard to be big and strong, and he is. He's much bigger and more muscular since he left here, and since he started working construction, but all that's on the outside. Internally, she can turn him into a bowl of sloppy pudding. Believe me, I know. How many twenty-one-year-olds do you know that are still "sloppy pudding" in love with the same girl since their teenaged experience? Even when he thought she was gone, he fought the other girls off. Sure, eventually he broke weak and took another girl out, but just long enough to realize that whoever she was... she couldn't compare.

I don't know how many times I've called Garrett at the right time. That is mostly to listen and let him vent, but also to talk some sense into him (as if that were possible!). I spent several years in prison not having anyone trustworthy to turn too, at least, not for a worthwhile response. Maybe it seems worse to me than it really is nowadays with the internet and all, but I really appreciate the opportunity to be there for him. What a privilege!

A few weeks ago, I called him after dinner. It was perfect timing. He was bummed out, frustrated, and discouraged. But this time it wasn't about her. He was led to believe he would be receiving a substantial raise after his next ninety-day evaluation period but instead he got fifty cents. He was clearly disappointed. He considered confronting his boss at an upcoming company party, which I advised against unless he had another job. We talked about that too. He really wanted to stay away from anything in production. I explained there could be some value in spending a few years in production. That's why I'm a good welder. I worked in production for about four and a half years welding parts by the thousand. Repetition is where my talent emerged. I still draw from that learned experience every day. He was more amenable to some repetition afterwards, but his impetuousness subsided, and he chose to stick it out a while longer.

I called him again the other day. He answered the phone with, "What's up, Sweet Daddy!" He was at the store, but on his way to my friend Victor's downtown apartment. Garrett rambled on about some seemingly teenaged drama. He is still so young and interested in anything reminiscent of mischief. It reminded me of when he was here..

I talked to him again last night, but this time he was distracted by a video game. Apparently, these games are a big deal. He was teamed up with some guy in another state, and they were on some sort of mission in real time. He asked if I could call back. "Not tonight," I replied. We were on lockdown, and that was my only opportunity to use the phone for the day. I followed up with, "I can try again tomorrow." He said, "Hang on, I want to talk. I can multitask." He did, but it cost him three lives, whatever that means. He was happy though. Everything was in balance in the universe. I could hear the smile on his face when he said, "Sierra is back in the picture!" 

Garrett and Sierra
I called back again tonight. Sierra was there. I talked to them both, but only for a few minutes. They had more important things to do. It’s funny, the boy can multitask between a video game and talking to the "Old Man," but with the girl it’s another story. I don't blame him. I'm surprised he answered the phone at all. I was unable to conceal my excitement that the kids were back together. Garrett was puffing his chest out, strutting his stuff and being cocky, and she was doing her best to pretend like she didn't notice. Oh, these kids are adorable. Everybody loves them as a couple, well, except for her relations. As far as they're concerned no one will ever be good enough for her, especially not the likes of him. Apparently, he can ruin her life sometimes too, and they're the ones who hear about it! Yeah, these kids are adorable.

Some of the guys all around me don't understand why I spend so much time and energy engaging others. Sometimes, I can't understand why they spend theirs sitting in front of their TV or playing games. We all burn about the same amount of calories each day. The only difference is how we burn them. I didn't love my life when I spent most of it just focused on survival. Then, I started helping others. Now, as I sit in my prison cage and flip pages on the twenty-fifth calendar since I've been incarcerated, I can honestly say I love my life. I don't love that I hurt people to get where I'm at, but I love the progress I've made. I love that I get to positively impact others. And I love that in some cases, as in young Garrett's, I get to continue to be connected after he's moved on.

No matter who you are or what you've done, you can always plant a seed, nurture it, and watch it grow. If it turns your beard gray, well, it’s an amazing thing. to be a little more gray.

Isaac Sweet 752399
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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