One of the most common conversation starters in this prison is, "What're ya watching tonight?" Lately, my response has been, "Nothing." Sometimes, facial expressions indicate confusion so, I'll follow up with, "I don't have enough time to watch TV." It's true, I don't. I have more productive things to do. Like right now, the newest Transformers movie is playing (on cable television), but I'm splitting time between writing an essay, proofreading an associate's manuscript, and preparing a math lesson for our wastewater treatment plant operator's course. I volunteer as a teacher's helper. Also, I dedicate a reasonable amount of time to communicate with my friends, family, and outside support team, and I stay active in the fight for criminal justice reform. I work a fulltime job in the prison's maintenance department, and I carve out just enough time for some daily physical exercise. But, the most rewarding of my pursuits is serving as a mentor in the facility's mentorship program, in which I have a full complement of official and unofficial mentees. The balance of these pursuits consumes my days. It may be an odd thing for a prisoner to say, but... I wish there were more hours in each day.
Some of the guys think I'm a little "off." They give me funny looks because I'll forfeit watching TV and playing video games to help others. Maybe they don't know I spent almost two decades frittering my life away on meaningless prison social drama and television. I don't remember most of that, but I do remember the people I interact with. The single most meaningful thing I do right now is being a mentor, a trusted advisor, to young people navigating prison and trying to improve their lives. I draw from my experience to help them prepare and proceed. Sometimes, I'm coaching a young person through a scary, and potentially hazardous situation. Other times, I'm just listening to them, or sharing some positive advice, or studying materials for classes I've already taken to help them academically. I'm internally motivated by the concept of having a purposeful life, even while incarcerated.
Navigating prison as a youngster isn't easy. I can still remember my youthful introduction to prison, but I always seemed to have someone to advise me. Nowadays, survival is generally facilitated by the sink or swim concept. I compare it to wild birds and how they teach their young to fly with a nudge out of their nest. Either the young birds learn to fly, or they don't. Much like a baby bird free falling from its nest, young prisoners rarely have anyone to coach them through their free fall. They either figure it out or they don't, but the consequences and timeline can be eerily similar. That's part of the reason our pilot mentorship program, Men Facilitating Change (MFC), originated. It began as the brainchild of seasoned prisoners who wanted to help newer ones. It grew ideologically until the administration gave it a chance. Now, it is a recognized program with seventeen inside mentors, each with at least one mentee (I currently have three), an outside sponsor, a curriculum, and some buy-in from the prison administration. We meet monthly as a large group and discuss our journeys and materials in the curriculum. Mentors and mentees meet more often. I prefer to see my mentees every other day, if not daily.
Prison is a micro community. Every person here is a neighbor you will see repetitiously, who is dealing with their own navigational issues. They have their own perception of positive social etiquette. Here, we have the full spectrum of polarizing personalities and mental illnesses. Issues we have aren't as simple as bumping into someone in the grocery store and saying, "excuse me." Every action, verbal or otherwise has social or structural consequences. Social consequences include managing one's reputation, which can be crucial to survival. Social outcasts make easy prey for bullies. Structural consequences involve administrative infractions and punitive measures. They also affect what unit and prison we will be housed in. Positive navigation through this environment can be challenging, even for me with nearly a quarter-century of experience. Being a mentor in this micro community starts with helping others navigate prison, but extends into making better, more productive life choices.
We had a rather productive mentorship meeting the day after Christmas. Unfortunately, my youngest mentee, Chris, failed to attend. He "forgot,” and It’s too bad to, because a lot of personal stories were exchanged. Chris is twenty-one and serving time for homicide. He killed somebody in my sister's neighborhood. I didn't know that before I took him on as my mentee. I only found out because I write my sister regularly and we share a passion for youth outreach. I mentioned his first name and where he was from. She responded with, "Do you mean (insert his full name here)?" She very eloquently tried to disguised her frigid tone. That's how I learned how his crime affected her and her community. Confronted with this, I had an emotional response, but not the kind you might think. I experienced a full gamut of emotions, but as the intensity waned, I realized I wasn’t angry, I was intrigued. How could this happen, and why? In some way I cannot adequately articulate, I am connected to young Chris.
I describe his progress, and the progress of our relationship to my sister in weekly messages. Chris is working towards a GED (General Equivalency Diploma), but at the time we began our relationship his progress had slowed. We spent a Saturday morning on his Social Studies study packets, and afterwards I told him he was ready for the test. The following Monday afternoon I was doing some maintenance repairs in the recreation gym when Chris came running over, whiffle-tennis paddle in hand and said, "You know how you said I was ready?" I nodded in the affirmative. "Well, I passed the pretest this morning!" he exclaimed with what would've been a fist pump were it not for the paddle in his hand. His gesture might've looked to others like he wanted to whack me with the paddle. He officially passed the Social Studies portion of the GED test the following Friday. Through my weekly updates, Chris and I have pretty much chipped away my sister's frigid veneer. Recently, she cautioned me to "keep an eye on him" following some local gang violence she thought he might be emotionally affected by. She went on to say, "I am becoming a little soft hearted for Chris. Not anything I would be able to do before talking with you. It's so easy to forget that who we have incarcerated are human." Now, she looks forward to these reports.
My last one-on-one meeting with Chris didn't quite turn out how I had anticipated. It started out slow because Chris was reluctant to tell me about standing up to a bully in the gym. He thought I would be displeased. I was, but more with the situation than by Chris's willingness to defend himself. Had he failed to do so it could have invited more problems. Once fully apprised, I congratulated him on successfully diffusing the situation without violence. Before we got much further, we were joined by Chris's friend, Jordan. Jordan was more adversely affected than Chris by the local gang violence my sister had mentioned. He needed to vent and gain some additional perspective. Without hesitation we shared our meeting with his friend. It’s an interesting thing, being in the position I am. I wish I had even more opportunity to spend time with these young people who fixate on insignificant things. To talk some sense into those who feel they've betrayed their "homies" by putting themselves and their families first. Such a silly phenomenon, yet a real dilemma for many. I'll try to connect with Jordan more in the coming days. Again, I wish there were more hours in the day to engage with these young men. It’s frustrating how many of them there are and how intensely they can benefit from positive role models.
My second mentee is Brian. When he first approached me about being his mentor, I wasn't sure if he was serious. Brian is thirty-six, and already seems to be navigating prison well. He is currently enrolled in the college prep program, and will soon begin taking courses towards an Associate of Arts (AA) degree. He's already pretty mature. Prior to his criminal justice involvement, he was a boat captain who got injured, transitioned to street drugs, then battled addiction. He had reclaimed his sobriety just before the birth of his daughter, but several months afterwards his crimes caught up with him. He releases in December. I asked him what he expected to get from this program. He said that he's a father and while he's incarcerated, he wants to learn as much as he can. If he could focus on one thing it would be accountability. He wants me to hold him accountable. Challenge accepted.
I met another young guy who seems to be gravitating towards me. He's interested in the mentorship program and is opening up a little. I walked past him in the gym, stopping briefly to say hello and shake hands, and then continued over to the place I usually put my things down. Before I got my coat off, I noticed he had followed me over and sat down against the wall. This was where we sat yesterday and had conversation. It was my cue, that it was time for more. At this point, I already had two mentees, but I won't leave anyone behind. We'll see if he continues to seek me out.
We found each other again the next night, but this time on the prison yard. It feels as if I'm already stretched a little thin, but again I'll take my cue. It looks like I've got a third mentee. His name is Justis, he's twenty-five, and has an eight-year-old son. His hang up has been meth. I spent a little time up on my soapbox. I told him a story about another young father, Josh, and his son Josh Junior...
Josh told me about the one summer he had with his gangster dad. He idolized him. He wanted to be just like him, "only more gangster!" He said, "If he slang two keys I wanted to sling four. If he killed two fools I wanted to kill four!" He wanted to be even more gangster. That's when I told him that his son, Josh Junior, wants to be just like him, "only more gangster!" Josh was betrayed by his eyes. They welled up before he could stop it...
At this point in the story I looked over at Justis and noticed he too was fighting off a moment of his own. Turns out the story hit close to home. He has spent much of his life glorifying the gangster's lifestyle, and ironically, his son's name is Junior as well. I told him that part of loving ourselves, and our kids is setting the right example. As parents we have a responsibility to provide our young with an example of who they should want to be like. Once we accept this reality, it is natural to reexperience the shame of the past, but my message is to "focus forward." It’s okay to use that shame to fuel positive change, but not to dwell or fixate. Justis listened and engaged.
I went to the gym the following night and continued my conversation with Justis. We tackled a few topics, but it took a while before I was connecting cohesive thoughts. My mind was foggy from the combination of a long day at work, higher than normal stress levels, and mediocre nutrition, but we ended on a good note. I spent a lot of time listening, but at one point I stopped him mid-drug story. He had kept saying, "when I do" this drug or that drug. I said, "Stop right there." I corrected him, "It’s when you DID. Because if you speak about that behavior as if you still DO, you are conditioning yourself that it’s okay to DO. No, it’s not okay. Drugs are something you DID. Period. What you DO now is live like a responsible adult, a sober one. One who provides for and loves himself and his family." It was a good moment.
Justis is going to be complicated. I had a difficult conversation with him the following night. I asked him point blank, "are you going to get high again?" After a lengthy pause he said, "I don't know. There are moments when I say 'no' and I believe it and I want sobriety, but there are moments when I question whether I can do it. My mom and my sister get high. What am I supposed to do, not see my family?" I was a little shocked by this revelation and his well thought-through response. I can't recall everything I said, but I gave him some matter-of-fact hard, concrete pearls of wisdom. I told him, "Yes, as much as l dislike encouraging you to disassociate from your people, but if they're using drugs you will have to keep your distance. No exceptions." I went on to tell him some hard truths about loving himself and his son. And some other stuff about becoming a leader and blazing his own trail rather than a follower reverting to what he knows. I mentioned that maybe his mom and sister could benefit from seeing his sobriety and success, from a distance of course, and that his example might be what they need to get their own lives right. There was so much more, but I definitely said the right things. Or, at least, some of them, and it felt good.
I did my first workout of the year with Justis. He's young and reasonably fit, so he did pretty well. I'm older and wearing a few extra holiday pounds. By about the halfway point, he was telling me to put down my purse and pick up the pace. He's got a great work ethic. Now, I'm incredibly sore, and scheduled for another round tomorrow.
One of the things I do to prepare for the future is to envision scenarios and contemplate what the proper response would be. Justis called it, "role play." I threw out a couple scenarios that would expose him to his drug of choice, meth. He described positive responses but pushed back and said he didn't want to discuss saying "no" to drugs. He felt that despite his life experiences and chronic addiction, saying "no" is simple, and he thought it was easy to say the right things, so at this point our conversation was "lip service." I told him that I viewed his addiction as the single greatest obstacle standing between him and success. I said we could work on anything he wants too, but if he gets high one time all that goes out the window. However, I heard him, and we shifted gears.
I asked him one of my favorite "go to" questions: "What core values define your life?" After a momentary pause he said, "To not be a rapist, to not be a rat, and to live honorably." The mention of rapist and rat are an indication of prison/criminal conditioning, and further indicative of his shortsighted youthfulness. It’s possible he borrowed the "honorably" part from me, from previous conversations where I described my values. At least his smile suggested it. I chose to address his initial two offerings by saying they would be automatically included in "living honorably." During this conversation, Justis decided that his primary focus should be cultivating his core values, and that his addiction and other criminal impulses would be positively affected by that steadfast focus. Though I cannot view the world through his lens, I am inclined to agree.
Justis exhibits "mad" potential. However, his journey towards success will be more difficult without a regular positive role model to hold him accountable. His needs include opportunity, housing, and a good life plan. He's a smart youngster, and I believe in him already. He is capable of learning just about any trade skills. He just needs somebody to care about him and hold him accountable as he transitions into his dream life. He can count on me throughout the duration of his stay here, but he is scheduled for transfer to a work camp this summer, at which time, I will be prohibited from communication with him.
As far as mentees go Justis is a little more hands-on. He requires constant attention, but it’s kind of fun because I know our interaction is making a difference. He is already believing that he can be more than a drug addict and street hustler. It blows my mind how living an authentic life (career, wife, kids, homeowner, etc…) can be viewed as such a dream to so many young people. He can also be fun to hang around with sometimes because his energy is infectious. Cole, the youngster from work, tries pretty hard to resist his energy, but he's struggling with that. Yesterday, we went to play some handball with him. When we got there Justis was already frustrated with some handball bully who had been whining about him being in the way. I saw what was going on, looked at Cole, and we proceeded to beat the team led by the bully so handily that he took his whining to another handball court. Poetic justice.
Cole is not one of my official mentees in the MFC program here, but he is a young person I spend a significant amount of time with. We share a workstation in the mechanical maintenance shop, and I've spent a lot of time and energy (and practiced much patience) teaching him welding techniques. Also, we play handball competitively as teammates and opponents. I would describe him as my welding and handball protege. He is slight in stature and is a little sensitive about his size, which is ridiculous because he is one of the biggest people. His character is marked by compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. He is quick to volunteer for undesirable tasks, and selfless with his time. Nonetheless, he refuses to be viewed as a "mentee." As such, I am privileged to claim him among my friends.
At work Cole continues to prove himself a competent shop hand. He does a good job with his quick-witted sense of humor and interacts well with the guys and the supervisors. Lately, he has taken initiative. He just started in on a huge welding project that has some incredibly difficult challenges. There are a number of out of position welds that are critical to the integrity of the project, some of which have to be performed left-handed. So far, he is doing quite well. This is not typical for a novice welder. I would like to think he's got a good teacher, but I wouldn't want to detract from his natural talent.
A few weeks ago, he showed up with a pad of paper and a pen. He was on a mission to write a letter to a judge pleading for a judicial decision to honor a visitation agreement with his daughter. It was clear that we would accomplish very little until he had finished the letter. Nothing was going to separate him from that pen and paper. His determination was admirable. Ordinarily, writing a letter at work would be inappropriate, but in prison we must show up to our work detail regardless of circumstances. Failure to do so invites immediate and severe reprisal. All of the guys in the shop supported Cole in his endeavor, and would've covered for him, but our supervisors were preoccupied with an emergent mechanical repair. I was happy to serve as a sounding board for Cole as he articulated each sentence. I could hear the importance he placed on each thought. It was emotionally exhausting. He outlined that letter on a dirty old work bench and wrote the final draft at our lunch table. He wrote that letter as if he were pleading for his life. I felt, in slow motion, every syllable.
The next day, I went to the gym and played Cole one-on-one handball for an hour. He almost got a win. He was playing fairly well. Thankfully, so was I. My ball placement was pretty good, and for carrying a few additional holiday pounds, I was hustling pretty hard too. I felt a little empathy for Cole. He wanted to win so bad. He made a pretty good run at it during one game. He started out 4 to 0 and stayed ahead of me until I managed to tie the game at nines. That set the stage for me to come out on top. Poor guy, he's a competitor, but so am I. I had a lot of fun. Despite his string of losses, I'm pretty sure Cole did too.
The following workday was exhausting. It started out with a trip to go fix a doorknob. The knobs around here are industrial brass and quite heavy duty. I grabbed young Cole on the way out. Which meant a five-minute doorknob repair turned into a ten-minute learning opportunity with a few laughs, and some mild consternation for the boss (who quietly chuckled too). Then, we stopped in the main hallway and took some crude measurements to build an aluminum shroud to cover the motor and moving parts to the new electric roll up door. Cole climbed the ladder and carefully measured everything. The boss wrote his measurements down, then handed the paper to Cole. Back at the shop Cole tried to hand me the paper. I told him, "Oh, no you don't. You're building it, I'll help you." He tried to act like it was too much responsibility, but he got right on it. By the end of the day, we were twenty-five or thirty minutes away from being ready to test fit. We'll have to drill the mounting holes on site to ensure a quality installation, but I'm impressed with the kid. He did all the welding, every single tack.
Cole came into work this morning on cloud nine. He had just received word. The judge was amenable and rendered a decision in his favor. He will be visiting with his daughter in the relative near future. It may still take a few weeks or months to process the paperwork and get her approved given the State's typical lack of urgency, but visitation with his baby girl is forthcoming. Initially, I had hoped to get a visit on the same day as their first, but on second thought it'll be difficult enough keeping my eyes dry just seeing the pictures. I've a reputation to uphold, I don't want these guys finding out my secret... that I'm human.
Before long, I'll transition from a stable, knowledgeable mentor in prison to a wide-eyed mentee trying to navigate the free world and all of its technological advancements over the past three decades. Hopefully, some of the young people I've had the privilege of working with will return the favor, though that's not why I do it. I simply want to do things that are meaningful. My release date is less than five years away.
|Isaac Sweet 752399|
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777