There is nothing quite like having long conversations with someone from Deer Ridge to challenge all my judgments and assumptions. It has been almost two years since I began working in the education department at the prison up the hill. With a simple change of clothes, some of the men there would never be taken for a person who has spent most of their adolescence and adult life incarcerated. There are others, whose past no change of wardrobe could disguise.
I work one-on-one, each inmate’s need dictates what we will work on. Sometimes my job is to listen, at other times, instruct. But always, always, I am much more the learner than the teacher. The men I work with are all highly motivated. They are within months of being paroled. All of them have come through the education department with deficits of opportunity and hope. The staff, peer tutors and volunteers are dedicated folks. The work they do to create possibilities of a future on the outside is spectacular. And then we send them out.
And often, beloved, the sad truth is, that we send them out to fail. Generally, a person is paroled to the community from which they were incarcerated. They may be given the opportunity to live in a group home facility, where they can begin the process of finding work, or going to school, or going to rehab. These transitional places are many rungs lower than ideal. They are often located in neighborhoods where the incidence of homelessness, drug availability and gang activity are rampant. Upon parole, a person is suddenly dropped into a world of needing to make the kinds of decisions most of us take for granted—when to get up or go to bed, what and when to eat, what to do with my time in between job interviews, what to do with a free evening, how to manage my money, how to make a friend who won’t get me into trouble, negotiating things like laundromats, tipping in a restaurant, casual conversation.
How much help a parolee receives is dependent upon the resources of the particular community, the parole officer to whom he is assigned, and how the system relates to the history of the individual. I have noticed that someone who has been in and out of the system multiple times generally gets less help. The parolee is suddenly without community. Prison may not be the best kind of community, but at least you know the rules: show no weakness, don’t take any disrespect, don’t trust anyone but your own crew. The only community they have known on the outside, they need to avoid, or risk everything.
The odds are so stacked against them. Because of my relationship with the institution, I am not allowed to continue contact with inmates after they leave Deer Ridge. That makes total sense. But it is hard. I wish I were there on the other end, to help them find safe places, to guide them in negotiating all the strangeness they are facing, to connect them with faith communities, and people who would be able to see their strengths and not just their mistakes.
And, the more I get to know about the men with whom I am working, the more I realize how complex a problem we are facing. All of the hundreds of men up the hill will be leaving here to become our neighbors. And I want them to succeed: to have meaningful work, raise their children, have a full and interesting life. But the way our systems are set up, most of them will fail.
When I learn the stories, hear the determination in their voices to live a different kind of life, I feel like our society has failed them. What would my life have been like, if I had walked where they have had to walk. My guess is, I would not have survived as well as they have given the same options: poverty, abuse, instability, inadequate housing, neglect, hopelessness.
This year I have been working to create a cadre of folks around the state who are willing to connect with some of the men Jan and I have worked with as they are paroled–just to be a contact and possibly a mentor. It is a tiny little thing. Totally voluntary on the part of the parolee. Just someone who is willing to see them just as they are—to grab a cup of coffee, to listen to their struggles, and maybe let them know that they are not alone. One of the things I have learned from working up the hill, is the power of personal connection and story. One person at a time. It doesn’t feel like enough. But, it is a beginning.