Kicky Baby Blog: Prison Time

Originally posted on the Kicky Baby blog, March 7, 2009.

The Seattle Times on February 21 brought news of the unexpected death of Gary Greaves. He was 57. Gary was living in Marrekesh, Morocco, with his wife, writer Frances McCue–there on a Fullbright scholarship–and their daughter Maddy, and died playing basketball–which somehow fits.

Gary was tall, athletic, energetic, and devoted to helping human beings in need.

In the summer of 2001, Gary invited me to go with him and a priest to visit the inmates at Monroe Correctional Facility, not far from where we live. Gary brought community writers into Monroe to meet with “lifers,” inmates serving twenty years or more, as part of a prison book group.

The experience was a true life lesson.

Entering Monroe requires being stripped of your formal identity–wallet, driver’s license, valuables, all are taken and stored for the duration of your visit. Searches are reasonably thorough. The guards are sober and not inclined to chitchat. You are not their friend.

Gary informed me that there were protocols to follow with the prisoners, for our own safety and for theirs. It was best not to ask what they were serving time for (you don’t want to know). If by chance you get invited to the cafeteria, and dessert is being served, if you don’t want yours, do not offer it to another prisoner. Divide it up precisely among all those at the table. Grievances and resentments can be petty. They can also be deadly.

The prison itself, once we were inside, reminded me of an older, somewhat run-down high school–but with bars, gates, and very strict routines.

The room where we met with the inmates was spacious and spare, no windows, with tables arranged in a square open in the middle. About twenty inmates attended the meeting. Inmates could freely mingle and shake hands, introduce themselves.

Getting down to the session, I quickly realized that the inmates were going to be the most focused, welcoming, and enthusiastically attentive audience I had experienced in a long time–perhaps ever. The programs and the speakers that Gary brought to this prison book group might form a substantial part of their intellectual existence. This was their break from prison routine for the day–perhaps for the week or the month.

I did not immediately realize it, but I was becoming unnerved. I was totally unprepared, emotionally, for their hard reality, and so my discussion with the Monroe lifers was wide-ranging; looking back, perhaps too wide-ranging, getting into matters of writer and character psychology, and then the limits of our personal behaviors, including anger management–not entirely appropriate.

I had never done this before. 

Their questions were focused and intelligent. They were hungry for knowledge about all sorts of things–but especially about the life of a writer.

They were hungry for the outside world.

During our meeting, one young man–a Russian with longish dark blond hair, little more than a boy–put his head on his arms, flat on the table. He could not imagine ever getting outside again–perhaps he never would. His despair was palpable.

The discussion continued. The lifers were used to that.

I was not.

I liked these people. There were grizzled older men, handsome and fit young men, blacks and whites, a real mix. After the meeting ended, I signed books and offered to answer questions through email.

That was not going to happen, Gary told me later. These prisoners are not allowed to contact the outside world. The officials at Monroe are reluctant to give them much in the way of relief. Punishment is a real goal. Monroe is not the hardest of hard time–in our state, that might be Walla Walla–but there was definitely an atmosphere of disciplined and perhaps even righteous misery.

Observing guard behavior–male and female guards–I learned as much about the psychologically degrading aspects of prison as I did observing the inmates. It is not easy and it is not good to be placed in almost absolute charge of another human being. And yet, it is essential. A well-run prison must be grimly serious and predictable, for the safety of both the guards and the prisoners.

But there were stories of odd, tiny cruelties–family visitors bringing in snacks and having sealed potato chip bags crushed by guards. Necessary? Mandated by past experience? Or expressive of the wearing down of one’s own grip on humanity, year in and year out? Dealing with the unpredictable, the violent, the frustrated, the insane–some of the worst of the worst…

Corrections is an extraordinarily tough career. Prison guards–like most cops–have high rates of early heart attack. Stress is constant. Danger is real and ever-present.

Support groups and union groups had posted signs and banners outside Monroe, on the wire fences approaching the prison. The community of corrections officers and their families is tight-knit, largely blue-collar. There are newsletters and journals. Some are available online. A good prison guard–stern, predictable, even-handed, sympathetic but not a sap, slow to anger and immune to thoughts of vengeance–is a godsend to a prisoner, but how many of us would be up to that sort of challenge and responsibility?

Leaving the prison was like taking a gulp of fresh air after holding my breath. I got back my identity. I became real again. Or I left the hard reality behind, and returned to my illusions.

That night, late into the morning, I sat listening to music in my basement. I was haunted by faces. Many of the faces were not known to me. But they all seemed to silently beseech; they wanted their stories told. It was a creepy experience, like being haunted by people still alive–people I had never met.

Around one a.m., I cried like a baby.

I felt I had completely screwed up. Looking back on that experience, to this day I feel guilt. I would conduct another visit in a very different manner.

In the long run, my time at Monroe benefited me far more than it did the lifers in the prison book group.

Thanks to Gary Greaves for giving me that experience, and my condolences to his friends and loved ones–and the prisoners at Monroe, who will have to find another sympathetic soul to crack open their steel and concrete box and let in light from the outer world.