Being such an astute group of readers I’m sure you’ve already figured out that I’m not the woman in the picture above (although I’m totally digging her shoes). And to avoid any further confusion, the men I meet with every week are not in prison uniforms because they are in reentry programs and can wear what they want (I VOLUNTEER with women in jail once a week in addition to being paid to run groups in their reentry program, so I see them in both prison garb and rather lovely clothes of their own choosing.)
It has been a year to the day since I was hired to run “life skills” groups at five different programs and the things I have learned in that year is more of an education than I had in all my years through college. (Dad, don’t freak out. It’s a different KIND of education than the very valuable years I spent in boarding school and college and I don’t need any math skills.)
There will be some things that I list below that are sure to spark strong reactions, and that’s fine. This is one person’s experience with a population that has changed my life, some through heartache but most through joy:
Without question, juveniles are a product of their histories and the neighborhoods that they live in. This is nothing new. It takes a very strong young person to make the choice to get out of their comfort zone, their groups of friends who are also caught-up in the system, the constant rhythm of being on the streets, being sent to juvenile lockups for 30, 60 or 90 days and then being released again. The time on the streets gets shorter and shorter and the time in lockup longer. They’re mostly doing stupid shit to impress their friends—stealing cars, getting high, getting into fights –but they lead to an ongoing string of offenses that will have much larger consequences when they age out of the system and start getting tried as adults.
I recently learned that one my favorite kids with a smile and dimples that would charm anyone, was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back. Not one. He was one of the smartest boys I have ever known and if I had met him at eight, when his parents disposed of him, I would have fostered and loved him to the best of my ability.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic background is to have teens addicted to heroin. Again, I recently learned that a brilliant (yet hardened and angry) young man, who lives in the next town over from me, would have a needle in each arm at the same time. Fucking breaks my heart. When the agency closed the juvenile program last month, he told me how much he had learned from me. I’m not allowed to seek him out to touch base, but in my heart, I hope to run into him on the street and give him the hug that he so badly needs.
My favorite group is the adult male feds, the ones who have done harder time than the “county” guys. I’ve learned that they get shuffled around from prison to prison almost without flinching and they form great friendships with the other inmates wherever they land. When they have been sentenced to the reentry program it’s like a college reunion, where they share laughs about their time behind bars. They’ve worked in the kitchen together, done community service and have gone to 12-step meetings together.
The women have shared all the microwave recipes they learned to make prison food more palatable and have offered to thread my eyebrows. They too have taught me the value of the friendships they formed behind bars.
I’ve learned that I can hold court and totally work the room in front of a group of felons like it’s the most natural thing I’ve ever done. I make them laugh and get the most hardened ones to come around to liking me. I quickly dispel and rise above the assumption that I’m just another white lady who has come to talk at them about stuff they already know. I have guys who sit-in on my groups because they want to, not because they need to. I was recently told by one man that the men who had already sat through my class told him how lucky he was to be in it. That was awesome.
Okay, so here’s the sticky part that is bound to have some strong gut reactions and I really welcome them:
I have learned that guys from white supremacist motorcycle gangs, bank robbers, gun runners, child pornographers and sex offenders are often really likable. When they have unique names and I can find their arrest records online, I have learned some things that I don’t really want to know, but, it is my job to suspend judgment while working with them. And I do.
Right now I am working really closely with a guy who has “white power” tattooed on his forearm and I really, really like him. I wish I could engage him in conversation to find out his true feelings behind it and his beliefs, but I can’t. I know he’d tell me and he’d listen to my side and we could have a really candid conversation about it but I can’t violate the boundary policies that would surely get me fired.
Another man from the same white supremacist motorcycle game was one of the most enjoyable guys in my group. He laughed with the other guys and me, contributed a lot, and when I see him around the residence we greet each other warmly. In the same group was an older rather infirm man, a pedophile, who snuck a kitten into his room and told me how to avoid an expensive vet visit for my sick kitten by giving me the exact dosage of an over-the-counter cold medicine. I’m not sure he realized how awful the hairpiece he wore was.
What I have heard over and over again from the over 1,000 clients I’ve worked with in just one year, is that they just want to be treated like people. They have told me that within minutes they know that I care about them in a universe where they are called by their last names and feel brushed off by staff during the daily chaos of their residences. (I very genuinely remind them of how dedicated the staff is but how many clients are in constant need of something. If they weren’t committed to their jobs they wouldn’t be working for pennies. For the most part, they are remarkable.)
I call my husband after I leave each program, generally on the way to the next, with anecdotes that either break my heart or leave me in fits of laughter. It’s really hard for my network to understand what I do and I’m glad I have colleagues who are in it, on the ground, to go to as sounding boards and also to share funny stories. They too have learned to suspend judgment, even if it’s just for 8 hours a day, and to help these humans, these people with lives and families, move on to the next and hopefully better step.