Lessons from Behind Bars

In 2010, Hope House DC received a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. to support participation in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read project.  Hope House placed about 100 copies of Earnest J. Gaines’ classic A Lesson Before Dying in two prisons that have high concentrations of District of Columbia inmates.

After reading the book, I led inmates through a two-day writing workshops at each facility, as their Humanities Scholar.  During this time, participants worked with the study guide materials provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as creating unique writing exercises. You can read more about my experience in Dispatch from Prison: How Strong is Hope?

Using A Lesson Before Dying as a springboard, workshop participants documented their own lessons as essays, which are curated and  published on a new web site Lessons From Behind Bars.  The writings give powerful voice to the unique legacies that many individuals otherwise silenced by incarceration wish to leave for their children and communities.  They have been a catalyst to expand this project to include incarcerated voices from around the country.

This project hopes to help bring home the voices and experiences of residents who have been removed from our neighborhoods and communities, and to keep us mindful of the many ways incarceration affects each and every one of us. For example, James Malone writes:

If I knew that my death was days away, beyond my control, I would pray for a  peaceful death, knowing that I have fulfilled my duties on Earth.  I would cherish each moment knowing that my existence in this world was not in vain. …

I would change my way of thinking, and apply the wisdom “as a man thinketh in his heat, so is he,” therefore I would understand when no one else would that it’s the mental attitude that determines how we die.  I would cherish creative thoughts of courage and calmness.  The Bible, in the book of Genesis, says that “God gave man dominion over the whole Earth.  I would each day pray and ask for dominion over myself, dominion over my fears, dominion over my mind and over my spirit to face each moment that I have left to live. …

Dispatch from Prison: “There, but Not There”

Hope House families with Carol Fennelly (center)

The final day of A Lesson Before Dying workshops at the federal prison went really well. I was more relaxed than yesterday and the writing that the guys came in with this morning from yesterday’s assignments was just phenomenal. I was really moved by it and more importantly they “moved” each other with what they’d written.

The homework assignment was based on the opening line of the book we are using (Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying), which is: “I was there, but not there.” Some wrote about missing – because they were in jail – the deaths of their parents, friends, or grandparents. A few wrote about missing the births of their children. One wrote about the Southern Freedom Riders who integrated the bus system making it possible for this man to travel where ever he wanted to go — even though he wasn’t there during the time, he “was there” and was grateful for the impact it had in his life. Another wrote about how proud he was when President Obama was elected and how mad he was at himself that he couldn’t go to the inauguration because he was incarcerated. “There, but not there.”

In the afternoon, I asked them write a riff off another line from the book, “My Gray ’46 Ford was parked in front of the house.” It was so wonderful to hear these guys read of litanies to the cars they loved — all the intricate technical detail that some guys carry around in their heads about their favorite cars!

Finally, I asked them to write a letter to one of the characters in Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Someone who they’d like to have dinner with and interview. I thought most of them would write to Jefferson, the guy on death row. But only a few wrote to him. Some wrote to Tante Lou, one of the lead women characters. Others wrote to the minister, interrogating him about his “pie-in-the-sky” theology. A couple wrote to the shopkeeper who was murdered in a robbery at the beginning of the book — some of those letters contained some very personal reflections.

This assignment is a set up for them to work on a 1000-word essay to be completed by the end of the summer that is a letter to their children or family on the topic of their own lessons from life or lessons before dying.

As for me, it was a really excellent experience. I was genuinely honored to meet these guys. And I was impressed by the staff also – especially in the education department. They are tough as nails, but also show a genuine interest in working with the inmates to give them as many skills as possible before they are turned back out. The staff was really grateful for us being there. One person thanked me for giving the guys something that he couldn’t give them herself — a certain knowledge and skill about writing and a safe environment to really build community in vulnerability. I know it must be crazy-making and hard to work inside the prisons for years and years – and also, a few times, rewarding.

Tomorrow we head to the Maryland state prison to offer the same program, though I think the class and dynamics will be entirely different.

Carol Fennelly invited me to participate in this program – funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. – and made it possible for me to come teach these classes as part of the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program. The book that D.C. has chosen to read and that we are discussing in these workshops is Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, which takes on the question: Knowing we are going to day, how should we live?

Hope House DC was established by Carol Fennelly in 1998 to help keep those D.C. families with someone in prison together and keep incarcerated fathers active in the lives of their kids. Hope House also works to reduce the isolation, stigma, and risk families experience when fathers and husbands are imprisoned and raises public awareness about prison issues and this at-risk population.

After today’s workshop, Carol posted some comments on Facebook about her experience. See below:

Carol Fennelly: Just thinking about the prison writing classes this week. The depth of the conversation that emerged yesterday was so profound. In my old age I have become a cynic, I think. But the genuine probing of self and give and take in that process got to me.

Responder: Proving, yet again, that we should not jump to conclusions or pigeon-hole people and that redemption is, indeed, possible?

Carol Fennelly: Yes. that is true. but we also had great material to spur this conversation, a great facilitator, a first class group of guys ALL of whom had read the book before class, and there was real magic. in stark contrast to the absolute civility in the room, outside on the compound competing gangs got into a fight with several guys locked up as a result. looking back it was almost surreal.