Pam Goes to Prison - Part Deux

     Because the Cleveland Unit is a men’s only unit, we had to be escorted by a staff member to use the women’s restroom.  Five of us were allowed in at a time. There I met two women from Baltimore who had plans to start something similar to PEP in Maryland.  After our bathroom break, about six “executives” listened to twelve different business plan presentations.  The first one went on without a hitch, but during the second presentation, two men entered the room and began loading and unloading the change from the vending machines.  The noise was a distraction and this poor guy kept losing his train of thought.  Several men, quietly encouraged him with “you can do it.”  Because we were on such a tight schedule, he wasn’t allowed to repeat his speech, which made me feel bad for him.  But, I guess that’s how things go in the real world.  We don’t often get a do over when someone’s cell phone rings and we lose our concentration.

  After each man was finished with his presentation, we offered feedback. At the end of the first round, we had to allocate our “funds” to the business plan we felt had the most potential for success. We were reminded by Jeremy Gregg, the Chief Development Officer of PEP that we shouldn’t vote for charisma, but for actual solid business plans. It was difficult, as so many of them were terrific. In my past, I had owned two businesses, but these men probably knew more about business than I did and they were way better public speakers.

     Then we went to lunch—cheeseburgers, chips and two cookies.  There was much chatting and I spoke with another man who was a writer.  He asked me what I wrote, where I’d been published, and why I was there at the prison. When I mentioned that I’d been to death row, one of the men at our table nodded and tapped another man on the arm and said, “She’s been to the row.”    

     Dance As If No One is Watching You – Day Two

     On day one and day two, the executives were asked to dance their way to the front of the room.  The men cheered our name as popular music boomed and lights flashed off and on like a makeshift strobe light or an epileptic’s nightmare in the PEP room. It is apropos that their acronym is pep, because that’s what it felt like, a pep rally. I imagine there is a reason that both the men in the program and the executives in attendance are asked to dance.  My guess is that it makes people feel a little self conscious, especially if they’ve got two left feet. But once they hear the roar of the crowd and realize that they’re not going to have a heart attack, it doesn’t matter how they think they look.  I didn’t feel particularly odd.  Well, maybe the first time I did.  But on the second day, I figured what the heck?  It was a celebratory day.

     After we listened to the four finalists deliver their amazing business proposals, we had to vote for the winner.  This was a tough decision.  All four men had  wonderful business plans, but I ended up giving my “cash” to the two men who ended up in third and fourth place.  What do I know?

    After lunch—we had cheeseburgers for a second day in a row, and then we went to the gym.  Let me get back to the lunch.  I felt kind of bad because I told the man I was standing in line with, that I was kind of let down that we were having cheeseburgers again. (I have a sensitive constitution,)  He said they never get cheeseburgers or chips or chocolate chip cookies and then I felt like a big old whiny complainer.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  From my friendship with Sonya Reed, I know about prison food.  Meat is, well, kind of like meat if you squint real hard and cover it in ketchup.  Fresh fruit is available only at Christmas and a salad is as rare as a unicorn. 

     Inside the gym, several family members milled around the large room, while children made signs for their dads or brothers or uncles.  I felt sort of out of the loop.  PEP encouraged us to mix and mingle with the family members, but I’m horrible at small talk and no one would accuse me of being a social butterfly.  But, as luck would have it, I found myself seated behind a man and woman who hadn’t seen their son in nineteen years.  I found out that they communicated regularly with their son, but not in person.  That’s one of the benefits of PEP, they reunite families, especially those experiencing financial hardship.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off them as the commencement music began and their son, along with eighty-seven other men marched into the room in cap and gown.

     I am a sucker for Pomp and Circumstance.  Seriously, I just have to hear it and the hair on my arms stand up and I get all teary eyed.  Add to that the fact that more than half of the men in the program had never walked across a stage to accept a diploma in their lives.  To watch their faces beaming with pride made me lose my composure.  I asked the two women from Baltimore if they had a Kleenex because I desperately needed to wipe my eyes and my snotty nose.  Thankfully, they did.

     Jeff Smith, a former Senator from Missouri, gave the commencement speech. Awards were handed out.  The men in the program presented their children with teddy bears from the Build-a-Bear Workshop that they’d made, as well as long stem roses to the women in their lives.  It was all very heart warming and I was so glad I’d made the trip with my sister-in-law to attend.

     As we departed, we stopped to congratulate Manuel, the first writer I met, who ended up as one of the final four.  His father, sister and brother were there in support of his accomplishments.  As we walked towards him, he said, “I couldn’t sleep last night.  I kept thinking about your book.” He looks towards his family.  “Pamela faced her fear of death.  I can’t remember who said it, but it was kind of like that quote, the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure.”  And he was right.  This was the treasure.  I would never have been here had I not taken that journey.

     I am starting to think that “the death writer” name is kind of a misnomer, especially when I take a look at my publishing history.  While every single one of my published pieces has to do with death or the threat of death, they are also about incarceration.  In “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” I wrote about attempting to get my incarcerated brother treated for Hep C.  In “Surrender,” I wrote about meeting a man on death row who was about to be executed.  “Saving Violet” is about rescuing a feral cat from being trapped and killed at a women’s prison.  In “Build It and They Will Come,” I write about what it’s like to work in a jail.

     What can I say?  I’m drawn to prison.  Not that I want to be sentenced to a prison, but for some reason, it is a subject that fascinates me.  I believe in hope and redemption and second chances.  And PEP makes it happen.  If you’d like to get involved, go here.