Pam Goes to Prison

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Joseph Campbell

     I recently spent two days at the Cleveland Unit with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.  PEP teaches incarcerated men about how to run and start their own business. After arriving at the Cleveland Unit, about thirty men and a few women dressed in a suit or modest business attire (no skirts, open toed shoes or tight fitting/revealing shirts) traded our driver’s licenses for a first-name only badge.  We were then patted down by a correctional officer of the same gender and were politely asked to walk through a metal detector.  After milling about in a small holding room, we were led towards the chow hall.  As instructed, we walked down the hallway between the yellow lines. A sprinkling of men in prison blues stood back against the wall eyeing us as we passed by. I could hear the roar of shouting voices and thunderous applause coming from the chow hall.  My breath quickened and my heart raced with each step.

     This was not my personal experience of prison. In my early twenties, I had visited my brother at Folsom several times. At Folsom, we were in the visitation room with at least one hundred other people, but the room was oddly muted.  We conversed in hushed tones as if we were in a library. All inmates and their visitors faced the front of the room, while a table of guards stared down at us like we were a herd of unruly cattle.  Touching was not allowed with the exception of a brief hug at the beginning of our visit. 

     As we stepped into the chow hall, a line of men in blues (kind of like hospital scrubs) high-fived us as we entered.  They greeted us by name.  Some shook our hands and thanked us for being there. We were told that they encouraged hugs in this program, but not with women. The further I ventured into the room, I felt completely undeserving of the enthusiastic reception.  I just showed up. We then had our picture taken holding a sign that read, “I Got Caught Doing Something Good,” along with a photo where we stood with a group of men from the program. 

     Then we were free to mingle.

     My other visits to prison to visit Khristian Oliver at the Pollunsky Unit and Sonya Reed at the Mountain View Unit were even more controlled and sedate.  Both Khristian and Sonya were behind glass.  With Khristian, we spoke via a black phone and with Sonya we spoke through a mesh wire.  Physical contact was not allowed and we were to remain seated at all times.  It sounds horrible to say, but the only time I got to touch Khristian Oliver was when he was dead on a gurney.

     I am not comfortable with large groups of people, so I approached a man standing alone in the middle of the room.  To get the conversation flowing, I asked, “What’s your business plan?” 

     “Well,” he said, “I’m a writer.”
     “So am I!” I interrupted. What are the odds?  Out of 88 men, the first man I talk to is a writer.
     “What do you write?” he asked.
     “Non-fiction.  How about you?”
     “I write creative nonfiction,” he said.
     “Me too!”

     I felt like I was at an odd social function and I’d found a kindred spirit.  This man was articulate, confident and interested in my thoughts about publishing.  When he told me about his business plan to start a company that published the written work of men and women behind bars, I was sold.  Heck, I’d done the same for Sonya Reed on a much smaller scale.  The power of story is strong and the men and women behind bars deserve to be heard.  I learned later that he had committed a murder at the age of fourteen, but at that moment in time the only thing that differentiated us was our clothes and where we called home.

To be continued…