We don’t want to sit quietly for the next five minutes

“We sit in our cells for for 21.5 hours-a-day. We don’t want to sit quietly for the next five minutes…” Marshall* said. 

“Okay.” I replied with my heart sinking and my voice tapering off.

At 7AM on a Monday in the winter of 2006, I was sitting in a cold recreational room in the Jackson Correctional Facility, a level-4 maximum security prison, working with incarcerated individuals to create a play. Marshall’s words pierced my very being and fundamentally transformed how I looked at other individuals.

I imagined — in the time he spoke those two defining sentences — this young man, who was perhaps the same age as me, and the last 5 years of his sentence and the next 30 years that he would still serve. I imagined him sitting in his cell day-after-day without fresh air. I imagined him without the ability to make a quick unscheduled phone call. I imagined him feeling lonely. I imagined him looking forward to the 1.5 hour workshop once a week on Monday mornings at 7AM.

I felt — in that moment — his strength, his experience and his emotion. For that singular moment, I became him — there was no other place in the Universe that my mind was but in the emotions of his experience…where I was sitting in that cell as him for 21.5 hours-a-day. My past and future thoughts melted away — I was present — I was him.

***

In an effort to brainstorm what we would write our play about, I requested that the 13 of us sit quietly for 5 minutes and then go around the circle to discuss what thoughts went through our minds. I did not have the slightest idea that it would be met even with an ounce of resistance.

It was at this time, when Marshall spoke these two sentences, where I began to understand the meaning of our shared identity. From that point forward, when I am giving my ticket to the train conductor, being served by a waiter, or interacting with family/friends/coworkers, I try to look beyond my perceptions of how I think they look or what I think they are saying, or what I think they are thinking, and, instead, focus on their experience and their emotions. In that space, all the layers of looks, words and thoughts peel away, and, you and me becomes we.

Some notes/resources:

+ *Although many incarcerated individuals do not use their actual names when in prison, I wanted to protect the identity of “Marshall” by using a fictional name.

+ Prison Creative Arts Project: If you would like to learn more about the program that enabled me to volunteer in a prison, please go here.

+ Jackson Correctional Facility: This maximum security prison used to be one of the largest prisons in the country, but it was recently sold to a movie studio to produce films and television shows.

+ Prison Industrial Complex: Incarceration has become a very large and significant business with strong lobbies to promote increased incarceration of people in the United States. Corrections Corp of America (NYSE: CCA) is one of many publicly traded companies whose business model revolves around creating more prisons and housing more inmates.To learn more go here.

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