Interview with Eddie Conway by Ann Bracken

Continuing our discussion from our recent prison-themed issue, LPR Deputy Editor Ann Bracken recently interviewed Eddie Conway, executive producer of Real News Network. Having served 44 years in prison before his sentence was overturned in a retrial, Conway became an advocate for prison reform. Read the full interview below.

Some people might say that Eddie Conway is finally home. Others will tell you he never really left Baltimore behind.  And he has always been deeply committed to working for justice in his community.  At a very early age, he became aware of the disconnect between the American Dream that lies within reach for a majority of white Americans, but remains a caustic lie for many Black Americans.  Conway likens his feelings of betrayal to the time when he was about five years old and could barely reach the glass of water sitting on the kitchen counter. Proud that he finally grasped the glass, looking forward to the cold water, Conway choked and sputtered as he swallowed a glass of bleach.  In his memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, Conway has this to say of that memory which “returns to my mind time and again, for it seems to me an analogy for the quintessential experience of oppressed people in this country. White supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives here in the United States and the forced acceptance of it tastes much like that glass of bleach.”

Conway grew up in the 40s and 50s in East Baltimore and then joined the United States Army in 1964 where he rose to the rank of Sergeant.  While serving as a medic in Germany in 1967, Conway saw newspaper reports about the use of force by police and the National Guard related to civil rights protests in the States and was shocked to see American soldiers pointing rifles at unarmed civilians in the streets of Newark, New Jersey.  Disillusioned and distraught over that incident, Conway questioned his role in the military and decided that he would take his energy and skills to fight for justice back in his Baltimore community. On his return home, he worked briefly as an orderly and operating room technician and then as one of the first Black firefighters at the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel plant.  In 1968 Conway joined a local chapter of the Black Panther Party which was just forming in Baltimore. He worked on educating other party members, providing free breakfast to the children in his neighborhood, and encouraging community members to take action to address the high levels of inequality that permeated every area of Black life.  In 1970, while still a member of the Panthers, Conway was accused of killing a police officer, denied adequate legal representation during his trial, and convicted based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. He spent 44 years in Maryland’s prisons, always maintaining his innocence.  He was released in 2014 for time served because the judge in his original trial had neglected to inform the jury that they could only convict someone if they were convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Conway and I sat down to talk in his second-floor office at the Real News Network where he currently works as an executive producer.  The walls were hung with pictures of famous Black activists like Kathleen Cleaver as well as coloring book pages taped near his desk.   Conway told me that parents sometimes bring their kids to the network offices and he’s only too happy to display their artwork.

eddie-conway

Eddie Conway

Ann Bracken (AB):  Thanks for meeting with me today, Eddie.  It’s an honor to talk with you and to bring your story to the Little Patuxent Review’s readers.  I first heard you on “Democracy Now” when Amy Goodman interviewed you in March of 2014, the day after you had been freed from prison after 44 years. What was the greatest challenge you faced as a returning citizen?

Eddie Conway (EC): Nothing really challenged me at first because I had spent my time in prison working with people and trying to stay up on all of the events happening in the society at large. But what soon became a challenge for me was seeing the conditions in the city of Baltimore. I was prepared to see better conditions for everyone.  After all of my years of organizing—both inside of the prison and outside—I thought I was done with organizing at 67 years of age. But when I saw the conditions of the neighborhoods, the people, the schools, and the community at large, I had to pick up the mantle and try to change that.

AB: What kinds of projects are you involved in now as a community organizer?

EC: Right now I am working at Tubman House in the Gilmore Homes neighborhood—the same neighborhood where Freddy Gray was killed. We work with the children and adults to grow food, learn cooking, and offer support to the young people in the neighborhood. We do lots of community outreach, like giving out Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas gifts, school supplies, and teaching dance to the youth.

AB: What led you to become a producer at the Real News Network?

EC: When I was in prison, I noticed that none of the United States networks covered the news about what was really helping to the people in America.  I couldn’t find stories about the environmental movement, the gay movement, or Black Lives Matter, just to name a few.  I had to look at networks like Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia Today or the Chinese News stations.  I finally found the Real News Network and I wanted to be a part of their work, so I began as a volunteer about two-and-a-half years ago and then I was hired as a producer. (Conway often reports on mass incarceration issues in a series called Rattling the Bars.)

AB: It sounds like you had a pretty smooth reentry after your many years of incarceration, but many others struggle to be successful after their time in prison. Are there programs that help returning citizens with re-entry?

EC: There are so few available that it amounts to a drop in the bucket.  The programs that do exist only reach a small part of the population. In Maryland alone, the numbers of people cycling in and out of the community are staggering.  About 1000 people come back every month and 1000 go in (to prison). (1) There’s a flood of people all the time. They get arrested and charged with everything from resisting arrest, to talking back, to having a little pot on their person, to everything except maybe mass murder (defined as shooting  4 or more people in a single incident, not including the shooter). (2) The statistics show that about 80-85% of people will come out at some time—so we’ll always have folks reentering our communities that need some support.  In my work at the Real News Network, I try to spotlight things that work to help returning citizens, but there are so few programs and they reach a very small population.  That’s why I did the story on Living Classrooms in East Baltimore.

AB: Say more about what impressed you with Living Classrooms. What is it that they do that makes their program so effective?

EC: That program is a tiny drop in the hat, but one of the things that makes them so effective is that they hire ex-offenders to work with the new returning citizens, so they have a good grasp of all the things someone newly released from prison needs help with—the problems, the challenges, and the resources. The program runs with case managers—about five or six of them—who work with about 50 or 60 returning citizens.  They have about an 80-85% success rate and very low recidivism rate, as opposed to state-run programs with about a 60% success rate and recidivism of about 40%.

AB: Most people know very little about labor in prisons or any other conditions that incarcerated people are subjected to.

EC: Prisons do two things: they isolate the people on the inside and they isolate the people on the outside so that they don’t know what goes on.  When you are riding on 83 coming into Baltimore, there’s a billboard that talks about putting down the gun   and when people ride by that, they have no idea about how many people live in those brick buildings behind the billboard. I bet many of them don’t even realize a prison is there.  So not only are the buildings themselves invisible to most people, but there’s an invisibility to the prison structure itself. Oftentimes people will tell you that one day they talk to a friend and a few weeks later, they ask where the friend is and someone tells them, “Joe? Oh, he got 20 years.”  So many people from your community are there one day and gone the next.  They become the disappeared.

AB: When I discuss the topic of prison labor with friends or students, the most frequent response goes something like this: “Well, it’s better to have people in prison working than just sitting around doing nothing all day. Besides, they can learn a trade or some skills if they have a job.”  How would you respond to that?

EC: I’d say that you could make the same argument about slavery. Isn’t it better to have people picking cotton and rice than just sitting around all day? At least they had a place to live and a little food. It’s the same mentality with labor in prison. People in prison have to pay for their survival—paying such things as deodorant, soap, toothpaste, stamps, snack food, books, and phone calls. (3) If they do work in the prison, they may make about $50-$75 a month. Oftentimes, they also have to pay for child support or family support. Additionally, when they are sentenced, they may be sentenced to 30 years and have to pay a $30,000 fine.  How are you going to do all of that on $75 a month?

If you are out on work-release, you do get paid federal minimum wage, but then you have to pay for room and board, taxes, and maybe child support. There is a very small sub-set of folks that are actually paid minimum wage.

So I’d say yes, it’s better to have work and a decent wage, but the system that currently exists is abusive—it’s a form of neo-slavery. People are dehumanized. How do you self-actualize in conditions like that?

For example, I worked as a graphic art designer making signs—a highly technical skill. I made things like the highway signs for BWI, the Orioles signs, and the wraps on MTA buses. All of that work requires a very special skill set. I was at the top echelon of prison pay, making about $6.50 per day.  A graphic designer on the outside would make about $250 per day.  So because I wasn’t even making minimum wage, I was dehumanized.

On the other hand, if prisoners were actually paid the minimum wage, they would be able to take care of their basic needs and also do things to bond more with their families.  They could buy cards, send letters, or maybe even small gifts. People would have to treat the prisoners differently because incarcerated folks would  begin to see themselves differently.  Paying the prisoners a minimum wage will humanize them.

AB: What would you like to say to people who may be thinking about doing volunteer work in a prison?

EC: That it means a lot to the folks who are locked up to know that people on the outside are thinking of them and are willing to get involved with them in some kind of meaningful way.  After a while, you lose track of yourself and how you are related to the world. But if you see people come in to work with you on job skills, or writing, art, music, or alternatives to violence—anything—you begin to realize that you matter. You hold on to your personhood and begin to feel like maybe you can make it. If you encounter people who have no obligation to visit you—folks other then your parents, siblings, relatives, spouse or friends—it helps you to feel like a real person rather than a number.

AB: Finally, I’m very interested in your work with “Friend of a Friend,” a program developed with the help of the American Friends Service Committee to help incarcerated people learn new skills for dealing with anger management, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal coping skills.

EC: Yes, Friend of a Friend is a peer-mentoring program that is run inside the prisons and helps prisoners develop a lot of the skills they need to be successful in their lives. Most of the men who participate in the program go on to work with the youth back in their communities.   The program runs in both state and federal prisons all over the United States.

AB: Thank you for your time and your work, Eddie. I’d like to close with your hopeful and inspiring words from the brochure about Friend of a Friend: “Our goal has been to equip these young men to leave prison in a better position emotionally and intellectually than when they came in. Our great hope is that they will contribute to the uplift of the communities that they come from.”

 

Notes from the Interviewer:

  1. Bureau of Justice Statistics: 95% of all state prisoners are released at some point and nearly 80% are released to parole supervision.
  2. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Fiscal 2015 Budget Overview: 10, 946 entered prison and 11, 394 were released in 2013.
  3. For further resources, please visit Maryland Department of Corrections at Maryland Correctional Industries website.

 

 

 

Interview with Ann Bracken

Recently, Little Patuxent Review interviewed our deputy editor, Ann Bracken, about her new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. Ann has worked with LPR starting with our inception in 2006. For the past 20 years she has taught children and adults, and those experiences serve as the inspiration for this new book.

ann-bracken

Ann Bracken

Little Patuxent Review: How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing? What aspect of education inspired you to write No Barking in the Hallways?

Ann Bracken: I began writing my student poems when I taught high school in a psychiatric hospital. Many of the students were there because no other school had a place for them due to their emotional distress that resulted in a lot of difficult behaviors.  What I learned in that job is that there are no “bad kids,” but rather awful circumstances that cause pain and trauma. Writing poems about my students helped me to understand them better and to treat them with the compassion they deserved.

I wanted to write No Barking in the Hallways because I believe in the power of personal stories to help people understand complex issues, such as high-stakes testing. The emphasis on test scores negatively affects both teachers and students, especially those with special needs. For example, many of the young men I taught struggled with reading, but rather than accept help and move forward, they developed avoidance behaviors so they could look cool and tough as opposed to being labeled as dumb.  Many of those boys were mechanically or artistically gifted, yet they were stuck in classes that drilled them on multiple-choice items so they could pass the high-stakes graduation tests.  Because their grades were poor, they were not eligible for the technical classes where they could have blossomed.  So for them, school was a place of frustration rather than a gateway to hope.

As for my colleagues, many of them doubled-down on rigid, practice-driven activities just to cover material that would be on tests. I also had an administrator who bribed kids with prom tickets to take the test over again, even when they had passed, just so the school’s numbers would look better for the central office.

LPR: How did this project differ from others you have done in the past?

AB: My previous book, The Altar of Innocence, is a memoir in verse that deals with addiction, depression, and the struggle to claim one’s voice.  That book has a chronological framework and each poem is based on a scene from my past.  My new book features the stories of students and teachers I have known since I first began teaching. The poems are in a looser framework so that the reader experiences stories of individual children and teachers who struggle to find relevance in today’s increasingly standardized, rigid world of public education.

LPR: Your poems feature the voices and stories of real teachers and students. Could you provide an example of a story that inspired one your poems?

AB: “The Voices in My Ear” is based on an article I read by Amy Berand, a young teacher in a charter school who was being trained in a very robotic, harsh method of discipline called No Nonsense Nurturing.  Amy worked in a middle school, and while she was being trained, she had to wear an earpiece so that she could hear the prompting from three coaches who stood in the back of her classroom and told her how to respond to students.  I was struck by Berand’s description of the method, especially because she was equipped with an earpiece to hear the coaches but had no mouthpiece to answer them. The trio of coaches gave her short phrases to say and told her to stop expressing her emotions, to stop praising the students. I found the article very disturbing on a number of levels, chiefly because most teachers know the best way to help students learn self-management is to treat them kindly and to get to know them and their interests. A teacher should form a real relationship and show respect for the students as people. No Nonsense Nurturing trains teachers to act like robots who speak with pre-programmed responses rather than to engage with students as individuals.

LPR: What changes do you feel need to be made in education to better reflect the experiences of students?

515cgypb10l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

No Barking in the Hallways

AB: First, I’d eliminate most uses of the computer for students in the classroom—see this article on the push for competency-based education for my reasoning.  Teachers would guide student learning using hands-on experiences to explore a curriculum based on research and age-appropriate objectives. The curriculum would be decided on a state level, with each school system free to adapt parts of it according to local needs.  Art, music, and physical education would be as important to the school experience as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science skills. The Common Core curriculum, PARCC, SBAC, and all standardized testing would be eliminated. No more Teach for America. No more charter schools and vouchers. Higher pay for teachers. Local control in the hands of elected school boards would be the norm. Most of all, we would be guiding our students to become thoughtful, kind, informed citizens and treat them with dignity and respect.

LPR: How can we better meld the arts with education?

AB: If we value creativity, and our business folks are always searching for that quality, then we need to improve the opportunities for children to be creative. You can’t foster creativity with standardization, rigid curriculums, and corporate-designed lessons.  We need to keep the arts—music, poetry, dance, visual art, and theater—in the forefront of our children’s education. Not only do the arts offer a variety of ways to express oneself personally, they also offer a chance to speak to issues in new and challenging ways.  Most important, the arts offer all of us a way to imagine the future, to move beyond what constrains us and to create a new vision for society. Instead of cutting the arts, we should be expanding them.

If you’d like to know more about Ann and her work, please visit her website at www.annbrackenauthor.com.  Ann’s launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Diane Wilbon Parks will also be featured at the event, part of the reading series The Poet Experience.

Interview with Linda Moghadam

To celebrate Little Patuxent Review’s tenth anniversary, we’re highlighting previous posts.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

I used to fear going inside a prison. Like many people, my ideas were fueled by media portrayals of the “hardened criminals” who exist behind the walls, locked away from society. But in recent years, thanks to Michelle Alexander’s fine work The New Jim Crow, I’d learned more about how the prison system operates and could see that, in many ways, our current criminal justice system was stacked against poor and minority populations.

The radio show Crossroads, a weekly radio program on WPFW in Washington, DC, hosted by Roach Brown only reinforced what I learned about prisoners from Michelle Alexander’s work.

Brown identifies himself as a former inmate and a national advocate for the men and women in and out of our prisons. Every week, he relates stories of former inmates who struggle to make a better life for themselves but face tremendous obstacles to reentering society. I’ve learned a lot from listening to Brown’s personal tale as well as the stories of countless men and women—many of whom freely admit to making bad decisions as young people and serving long years locked away. Their stories revealed to me a human side of the people we lump into the category of criminals. After a couple of years as a steady listener, my fears melted a little as I began to understand the complexity of their lives and to hear over and over again how many of them work to improve themselves in prison, much like Brown did, and how many want to give back to society in a positive way.

Because of my feelings, I had been already thinking about visiting a prison and myself offering a writing group even before I met Linda Moghadam and learned of her work at the Patuxent Institution. I felt a kinship with Linda as we sat in her office at the University of Maryland College Park, and chatted about her background, her interests, and her experiences with running a writing group at Jessup for the past eight years.

Linda Moghadam received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as her and Ph.D. in Sociology (1989) from the University of Maryland College Park. She has served as the Director of the Sociology Undergraduate Program since 1989 and also lectures on the sociology of education. Her areas of interest include work and family, inequality issues, and education.

Ann Bracken: Tell me how you came to work at the Patuxent Institution. How long have you been volunteering there?

Linda Moghadam: I started volunteering in the college program at Patuxent (a partnership between Anne Arundel Community College and Patuxent Institution, funded by a small grant) eight years ago.  The college program was active for a little more than ten years and was quite successful.  Over 50 men and women (there is a small women’s unit at Patuxent – kept separate from the men’s) earned associates degrees.  Ed Duke administered the program and ran it on a shoestring.   When the funds ran out, we were able to raise enough money to allow those closest to an AA degree to graduate.

AB: What can you tell me about the programs that were there at the time?

LM: During that time there were several enrichment programs (resumes workshops, social entrepreneurship programs) available.  The end of the college program was accompanied by an end to these programs.  I stayed on and did a writing workshop with a group of interested men, most of whom I had taught in various sociology courses.  The chaplain’s wife, who is an art teacher, also volunteered. She initiated and ran a very successful art program.

AB: How many men are currently in the writing program?

LM: There are ten men in the writing program.  These programs and others could be expanded with additional volunteers.   The members of the writing group are interesting and engaged in their work, the discussions and the work they do are about things that matter.   The time I spend at Patuxent is in many ways one of the best parts of my week.

AB: What has most impressed you about working with the men?

LM: Since the writing and art programs have been in place we have had two joint events that combined presenting the work of the writing group and the art group, along with some musical accompaniment from several of the men.  I have been moved by the energy, hard work and collegiality among the men in producing and performing.  Several of the therapists have also been extremely supportive in helping to arrange these events.  There is a considerable amount of talent among the participants and the opportunity to present their work as well as the opportunity to collaborate with others has had real value.   One of the poets who participated in the first event observed later that it is was the first time he had not felt like a number since he had arrived at Patuxent.

AB: How would you describe your philosophy of life?

LM: I suppose my philosophy of life can be borrowed from the author of the one-act play The Cultivators I sent you.  The play was inspired after the author read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

“And what does the nettle (seed) need?  Very little soil, no care, no culture; except that the seeds fall as fast as they ripen, and it is difficult to gather them, that is all.  If we would take a few pains, the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful.  Then we kill it.  How much men are like the nettle! . . . My friends, remember this, that there are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators.”

We read and studying these things, and yet we fail to benefit from their wisdom.

AB: What are the men most interested in learning?

LM:   Just about everything.   Some of the men are voracious readers and are interested in history, literature, science. As you noted during your visit, they put you and me to shame in how well read many of them are. Neither one of us has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Proust, yet several of the men had.  They also have an interest in learning more about restorative justice and in finding ways to give back to their communities..

AB: I know that one of the men has written a play. What’s it about?

LM: Actually two men wrote plays. One of the plays was particularly impressive for the way in which it incorporated a vision and understanding of society garnered from literature as well as the social sciences. It’s exciting to observe the ways in which the men have applied what they have learned—both from experience and literature –in their story telling.

AB: What has been the most surprising thing about working with the men?

LM: No real surprises here. When I was growing up, my dad had gotten burned quite a few times by friends – sometimes by family. As a result, his view of the world changed, and he was always telling me that most people were not to be trusted. He was sure that I would learn this lesson eventually.   But working at Patuxent has reinforced my view of the world—most people are good, trying to be better, and sometimes making terrible mistakes. But they’re basically good people. I suspect my father knew this as well, but was trying to protect me.

AB: How has the work changed them? How has it changed you?

LM: At the first program where we did readings, one of the poets made an observation that he found it ironic that he would have to come to prison to find that people would actually care about him. In a subsequent meeting of the writing group, he said that in presenting his poetry, it was the first time since he had arrived at Patuxent that he saw himself as something other than a number.   I hope that both through the college program and the writing and art program – and also the therapy that is provided at Patuxent—they have an opportunity to believe in themselves and discover what they are capable of.

This experience has changed me in all sorts of ways. The men helped me choose a book for my grandson’s 5th-grade graduation. I’ve developed an ongoing appreciation for the many undeserved breaks I’ve had. I realize that great company comes in unexpected places. And I feel a push to read more to keep up with the group.

AB: Anything you’d like to add?

LM: These types of program are important, but, even more, important are policies that stem the flow of our citizens into prison.   You can see from just one meeting with the writing group how talented they are and what they could contribute to society had their early lives been different.

Linda’s words about what the men could contribute once they can return to society reminded me about a program I attended a couple of months ago with Betty May, a theatrical director, writer, high school teacher, circus coach, and clown from Columbia, MD. Betty did a presentation on her book Faces, which details how she worked with women in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and helped them put on an original play. May supported the women, all of whom were serving life sentences, as they wrote and performed their original play “Faces,” which was performed at the prison and also found its way to the Kennedy Center Stage. The play told their collective stories to serve as a warning to young people who were on the wrong path in life. The women had one simple wish: “If we can help just one kid, all the work we do will be worth it. “

I feel the same way about the work Linda is doing with the writing group: If a few people are moved by the men’s stories from the writing group, it will be worth it.

Editor’s Note: If this interview interests you, check out LPR’s Issue 21: Prison https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.

 

The darkness most feared

Ann BrackenLittle Patuxent Review contributing editor Ann Bracken participated in New Day Campaign’s Book Club on December 1, 2015. Peter Bruun purchased in advance several copies of Ann’s memoir-in-verse, The Altar of Innocence, and provided them to women in recovery. These women attended Ann’s reading and participated in a lively post-reading discussion.

Little Patuxent Review: The New Day Campaign’s mission is to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and addiction, making the world a more healing place. Share with us why participating in this campaign was important to you.

"The Altar of Innocence," By Ann Bracken

“The Altar of Innocence,” By Ann Bracken

Ann Bracken: As someone who has dealt with depression in the past, I think it is critical to normalize the experience.  Many times feeling sad, overwhelmed, or stuck is a normal response to extremely challenging experiences. Many times when someone has experienced some abuse or trauma, the psyche needs a break and going into what I call a “down-mode” offers you a chance to reflect and restore.

As for addiction, I think of addiction as experiencing a hole that can’t be filled — sometimes due to some trauma or abuse, again. One seeks to fill the hole with something that will temporarily take away the pain. The “something” could be food, gambling, sex, shopping—it doesn’t have to be drugs in the traditional sense. Almost anything in excess can give you a temporary rush of serotonin and dopamine(the feel-good chemicals).

The New Day Campaign aspires to create safe spaces where people can talk about depression and addiction. I think the more we can all share our experiences in safe places and talk about what has helped us, the more we can move towards both personal and societal healing.

LPR: Peter Bruun said of New Day, “we create a space of safety and acceptance out in the public realm, where more often than not shame, blame, fear, and judgment prevent those who hurt from speaking of their hurt and vulnerabilities.” How important was this safe space for you at this point in your journey?

AB: I’m not currently suffering from any depression, yet I know it well and can remember how the darkness can isolate you. When I read from my memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, and share my experiences of depression and recovery, people often find hope for themselves in the story of my struggle to overcome depression. Writing the book and sharing my poems has helped me to let go of shame and find healing for memories and past hurts. I hope that the New Day Campaign’s efforts can offer that same healing to others.

LPR: What did you find helpful as you worked through your depression or melancholy?

AB: Part of feeling depressed involves feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness. One way that I worked to overcome those feelings was by pampering myself. I chose a sensory treat that I could appreciate throughout the day. For example, I used to buy the least expensive body lotion in the grocery store—usually with very little fragrance. But after reading about the importance of being kind to yourself, I decided to buy my favorite rich, vanilla-scented body cream. I realized that every time I put that cream on my hands, I had an instant sensory treat. The lush fragrance and the rich cream served as reminders that I was worthy of a treat. Treating myself well in a small way helped me to begin to establish a much healthier regard for myself.

LPR: What words of encouragement would you like to offer others who are currently experiencing depression?

AB: Hold on. You will make it to the other side. It’s so important to let people know that there is an end to the feelings of sadness. In addition, I think the most important lesson for me in the midst of my depression was the notion that depression is more than a dark hole, that there is often a gift in the darkness if you can ride the rough waves of sad feelings. David Whyte expresses this idea beautifully in his poem “The Well of Grief” when he says:

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

LPR: You became an expressive coach. Tell us more about that.

AB: Because poetry, journaling, and the arts played such vitally important roles in my recovery, I decided to pursue training in using poetry and journaling for healing and personal growth. As a result of that training, I established my practice, The Possibility Project. The poetry and journaling workshops I offer are suitable for both adults and teens. One of my original programs, The Three Pillars of Hope, is designed for women in transition and features a combination of sessions composed of poetry, journaling, and arts-based reflections.

LPR: When the inaugural New Day Campaign has ended, what would you like to be different?

AB: Actually, I’d love to see an end to the term “mental illness.” How about melancholy instead?  Or normal sadness? Why is anxiety seen as illness in the face of the pressures of modern life or the presence of huge challenges? Why is the most common way to deal with depression to offer a pharmaceutical remedy when what so many need is someone to talk to that can guide them through the darkness?

People need to know that there are many effective alternatives to medication, particularly for people who suffer from mild to moderate depression or low-grade anxiety.  According to the latest research, non-medical alternative interventions for depression—including placebos—are just as effective as the so-called chemical cures. In my case, poetry and cognitive-behavioral therapy did more to help me heal than any medical intervention. I’d like to see these non-medical interventions become just as well known to greater numbers of people.

LPR: Thank you, Ann, for your courage and example. 

Online Editor’s Note: Please visit New Day Campaign (http://www.newdaycampaign.org/) to see a full list of exhibits and events, which run through December 31, 2015. 

Resources of interest:

When Love Leads and Art Heals

Peter Bruun.

Peter Bruun.

Peter Bruun arrived in Baltimore in 1987, a recent art history graduate of Williams College. He enrolled in graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where he earned a master’s degree at MICA’s Mt. Royal School of Art. He’s been a fixture in the Baltimore cultural scene since and is recognized as a community activist, educator, and curator. For example, Bruun worked in 2011 with Marian House to create 30 Women, 30 Stories, an art project highlighting the success stories of 30 women whose lives had been transformed by Marian House, overcoming addiction, trauma, incarceration, homelessness, mental illness and poverty to build independent, productive lives. Perhaps this project planted seeds of deep empathy within Peter which he would need.

In February 2014, Peter received a call every parent secretly fears. His oldest daughter Elisif was dead.  Heroin addiction plagued his beautiful and talented 24-year old and proved too strong, despite her best efforts to heal. He channeled his grief into a blog post on Bruun Studio’s website called A New Day. From this outpouring, Peter grew a 2015 movement called A New Day Campaign, featuring 16 exhibits and 63 events over 92 days. It’s an initiative using art to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and addiction, making the world a more healing place.

Extraordinary circumstances often lead individuals to create sacred spaces and change the conversations we’ve been having. Such was the case when Peter took action, as he has before many times before, to create A New Day Campaign. He is showing an entire community how to shine light in our darkest corners, ferret out shame, talk openly, and love one another, unconditionally. Little Patuxent Review is deeply grateful for Peter taking time amidst the An New Day Campaign activities to share his thoughts with us.

Little Patuxent Review: You organized A New Day Campaign, pulling together artists, writers, poets and thought leaders, with the mission to make the world a more healing place. What kinds of conversations do you hope will be happening 95 days from now?

Peter Brauun: What do I hope to happen after the Campaign? Well, the main thing is I hope there is still a conversation, for that’s the key: talking about it. So long as we’re talking about mental illness and addiction, and recognizing that those who suffer are not choosing their pain or behaviors, and then we’re on the way to the culture shift I hope to see. The new day.

LPR: Will you share with us the types of events falling under New Day Campaign’s umbrella?

ANDCPB: The overall purpose of the Campaign is to challenge stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness and addiction, making the world a more healing place. This calls for a diverse range of experiences. We have events that are about bringing people together to connect with one another, to gain some new understanding, to support advocacy, and to provide opportunities for healing. We have everything from book conversations, where those who have written books that shed light on mental illness or addiction engage in conversation with a small audience, to opening receptions celebrating art exhibitions, with hundreds in attendance, to a film series with conversation, to a variety of theme-based gatherings where those who either are experts by training or experts of their own experience come together to dig into an issue. Some of our events are elaborate half day affairs with multiple presentations that include information, performance, sharing, and conversation. We also have a number of what we call “healing experiences,” where folks come together and actually engage in some sort of healing activity. So there is great diversity. If there is one common denominator to what we do, it’s that we create a space of safety and acceptance out in the public realm, where more often than not shame, blame, fear, and judgment prevent those who hurt from speaking of their hurt and vulnerabilities. But time and time again, we have had events where people speak without fear and with confidence that those in the room bring compassion and care. That’s been the most beautiful thing about the Campaign: the public intimacies. The sense of fellowship. I believe we are modeling a kind of new day.

LPR: How did you determine what kinds of art, writers, poets and thought leaders would be included in New Day Campaign?

PB: That itself is more art than science. There certainly is no single way. So much of it is about the opportunity: who wants to share something, who has something to share? It’s definitely not simply about the art: it needs to have a story to it. As for writers and poets, pretty much whoever has come along has found a voice in the choir… literature is not my personal strength (visual art is), so I’ve not dug deep into that world, but where I have I’ve liked who and what I’ve come across, and found a place for them. As for artists themselves, some are more involved than others, because they are true stakeholders in the issues, and they are powerful, compassionate people themselves. As for what you call thought leaders, again I’m looking for a range of expertise, philosophy, and kinds of thinking or experiences. And I have to say, even though there are artists, poets, writers, performers, and thought leaders who are foregrounded in our programs, in the actual events the field is very flat: there is virtually always a community conversation component and all are welcome to speak up – we’ve had writers, poets, artists, performers, and thought leaders emerge from the crowd that way, and it’s been lovely. This touches everyone, so everyone is welcome.

LPR: What happens after this year’s events have concluded?

PB: I rest, we reflect, and we figure out what to do next. There are no current plans other than to get our breath and analyze what worked and what didn’t. Then we’ll see where opportunity, resources, and interest lie.

LPR: Your daughter Elisif is the inspiration for A New Day Campaign. About her death last February to a heroin overdose, you wrote, “My daughter was neither weak nor morally flawed. She was beautiful and strong, and she succumbed to a tragic affliction.” Who was Elisif and what would you like people to remember or know about her?

PB: I really don’t know what to say to this one. Elisif is so much to me, and whatever she means to someone else, I’m happy to have that be so. If her light is positive, I’m glad.

LPR: What would Elisif’s reaction be to A New Day Campaign?

PB: She would absolutely hate that it is about her. She would absolutely love that it exists. She’d be proud of me. She is proud of me.

LPR: You’ve long been a community activist, catalyzing others via art. How do you envision the arts impact on challenging the stigma associated with mental health and addiction? 

PB: It’s what I do, but I know its real impact is small. “Intimacy” is a word included among our values in the Campaign. So it probably has an impact only on an intimate, small scale. But it’s what I do, and it’s a good, even if small. At best we can hope to be casting a bunch of seeds in the field, or pebbles in the pond. I’m doing that, and I think the arts do that.

LPR: In your “A New Day” blog post (February 27, 2014), you wrote about Elisif having genetic testing done and the discovery of a predilection toward opiate addiction. “The play between genetics and environment in behavioral health is still a new field, but there is no question: substance abuse and its accompanying destructive behaviors is more sickness than choice.” Can you share more about these findings in general terms?

PB: There’s nothing so dangerous as a little bit of knowledge. I know only a little about this, and as I’ve learned more, I’ve learned just how little we know, and how far we have to go. But no doubt: genetics and better understanding that can only help us move further away from a world filled with shame and blame.

LPR: Share with us your thoughts on how support might look under a humane system.

PB: You know how we treat people with cancer, or Alzheimer’s? That’s how.

LPR: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

PB: Thank you for sharing. That’s all.

LPR: Thank you for your courage and example.

Online Editor’s Note: A list of A New Day Campaign’s upcoming events can be found here. LPR’s Ann Bracken shares The Altar of Innocence at NDC’s Book Club Series on December 1. You can read an excellent interview with Peter called, “Good Grief” in this month’s Baltimore Magazine. Please consider visiting A New Day Campaign’s website to learn more and become involved. 

Interview with Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

Grace Cavalieri is just as comfortable in the kitchen making gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms as she is in the radio studio interviewing, Juan Felipe Herrera, the new Poet Laureate of the United States. When I talked with Grace about the role of myth in her life and work, she moved easily between making me tea with honey and sharing her latest poetry reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books—a labor she performs faithfully every month.

During the interview, we talked about her home life, her life as a Navy wife, and her early years as a writer when she was raising her four children. Here’s a brief teaser from a section in Grace’s memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, where she explores the function of work in our lives:

“The workplace is a laboratory for the human spirit that allows us to overcome the obstacles we need to overcome to find what we want. The ‘wall’ people put up for us is a perfect way to find what we want on the other side. It focuses. Desire is made better by the wall. I never said it was easy.”

Ann Bracken: I’ve just finished reading your memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and want to thank you for sharing so many details of your life with your readers. I found the work engaging, funny, and inspiring. What made you write it at this point in your life?

Grace Cavalieri: You make me so happy! Ken always wanted me to write about my adventures and I thought he was crazy. What would I possibly write about? How to cook chicken cacciatore? But after he died, he appeared to three psychics telling me to write “that book.” I just thought well I can do two pages a day…and that’s what I did.

AB: How long did it take you to write the memoir? What was the most challenging aspect of talking about your life?

GC: It took not quite a year from first my scratchings to the fourth proofing and production time. I kept criticizing my writing, not my life. That I could not change—but I knew I could not reach lyricism with the form I’d chosen, which was reportage. There are some nice moments in it, I’m sure, but being a practicing poetry person, the prose seems to like wearing a suit of armor while trying to fly. The chapter (three) about birthing my daughter Angel, under great duress and negative conditions, made me cry. I got acquainted with my PTSD kept so nicely undercover all these years.

AB: Throughout the book, you talk about breaking through boundaries in the arts, especially related to women’s roles. Can you describe the first boundary you crossed? Perhaps when you got the DC Arts Commission Grant?

GC: AR Ammons (winner of the National Book Award in 1973 and 1993) said “If you are nothing you can say and do anything.” He even misspelled “do” to make his point. So I knew, in 1966, that I was below everyone’s radar, and I had Ammons’ credentials. I learned that the DC Commission said it supported artists, so I wrote to them: I NEED SUPPORT. Ken and I had four children, and I was not working at a job, so I felt guilty spending money trying to mail my daily poems and plays out. The Arts Commission surprisingly invited me to tell my story. And I got $200. From that day forward, they set up a mechanism for funding artists. But I bought a maxi coat with the money. I figured they’d certainly want me to look like an artist instead of a homemaker.

AB: You grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and then married your high school sweetheart, Kenneth Flynn. You and Ken lived all over the United States as a result of Ken’s Navy service. You also raised four daughters and became an acclaimed poet, playwright, and radio host. Were there any cultural myths that shaped your early years? Your years as a Navy wife?   What myths were you determined to challenge?

GC: Remember that I grew up in the 1930’s, and movies ruled our lives in the 1940’s, and beyond. The idea that someone could make up a story, and make us believe—it enchanted my imagination. I wrote to all the movie stars. I wanted to get backstage and see how it felt to tell a story.

And I believe writers are born wired to language, so any book I read could sail me to dreamland –wanting to understand how that book worked on my heart. What was the process of inventing those hieroglyphics on the page that could change my feelings so much? That was childhood.

The Navy was pure survival for me; alone for nine months, books were my friends. I was both parents for my children and very much alone.

As a practicing artist, after that tenure, I was ready for action. All the energy building up in me wanted out. I, once again, didn’t care what people thought of me (because I was nothing) so I was free to write what I wanted for the stage. Very few women playwrights were seen in 1967, and 1968, and those of us who were writing plays had to step on people’s feet to be heard. Our voices were too loud, and not ladylike. We were breaking walls. I don’t know if we made art or just noise. But desire can give writer lots of power.

AB: You were a working artist while you raised your children and ran a household. What advice can you offer women who struggle to do the same things today?

GC: I don’t even know that answer yet. Balance is what we try for, but it isn’t what we achieve.

I was a product of a 50’s marriage, so I was into structure. And I couldn’t write until the children were in school, and the meat defrosted for dinner, and ”real life” things were accomplished. Then I would give myself to myself.

When I needed to be out in the world, I missed some of my daughters’ events. Ken was both parents on those occasions. It is said, “Women can have everything they want, just not all things at the same time.”

I think Art is a dark horse we ride, and we have no choice, and we have to forgive ourselves for that.

AB: In your memoir, you say this about your dual challenges of writing and raising children: “If I was guilty of anything, it was sewing the light of poetry, and some days, leaving the children only the cloth.” Say more about this.

GC: Even when I was physically in a room with my children if my mind was elsewhere, was I present? Even if this is only at times — if you are staring at the ceiling thinking of that last line, what must that be to a little girl waiting for your attention? Being present is something I came to, thankfully, not too late.

AB: Your poetry book, What I Did for Love, deals with the life and career of Mary Wollstonecraft. What was it about her story that spoke across the centuries to you?

GC: She’s my girl. First, I could not believe, when I discovered her in 1974, that very few people knew she was the first woman to write a serious book of prose. Now she’s quite well served, thanks to some interim biographies. She stood shoulder to shoulder with men in the 1700’s! She was very real to me; she suffered trying to be a decent mother; she wanted the love of a male partner, and she was constantly living without financial means. In the beginning, she supported herself in London writing for a newspaper. Imagine her small room. The first 18th-century female journalist. She died in childbirth, frankly because doctors didn’t bother washing their hands, unless of course, a woman was a bluestocking.

AB: What myth is yet to be written?

GC: What a great, great question. The myth that needs to be explored is that this life is all there is; that our dimensions are physical: length, width, depth, breadth ,height; that there is no invisible world surrounding us; that the dead have gone away; that eternity is not somewhere colored blue and far away, instead of around us every moment in the living room.

AB: Much of your memoir is woven with stories about your marriage to Ken Flynn and how the relationship fed you both personally and professionally. In the memoir, you talk about the afterlife and messages from Ken. What led you to write these lines in the poem “Messages From the Other World”?

“…I agree I’d put everyone’s mind at ease to call it
coincidence, or parallels to life
from undercurrents of thought, but did I tell you that tonight
I put the last log in the fireplace—although
it’s well into Spring—and without a match, I returned and
it’s already alive with flames?”

~from The Man Who Got Away

GC: As I’ve already revealed “I am a believer.” And that’s because every time I get lost from that, something will happen to let me know that all energy— past, present, future— exists at every moment. And Ken went nowhere at all.

AB: At the very end of your memoir, you paint a memorable scene, and you relate that event to learning to do the impossible. Tell us about that event and how it has shaped your perspective.

GC: I think you’re referring to Ken’s return from his first 6-month cruise to the Mediterranean. I hadn’t seen him since our honeymoon. We wives welcomed the aviators from the carrier, and the Admiral did us a huge favor by saying we could tour the ship. I, of course, had spike high heels on and a pencil slim skirt. I followed everyone until we got on a metal ladder hanging between decks over the Atlantic Ocean— NO backs to the steps–just a view of the water. I climbed and froze. Everyone was stuck behind me with a 30-meter view of the waves beneath. I have no memory of how I got up or down. I must have, because, here I am.

AB: How did that experience prepare you for the life and work still to come? What is your current paradigm?

GC: Frankly, it was not an act of bravery but stupidity. I have learned how to opt out of any area I cannot manage. It’s ok to say “ I cannot climb 30 meters over the ocean, thank you. I’ll wait here.” It’s ok to say, “I can’t play chess, speak Chinese, or program your computer.” In years past we were taught we had to climb every mountain, never admit limitations. Some people need to stay in the camp at the base of the mountain and cook delicious food for the climbers.

My present paradigm in life is to be mindful, connected to the moment, and admit the work I have on my desk is the greatest gift one could imagine. Whether it’s radio production, poetry, editing, or reviewing—imagine how great it is getting to do what I’ve been practicing for 50 years. That’s the definition of happiness. I have a poem titled “Work Is My Secret Lover.”

AB: Grace ends her memoir with these lines. They serve as powerful inspiration for all who strive to follow their dreams.

“In a way, that is where I am today. Between levels. Not frozen now, and able to do the impossible, as we all are able, making art, creating some new things that never existed before; trusting that there’s something at the top of the stairs, and a hand to pull me in. It’s what makes me take the next step.”

Online Editor’s Note: Poet Grace Cavalieri is an Italian-American writer and host of the radio program The Poet and the Poem, presented by the Library of Congress through National Public Radio. Life Upon the Wicked Stage: A Memoir (New Academia Publishing/Scarith Books, 2015) is available now. You can read a another interview with Grace Cavalieri by Ann Bracken in our Food Issue.

Once You’re Inside

prison wallsNote: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…

“The arts are not something people think of when they picture a maximum security prison. ‘Tough guys’ in small tank tops in a prison yard dominate the general idea of what prison is like. But far from joining gangs and delving deeper into the criminal lifestyle, these young men spend their time learning how to express themselves, work in groups, give and receive positive feedback, and effectively communicate with others; all important skills that are critical to functioning in the world outside of prison.”

Patuxent Institute

Patuxent Institute

When I arrived at Patuxent, I was struck by how I had to let go of things I take for granted —beginning with what to wear. With the June temperature rising over 90 degrees, I wanted to wear a skirt, but Linda told me ahead of time that I was required to wear slacks. My purse had to remain locked in the car, along with my cell phone. Little by little, even before I met the men, I yielded some of my personal freedoms, albeit temporarily. Still, I felt unnerved by the lack of control.

I surrendered my license at the front desk and in return, they handed me a temporary visitor’s pass. They permitted me to carry a copy of my book, a pad of paper, and a pen for my interviews. After I had walked through the metal detector, a female officer patted me down. Once the formalities were out of the way, Linda and I began our long walk to the education room in another building.

The officers seemed pretty friendly as they chatted with each other. They recognized Linda —perhaps because she’s been a volunteer writing instructor at Jessup for seven years — nodding at her and me as we walked through the long, tan-colored hallways, every so often segmented by half-opened black, iron, barred doors. I sighed with relief when the doors weren’t locked behind us. We snaked through several long, airless halls until we came to another guarded entrance. We were waved outside and followed a path, lined with marigolds and bluebells, to the education building. Good to see some color in this bleak, brick and barbed wire area. Whoever planted those flowers had my gratitude.

We entered the red brick building that was home to the education program—more long hallways, more half-barred doorways. I noticed a few Baltimore-themed murals decorating some sections of the walls. The pipes were wrapped in insulation, which peeled off in large chunks. The air felt still and hot.

I felt closed in, striding deeper and deeper into the prison as if I was being sealed into an airless container. The only inmates I saw were escorted in the hallways by guards whose hands rested lightly on the prisoners’ arms. There seemed to be a quiet calm to the facility, and I couldn’t help but think of some of the troubled young men who had been my students just a few years ago. A picture of teachers punishing entire classes flashed in my mind. Yes, I was now in the prison end of the school-to-prison pipeline.When we finally arrived in the multipurpose room, an officer wearing tinted glasses nodded to Linda and then opened the locked door for us.

“Hey, Ms. Moghadam!” The students almost cheered Linda as she strode across the floor. One by one the six young men introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. As we exchanged names, they welcomed me to their writing group.

The room, about the size of half a gymnasium, had a stage toward the front. The following quote, written in a flawless script on a huge sheet of yellow paper, filled the back wall of the stage: “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.” The men sat around a large, old, wooden table and each had a writing notebook. A couple of them had brought reading materials as well.

I had only 90 minutes in which to interview all the members of the Jessup writing group. I decided to use as inspiration Betty May’s Faces women and the guiding questions that had formed the basis of their play. The women featured in May’s book shared a common thread no matter their stories—they all felt they had changed and were not the same people they were when they committed their crimes. They wanted to give back.

I would ask only two questions: Who were you when you came to prison and who are you now? I think their answers provide significant insights into the people behind the barbed wire fences, so many of us drive by every day.

Ryan had long braids, tattoos on his arms, and wore a warm smile as he told me his story.  “I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I’m from East Baltimore, and I went to the Harford Institute—an alternative school in Baltimore City (now it’s called the Fairmont-Harford High School). I was only reading at about the 7th-grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15 and now I’m 28.

“Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. I think the first thing I read that helped me to change was called As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. That book made a powerful impression on me. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”

Matt had close-cropped hair and black-framed glasses. He smiled when I asked him to tell me about his experiences. “I was always a searcher. When I was 20, I was traveling a lot and exposed to lots of different environments and people. I was trying to find my place through looking at the world with other people’s eyes combined with my experiences. I grew up in East Baltimore and went to the Harford Institute like Ryan, but I went to college as well. My home life was pretty unstable. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. When you’re lost, any road will take you there. I’m a people person, but listening to my peer group back then—that was the blind leading the blind.

“One thing that I’ve always had is I like to read. In my old neighborhood, some people moved out of their house, and they left a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk—VCR tapes and a large collection of books. I remember seeing an entire set of books by Mark TwainTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and more—I grabbed all those books and took them home. When I read and found words I didn’t understand, I’d ask my mother or my friend’s sister what they meant. Learning that way sparked my creativity.

“But I couldn’t connect what I was reading with what I was experiencing out in the world. I wish I had had a mentor, someone who could have helped me make sense of the world. The first time I was in prison, there were no programs and no education classes. But now, I take every program they offer here. I know how to make sense of my life. That took maturation. What I want to do now is put a new vibe into the system—something that will be beneficial for myself and others.”

Timothy carried with him a notebook and reading materials. He had a serious approach to language and the intentional use of words. “One thing you won’t find me doing is using sayings without knowing what they mean. Like a lot of people in here talk about ‘rule of thumb’ and ‘Tomming.’ I won’t use either one of those sayings because I don’t like what they mean.”

Timothy went on the explain that “rule of thumb” refers to an old English law that allows a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it’s no bigger than his thumb. “I won’t use that phrase because of its original meaning.”

I had never heard of “Tomming,” so Timothy explained that it refers to someone in prison who sucks up to the guards and does them favors, someone who’s subservient to get in good with the people in charge.

Timothy told me, “’Tomming’ comes from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. After the Civil War when the slaves had been freed, and people were unhappy with the freedom and rights that African Americans had gained, they discredited the real story of Uncle Tom. Instead, of Uncle Tom being revered as a hero who cared for his fellow slaves and went to great lengths to help them, calling African Americans an Uncle Tom became an insult. The term was used to mean they (African Americans) were subservient to white people or wanting to gain favor with white people and forsake their own race.”

Timothy was articulate and thoughtful as he continued speaking. “We used to get the Catalog of Dover Thrift Classics, and I loved all those classic books. But we can’t get them anymore.

“You know, ideas are dangerous—being a writer and a teacher are revolutionary acts. People who think outside of the box are feared. Pretty soon teachers will realize their own power and then they can create an alternative education system.”

The other men in the group agreed as Timothy continued, “Change has got to come. People are suffering—no jobs, the schools are bad. Lousy homes. But it’s just like in here—the more they [the guards] take away, the less you have to lose, the more people fight back.”

Initially, Vincent, who sat to my left, did not want to talk. He listened thoughtfully and nodded his head while the others took their turns answering my questions. He was very polite and spoke softly when he had something to add. When I asked him a second time if he wanted to speak, he answered in a clear voice.

Vincent: “When I came here, I had just turned 15. I grew up in the child-care system, so I lived in lots of places. Coming to prison was like crossing the Rubicon for me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed my values and formed better habits. I love reading—one of my favorite authors is Proust.

“I’d say the biggest influence on helping me develop my values is learning that I have the right to make up my mind. When I was younger, I never thought I had that right. I never really knew I could make up my own mind.

“I’d describe myself as a lover of language, and I live in my imagination. I’ve developed a value set and for me, the most important value is compassion. I see myself as part of the human family. I know that spirituality is omnipresent, and it connects all of us through one language—the language of love.”

When I asked Vincent what he was currently reading, he smiled and said, “I’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s too hot to read in here.”

Williams seemed eager to talk and grinned when he finally had the attention of the group.

“I was 16 when I came here. I grew up in Hyattsville. I’d say that I was a person who was very aware of the disadvantages in my life. I thought of myself as someone who could level the playing field, but I went about it in the wrong way. My mother was a single parent, and she worked all the time, but we never had enough of anything. That put pressure on me that I couldn’t handle at the time.

“I’m a Hispanic male, so there are a lot of expectations from my culture. To be a man means you are aggressive. You have to protect your self-esteem. Now, thanks to Ms. Moghadam, I’m a feminist. I understand the position of women in America.

“I’ve been in prison for 12 years, and I know the best way to spend my time is to educate myself. I participate in every program they have. I believe that knowledge is power, and I’ve dedicated myself to education. I’m still trying to level the playing field. I grew up in poverty, but now I’m trying to do it the right way.

“I’m working on my character by being honest with myself. I ask for help now. I’m committed to learning and striving to get where I want to be. I want a respectable position when I get out of here, so I can help people. I want to give back. I know there’s a stigma against ex-prisoners. I love the arts; they’ve been a godsend for me. I’ve been able to develop my ideas through arts and writing.”

Our time was nearly over—Linda, and I had to leave the room by 4 o’clock sharp. There is no leeway for long good-byes in a prison, as I found out. Before we left, Mark had one last comment to make about the arts. His words struck me as important.

Mark said, “When people are in a state of disconnection, it’s much easier to harm the environment, to harm each other. The arts build a connection. That’s why they’re so important.”

When the session was over, and the men filed out of the room accompanied by a guard, I had only a few minutes to collect my papers and retrace my steps back through the maze of the prison to return to the outside world. A flood of images filled my mind, and I couldn’t help but reflect on their ages again. Nearly all of the men have spent half of their lives in prison. And even though I knew that most of them were under 30 years old, it was still a shock to learn that many of them had entered prison as 15-year-old boys. I thought of the mistakes my son made at that age, and I shuddered to think how his life might have been different under other circumstances.

The whole time I was with them I had a lump in my throat, but refused to let any tears leak from my eyes. When I concluded the interviews, I told them, “I’m very sorry all of you are still in prison. But I want you to know that the positive energy you carry and share benefits everyone around you. You make this prison a better place. “ I hope all who read their words will feel the same way.

I’m going back for another visit in a few weeks.

Online Editor’s Note: Read Ann’s interview with Linda Moghadam from last week.