Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, when the official count has cleared, the women in my writing workshops at Homestead Correctional Institution file out of our bitterly cold classroom. Sometimes, if the head count is off, we have to stay put for an extra 10, 20 even 30 minutes, so we fill the time with mindless chatter as a way to decompress from what can be weighty writing session. When we get the nod, they know the drill as well as they know their identification number – single file, right side of the yellow-lined walkway. Silence, save for the bark of the guards.
I watch their pale blue uniforms fade into a line of other pale blue uniforms, then veer off through a set of double glass doors into a much warmer building where the room I’d like to teach in sits vacant. I’ve long since given up asking why my classes can’t be held there. I exit through another set of double doors where there are no yellow lines. Fifty feet ahead is the administrative building with big thick doors that open and close on command from the control room. After the sergeant verifies my identification number and fingerprints, she collects my badge and personal body alarm. One set of doors clangs open and shut, then another on the other opposite side of the small ante room. And just like that, I’m on the west side of the razor wire fence, free from brown-clad guards with their scowls and fire-arms, free from blue uniforms. Just free.
My car is in the parking lot between the men and the women’s facility. The men’s prison is three, four, five times larger. A group of prisoners are walking between two of the massive concrete structures that one employee recently referred to as their warehouses. I place my bag of pencils, papers, writings and worksheets in the trunk of my car, shed my layers of long sleeves, kick off my closed toed shoes and slip into sandals. It’s Florida, after all. Inevitably I wiggle my toes. There is something extraordinarily satisfying about doing such an ordinary thing.
I wave to the attendant in the guard house as I make a right-hand turn onto a long country road. Green fields and palm trees line the northwest side of the road and since it’s the end of the day, the blue light is fading to some shade of pink. Sometimes I pull over and watch the last sliver of the sun disappear as orange streaks the sky before I continue north.
It can take up to an hour and a half to get home; I’m rarely in a hurry, rarely listen to music, even more rarely speak on the phone. I embrace the silence because anything else would compete with the women’s voices that are still speaking to me. Only now, with a bit of distance and separation, can I start to digest the stories they’ve shared in class. When they are reading their writing, I try to listen with a poker face. It seems unjust, and I do mean unjust, to share my pain when they have enough of their own to bear.
Even so, I push them to write about the very things that have caused them pain without pushing too far, and that’s a delicate balance. I ask them to write not to relive their past but to understand it, work through it and release whatever has blocked them from letting go. I have pages of prompts I bring each week to get them to dig a little deeper, to peel away another layer, to reveal a little bit more about themselves. We’re used to each other now, and the process is evolving organically. Instead of skirting around an issue, they’re diving in, medias res, without coaxing.
Today’s warm-up prompt centered around remembering. “Write ‘Remember’ at the top of your sheet of paper and then start writing,” I said. “Don’t stop, no matter what. When you think you’ve run out of things to say, start a new paragraph with the words
‘I remember’ and continue to write. Again. And again.”
And remember they did. I felt their emotion as they huddled over their sheets, J biting her lip, S’s hand tightly weaving its way around the page. It’s exhausting for them, the mental gymnastics they go through and yet I marvel at how, in less than 20 minutes, they consistently put together stories, poems and vignettes that don’t need the computer’s delete, cut or paste options I so heavily rely on. How they do this, I cannot say.
I walked around the room as they wrote, trying to keep warm, and when I saw their hands slowing I asked them to wrap up their phrases, sentences, paragraphs or thought and bring out the writings they’d worked on during the week. S was the first to ask if she could share. That’s part of it, letting them decide what and when they’ll share, if at all. It gives them some control in a world where they have almost none.
S’s story began in prose – unusual, since she’s most comfortable with verse. But the real surprise came when she reached the third page, when her hands clutched the paper a little tighter and her normally pale face flushed. Her voice cracked, and without warning she started to cry.
S isn’t prone to emotion. She’s the one whose writing, full of raw pain and emotion, is delivered with clarity and confidence. She’s the one who always asks how my week was, who comes in with a smile and is the first to offer a kind word of encouragement for someone who might be having a bad day. On the last day of summer’s class, when I asked everyone to choose what animal best described everyone else, without exception they labeled S a lion or a tiger. She, however, identified herself as a chameleon, saying she didn’t know who she was, really, other than the personality others assigned to her.
Today, she was just vulnerable.
She’d reached a part of her story that exposed the depth of her drug, sexual and verbal abuse and of her self destruction. As single tears slid down her cheek and on to her paper, the other women just sat with her, and because they were okay with her pain, I took my cue from them and swallowed my own angst and sorrow as the moments passed. C, on her right, pulled a roll of toilet paper from the ubiquitous canteen-issued blue mesh bag each woman carries and tore off a few pieces which S acknowledged with a rueful smile. Then S took a deep breath, blew her nose, and finished reading.
When she was done, the women around the table clicked their fingers, a sign of support and appreciation. S didn’t want to talk much about the piece, she said, if that was okay. She just wanted to put it out there and if she felt like it, she’d come back to it next week. Of course I told her it was fine, but inside my stomach was clutching. How could she bleed on the paper and not want a stitch to make it better? I kept my mouth shut. This wasn’t about me. It may have been wrenching to hear, but it had to have been exponentially harder to have lived through.
K asked if she could read something that she’d brought in. This was the first time in the five weeks since she’d been attending my workshop that K had volunteered to share. It was a letter she wrote to herself from her daughter. In the letter, K has her daughter explain that forgiveness isn’t possible, at least right now; too many years of neglect, of alcohol, too many years of embarrassment and disappointment. Maybe some time in the future K could meet her grandchildren, K writes to herself in her daughter’s voice, but not now, not yet. K’s second piece was her response, a letter she wrote back to her daughter that she had no intention of sending. It was read with the same matter-of-fact tone that she’d read the first letter, taking ownership of her alcoholism, affirming her daughter’s right to reject her and her acknowledgement of her neglect. But it also included an impassioned plea for a second chance. This was a significant breakthrough moment for K, who was coming to realize that she had the right to ask for a chance at redemption. The clicks around the table went on for 30 seconds and K allowed herself a smile.
J read a story about her son, a relationship that was markedly different than K’s. J had been charged for an incident that occurred before she was married, before she became pregnant, before her son was born, but because of the backlogs and inherent delays of our judicial system and the lengthy court proceedings, J wasn’t sentenced until her son was a few weeks old. That was more than ten years ago; her son has only known his mother as a prisoner, in a prison uniform, playing games in a room with other women dressed just like her, with food bought from vending machines and guards present. In the piece J read she questioned the impact of this setting on him, the legacy he has inherited, the scars that might never heal. Still J seems at peace; she’s going to be released soon and appears optimistic about the future, even if she can’t make up for the years she lost. Her husband and her parents have stood by her, unlike F, who, when she read her six-word memoir about her family, said: “Born to parents not worth knowing.”
There’s no single kind of childhood that characterizes these women: some come from broken homes but not all, and not all were willing to blame their current situation on their upbringing. “A broken home isn’t the reason I ended up here,” S said. “That I blame on my own bad decisions. My siblings grew up with the same dysfunction, but you don’t see them here, do you? They are out there, doing just fine.” She pointed to the window in the room, then shook her head. “Well not out there, but you know what I mean.”
S and J and K’s stories are replaying in my head when I pull in to the popular fruit stand Robert is Here, where I used to take my son to pick strawberries when he was little. He’s in California now, finishing college. That makes me think about my sisters, about how we’re spread across the United States, with one in Costa Rica, the different paths we’ve taken but that we are all so lucky. Like any family we’ve had drama but it’s been minor – we are all healthy, mentally and physically, as are our children.
There are about 20 people standing in line for one of Robert’s famous fresh fruit shakes. I’m still too chilled for a cold shake so I head towards the bright yellow petals of the gigantic sunflowers sitting in a black bucket out front. I pick the perkiest bunch of all, and then wander the aisles filled with exotic fruits, brimming baskets of tomatoes and leeches, papayas and pineapples. Off to the side a young boy and girl are popping grapes in their mouths, as their mother tries to control them and a couple who appear to be the grandparents are shaking their head in embarrassment at the family scene. I look at the three generations and am reminded of M’s comment, as we were leaving today, that it’s been hard for her to watch, after decades of being in prison, children and grandchildren of women she’s been locked up with follow the fate of their mothers and grandmothers.
I don’t even realize that I’m lost in thought until the young girl behind the counter gently takes the money from my hand. She’s already sliced the mango I’d held in my other hand, knowing that I will eat it on my way home as I do almost every week. Back in the car I slide my teeth across the skin of the mango, random strands sticking between them. I don’t mind. I don’t mind much after class.
As I finish the mango, I glance at the car clock. The women are probably filing out of the cafeteria, a dinner that no doubt lacked fresh fruits and vegetables. They’ll head to their dorms but if they are lucky, for a few hours, they can retreat to the world of pen and paper, escape the label of criminal, the identification of their six-digit number and Dorm A, B or C, U for upper, L for lower. On paper they can create a parallel world, be whomever they want to be, individuals with strengths and weaknesses, foibles and quirks. They can write to give meaning to a life that sentencing took away from them.
I pass Cracker Barrel and pull on to the turnpike. Rush hour traffic lines the lanes in both directions, headlights coming and going. So much activity. In just a few hours the lights in the women’s dorms will shut off automatically, and they will be left alone with their thoughts.
I am suddenly overcome with emotion, and don’t want to be alone with my thoughts for one more second. I turn on the radio, preset to NPR. It’s All Things Considered. There’s something soothing about the tone of the announcer, the quiet transition from day to night. By the time I reach the last bridge of my commute it is dark, and the moon’s glow dusts the water with a pale blue light, not unlike the color of the prison’s pale blue uniforms and yet nothing like it, either.
My neighborhood is empty as I gather my things and bring them inside. The first thing I do is run a hot bath, conscious of the luxury and privacy of this simple task. I light a few candles, dim the lights and gently lower myself through the layers of fragrant bubbles, hoping the suds will soak away some of today’s pain.
Kathie Klarreich is the author of the memoir Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti. For the past 25 years, half of which was spent in Haiti, she has been a freelance journalist for print, radio and television, including The New York Times, TIME, the Christian Science Monitor, ABC, NBC and NPR. In addition to freelancing, she’s currently facilitating writing workshops in Florida’s state penitentiary for women with ArtSpring, a Miami-based prison arts non-profit.