Several months ago, I was invited to attend a graduation ceremony held inside the state prison in Lockhart, and I agreed to do so, mostly for reasons no more noble than fleeting curiosity. The ceremony is one step along a longer journey of discovery for female inmates, sponsored by an outfit called “Truth Be Told.”
Once I’d agreed to attend, I was instructed to read, fill out, sign and return a stack of forms that reinforced the fact that I was about to enter a real prison, and this is serious stuff. Even an inveterate smartass like myself was impressed and sufficiently cowed.
A month or so later, on a stormy November afternoon, I and 20 or so other attendees — all women — assembled in the gravel prison parking lot, emptied our pockets, removed our jewelry, dropped our cell phones in our car trunks, queued up and double-timed our way into a holding area, where we were reminded politely first and sternly second to pipe down. Duly chastened, we allowed ourselves to be eye-balled and stamped and processed and shuttled through a maze-like corridor past gawking inmates into a huge assembly hall that resembled an empty bus barn. We dragged metal folding chairs across a damp concrete floor into a semi-circle and sat and waited, making small talk and listening as the rain peppered the corrugated tin roof.
Eventually, the women inmates entered. They were mostly young and mostly black or brown. Some seemed defiant. Some were sheepish. Most of them were something in between — embarrassed but determined to make sense of the wreckage of their lives. They ambled in and sat among us, and we were invited to chat with them, but we were instructed not to ask anything about why they were in prison, how long they’d been in prison or how long they’ll be in prison, though we could ask them where they grew up and went to high school.
Most of the inmates had names like Monique, Crystal, LaPorsha and LaShon. I doubt any of them grew up in Westlake Hills or Highland Park. Several went by nicknames such as Nay-Nay and T. Bo. One tiny, young black woman was movie star gorgeous, full of spunk. Another was a tall, lumbering Hispanic gal who reminded me of Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She spoke no English that day, although I'm told she speaks well enough, and seemed desperate to disguise the fact that she’s 6-1 at least.
After the obligatory introductions and an occasional abrupt interruption by a guard (or, correctional officer or whatever they’re called), the program began. I expected a half hour of hip-hop dancing and geeky pantomime worthy of a fifth grade talent show at an all-white school. I was so wrong. The program was funny and sad, poignant and profound, smart and deeply moving. I was particularly blown away by a poem by Chantel, titled “Let It Be.”
Here’s a stanza:
I’ve taken my mask off before and got hurt.
But with my mask on, I be damn if I’m treated like dirt.
Some think my mask is ugly, but to me, it’s beautiful.
My eyes black as coal lookin’ straight to your soul.
My lips are painted ruby red from all the blood I’ve seen shed.
My skin is a tone of 18-karat gold.
You will never see through it, so my secrets are never told.
The skits and the poetry readings, the “wise letter to myself” all hammered home a seminal point: I am here for a reason, and I have no one to blame but myself. Neither Momma nor Daddy. Not some piece-of-shit man. Not “The Man.” Not God. I’m here because I didn’t love myself enough to avoid or reject those people who used me and abused me, so I put myself here. I know that now. I also know that I can be someone of value if I believe in myself and trust in God, if I surrender my false pride, if I wise up and grow up and stop living in fear because it’s never too late.
Love may never find me here.
Alone and scared, my biggest fear.
I must search within and find out why,
Confront this pain, “I have to try.”
Memories surfaced from deep down inside.
My past, My Self, could no longer hide.
I then realized this prison was built
With blocks made of secrets, shame and guilt.
After the skits were finished and some of us outsiders had a moment to compose ourselves, the Truth Be Told directors invited us to offer a few thoughts, and I was thrilled to do so.
This is what I said:
“Two or three years ago, I was teaching a writing workshop at Columbia University in New York City, and one afternoon I was sitting in Alfred Lerner Hall, and I picked up and thumbed through the campus literary magazine, which is produced by some of the smartest yet most coddled and privileged kids on the planet. Everything I saw and heard here today was light years better than anything I read in that literary magazine.”
I told them how inspired I was by their honesty and courage, and then I got choked up again and had to cut my comments short, but here’s the deal: Not so long ago, I was asked to respond to the following writing prompt: What Inspires You? I submitted something, but it was half-hearted because at that time, I had no idea what inspired me. After meeting and watching and hearing these women who are struggling valiantly to understand how it is they are doing time in a privately-run, for-profit prison in Lockhart, Texas, well, let me just say, I do know now.