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In the 1970’s, sociologist Robert Martinson was part of a team of prison researchers who determined that programming and other rehabilitative efforts provided “no appreciable effect on recidivism.” The “nothing works” narrative took hold and was welcomed by both sides of the criminal justice reform debate. Left: If nothing works, then there is no need for indeterminate sentencing. Right:  If nothing works, then there is a need to be even tougher on offenders. That he later retracted his findings did little to interrupt the narrative that had taken hold in the criminal justice system. Less than a decade later he died by suicide.


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"I am . . .
a caring daughter, a loving mother, an addict."

The programming folks were always looking for quality content to enrich the residents' lives and expose them to alternate paths for the future. The women residents in the programs pod watched the four-hour PBS documentary College Behind Bars. Inspired by one of the story lines in which a group of incarcerated men from the Bard Prison Initiative challenge Harvard’s debate team, the women decided they wanted to stage their own debate inside the detention center. With enthusiastic support from the programming staff, the women chose to debate the purpose of incarceration: punishment or rehabilitation?


The women went to work with vigor, researching and writing, dissecting, and analyzing. Much of the work they did on their own, with the assistance of the detention center librarians, but they also had some opportunity to work as a group. I helped with debate prep in the final few days before the event as they rehearsed their sides. They were going to be debating in front of a live audience, via Zoom, including the documentary’s award-winning director/producer.


On the day of the debate, I tuned in with several hundred others to watch via Zoom. To witness these women debate live, on a makeshift stage, in business-casual clothes, and sporting the hairstyle of their choice, was to observe empowered women bursting with potential and promise. Behind the podium for those few minutes each woman was able to project I am more than my crime, I have a voice, I am worthy.


One of the younger women was a natural born speaker. Her long blonde hair bounced back and forth as she made her points. Adamant, articulate, animated, she struck me as someone who should be finishing up her college career and tenure as president of her sorority instead of awaiting sentencing on federal drug charges.


In debriefing with the women a few days later, we discussed what they’d learned about themselves during the process. They said they bonded with each other and remembered a love of learning. Some discovered they were good writers, and many overcame a fear of public speaking. Several said they felt incredibly supported by the programming staff at the detention center, and all expressed gratitude for the experience.

"I forgot how much I enjoyed reading and learning."

"I wanted to make my mother proud, I knew she was watching."

"I wanted to make my daughters proud, but they didn’t tune in."

"I was working so hard on all this my teammates dubbed me the 'Mad Scientist.'"

"It felt good to be part of something positive. It made me happy to contribute and help others."

"The feeling of being a part of this was better than any high I used to get using drugs."

They also wondered aloud about what was next. After so much time and energy poured into that single event on a summer day just a few months into the pandemic, what was to enrich their time now? And how to carry forward the camaraderie of the experience? Especially with the continued COVID protocols that upset so much of their life, including visitors and in-person instruction.


I, too, wondered about their experience. The optimist in me saw this as a launchpad for a new trajectory in their incarceration experience, but perhaps they were collecting certificates for the judge or only killing time. And given how progressive the MCDC is, I wondered if this taste of quality programming in the “4700 pod” had been more gift or cruel tease. How will they fare once they land in the more typical experience of oppression and second-class citizenry, whether on the outside or in their new prison home? I’d like to think they tap this reservoir of experience and soldier on, but I find it equally likely that demoralization and atrophy set in.

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Due to the pandemic, all the classes I taught as a volunteer instructor at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center, were over Zoom. Corporate America this is not, so instead of each person having their own laptop (thus one square per person on my Zoom screen at home), I had a single pane that offered about a 15-foot view of the room. The women were a sea of red and burgundy scrubs, seated at tables scattered about the room. Their blue-masked faces came into clear view only when they came forward to speak at the lone microphone next to the camera.


To adhere to social distancing protocols when possible, the classes took place in the communal day room instead of the small classroom. It was difficult to hear due to the open space, unending hard surfaces, and double-height ceilings – not to mention the audio delay over Zoom when several folks spoke at once. But the occasional violent swoosh of a flushed toilet always startled me. One of many reminders that all of life is lived out loud in jails and prisons everywhere.

The guards walking on the upper deck would drift in and out of my awareness on my screen. Sometimes I would wonder if they were listening or judging or zoning out. I wondered if they caught any of the material and thought “good point” or “wow, that reminds me of...” Equally likely, I imagined them thinking “why are you wasting your breath on these folks” or “damn, Chipotle sounds really good right now.”

"I am . . .
a beautiful piece of art."

The women, too, kept me guessing. It’s tricky trying to read a room on Zoom. And while they seemed mostly engaged most of the time, occasionally there would be side conversations I found myself wanting in on. And when I would hear laughter, I’d wonder if the joke was on me.


A slew of writing prompts helped get their pencils moving across the page, and many of the women seemed engrossed in the task. And while a handful of women were quick to share their work with the class, many had to be cajoled by their fellow classmates. But as the week progressed, more and more women walked up to the front of the room eager to share. At the last minute, I decided to host an Open Mic event during the final class, and we invited the programming staff to attend.


From simple and sometimes comical stories to “I am…” poems and spoken word poems, there were several deeply confessional essays that left the room in tears. The courage to share in front of the group seemed liberating to some of the women, and too dangerous for others.


In my romantic view of things, I was giving the women a chance to do what I attempt to do in my own writing – to answer unanswerable questions, to muse over motives, to connect distant dots. My intention was to help them reimagine their future, possibly even reframing their time inside as an opportunity. I wanted them to write so they could lay out their story and make sense of their journey. To reclaim their humanity. Heal.




Fifteen years after Maya Angelou’s epic literary autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she wrote the poem “Caged Bird.” In it, she eloquently toggles between the free bird who “leaps on the back of the wind” and “dares to claim the sky” with the caged bird “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied” and who “sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still.”


What must the muscle memory of freedom feel like? The autonomy that accompanies adulthood is something we all longed for in our youth, long before we had the fancy words to describe it. And now it’s something we in the free world take for granted, like breathing.

What Does Freedom Mean to Me?

A spoken word poem by Lydia (1:12)

"When I write, I'm the creator, so I determine right from wrong.”

As the week-long writing class with the women came to an end and I went back to my life, thoughts of these socially invisible women stayed with me. Taking a walk in my neighborhood park I noticed a gigantic oak tree I’ve passed by many times before. A flood of observations washed over me in that moment: gratitude for its enormous canopy blocking the sun, the feeling of the warm breeze on my arms and face, the sight and sound of birds flitting about, my complete agency in that moment. It was sensual, sacred, humanizing.

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"I am . . .
shame turned into dignity."
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