The Tenderness of Prison
Dr. Merkel’s dark pantsuit was two sizes too large, but she was slender and beautiful, probably a disadvantage in a maximum-security prison that specialized in sex-o enders. She directed a program designed to change criminal mindsets. Her charges, all volunteers, lived in a dedicated cell-block where they devoted their days to group therapy, journaling in workbooks, and quiet self-re ection. Outside that dedicated cell-block, other prisoners called it the snitch program. Because, in seeking a paradigm shift in their thinking and behavior, program participants confronted each other whenever they exhibited old habits.
Dr. Merkel walked to the front of that white cement-block room on Wilmot Street, deep in the heart of a prison surrounded by desert. With her every step, a long chain of enormous keys slapped, jingling, against her thigh.
While she gathered her notes, I looked around at my twelve companions. We were volunteers for an organization that provides human contact for federal prisoners who request visits. Grey-haired and middle- aged, we included a computer scientist, a chemist, a writer, a pilot, and a home-health aide. One of us had volunteered in prison for sixteen years; most of us, including me, for half that, but a few were brand new.
We had requested a tour of the prison to better understand inmates’ lives. Because we hoped to help them maintain some tenderness for when they got out. The warden agreed to our request because our visits made inmates happy and happy prisoners behave themselves.
On the appointed day, wearing orals, tinkling silver bracelets, Madras checks, and strappy sandals, we skirted the dirt recreation yard in the center of the prison, smiling and nodding through the cyclone fence at inmates dressed in khaki. Gaudy parrots beside caged brown sparrows. A guard led us to a cell. Two-by-two, we squeezed inside to peer at the stainless-steel toilet, with no seat, a stride from two metal bed- shelves bolted to the wall. Our request to see the showers was ignored. Instead, the guard escorted us to a library no larger than a suburban kid’s bedroom, and then to Dr. Merkel’s Challenge Program.
On our way in, a metal door clanged. There were no windows.
No air, either, and I sucked in a breath, ghting panic. Although I spent my every fourth Saturday in prison, I’d never got used to those looming cinder-block walls.
Dr. Merkel cleared her throat and I sat straighter, looking forward to her presentation. With every eye trained on her, she opened a white ring-binder le and held up a penciled sketch. “I want you to know the kind of men you are visiting.” A strand of long blond hair fell across her face and I wondered what it was like to work in a prison. Statistically, every o cer is attacked and beaten, not once but twice during their career. With their guard set to a hair’s trigger, it would be hard to resist a corrosive suspicion, hard not to lump inmates together and see them as the enemy. My respect for her deepened.
Her nails were cherry red and I wondered if she painted them for the same reason that I washed my hair with apple-scented shampoo on the days I went to prison. To bring life into a place where men’s senses were starved.
Curious to see the picture she held, I peered through the shoulders of the people sitting in the front row. The drawing was small.
I had to squint. Slowly, the crisp lead-penciled lines, the soft graphite shading, and the bright shapes drew into focus. I took in a living room so lovingly rendered, I could almost smell the pot of beans simmering on the wood stove. There were pictures on the walls. A woman sat among plump pillows on an upholstered love seat. Beside her, a little boy looked strangely hunched. I jerked back, my stomach lurching.
It wasn’t the image of the woman breastfeeding a baby. It was the little boy. He was so small that his air-bound feet stuck out a foot above the oor as he rubbed his erect penis.
Thirteen civilians inhaled sharply then silently swallowed their disgust.
Not responding to our reaction and with her face bland, Dr. Merkel turned another page in the ring-binder le. “All these pictures were con scated from inmates.”
The crayoned lines of the kneeling man in the next image were rough and hurriedly made. But there was an uncanny power to the man’s skinny elbows as he spread little-boy legs. Smack in the center of the page, that thin man’s mouth sucked a tiny penis.
I felt sick, I could barely breathe. I wanted to stumble from the room.
In a world where we live throwaway lives, devoted to entertainment and killing time, people think it strange to value the lives of men behind bars. But I had hoped Dr. Merkel would understand. I had also assumed that she would appreciate that a prison visitor’s role is diferent from that of prison guard’s or instructor’s.
But she didn’t understand at all. She seemed to think us naïve.
Seemed to believe that we weren’t sophisticated enough to understand that the prisoners with whom we’d built trust had done awful things.
I glanced at some of the people in our group who had only just signed up. Sti bodies, clutched necks, lips squeezed tight and bloodless. If they were like me when I’d joined the program, anxious and full of doubt, Dr. Merkel’s show-and-tell could scare them away. Or poison their views before they even met their assigned inmates. I clenched shut my mouth.
Coming to terms with the depth of my feelings for four prisoners, two of them sex-o enders, took years of anguish. A delicate process, easily disrupted. But acceptance of a prisoner’s past is essential for supporting them in transcending it.
When I rst met Wulf, a mercenary with a forty- ve-year sentence, his blue eyes, inherited from the fjords of Norway, bored into me. They assessed the room, gauging its threats. His sleek rhythmic gait brought him toward me and I stared, riveted by the coarse red beard that hung to his chest; it looked as if it had been steeped in blood. When our hands met, mine was engulfed in heat. Indigo tattooed symbols sheathed both his forearms, and above the elbows, they disappeared into oversized khaki sleeves. But that baggy uniform did not hide his strength, not just of muscle and sinew, but of attention. I felt observed and considered.
Years into our friendship, Wulf said, “I’m kind of a leader in my block. I try to disarm the hot-heads and talk reason.” He leaned forward and his shaven head shone in the harsh light of the uorescents. “You’ve got to understand that once these things start, they escalate out of all proportion and everyone su ers.” His eyes searched mine to check that I didn’t think he was bullshitting.
Rather, I admired his e orts. “It sounds like an impossible task.”
“I’ve got to live here for a long time and I’ll do whatever I can
to make it decent.” He pointed at himself and opened his arms. “I don’t want to ght! In here, everyone loses.” Then his blue eyes turned erce. He pointed at me as though I were an enemy, his panther body ready to strike. “But if you start something, you’d better be serious because I’m going to die trying to hurt you.” Once again, his body became languorous and he shrugged. “I try to nd a way out without anyone losing too much face.”
In some prisoners’ mouths, those same words would have been self-aggrandizement. But Wulf had killed, led missions to destroy. Violence was a tool he had wielded e ectively but with his experience of senseless death, he sheathed it.
“How did you become a leader?”
He opened calm focused eyes. “It sounds funny but guys in prison want someone they can trust. There’s so much maneuvering and manipulation in here. They want someone who talks straight. And they know I’m not a coward.”
“Do the o cers recognize your position?”
“No!” He shook his head, laughing. “Let’s say I get a certain amount of respect.” Turning serious, he said, “When new guys arrive, we tell them how to survive. We talk about respect. We give them welcome packets.”
I laughed. “What are they?”
A small self-conscious smile quivered on his lips. “Soap, deodorant, toothpaste, shower shoes.”
“Not what you’d expect in a maximum-security prison. Is that prison culture?”
“Nope, but we do it in our block.”
“Sounds kinder than the prison portrayed in movies – that hierarchy of violence.”
“There’s both in here.”
And Wulf portrayed both. Later, he was sent to the hole and I had to visit him behind glass. Wearing an orange jumpsuit that looked like
it had been balled up when wet, he said, “Listen, I beat him pretty bad. I had to. In here, if you let that go, the word’s out, everyone will know they can steal from you. I broke his hand and some ribs.”
But Wulf also protected mentally disabled inmates from prison bullies. He taught newbies how to iron tortillas to make burritos. Even
a guy he called Mangy. “He’s the type of guy...” Wulf hesitated. “Well, a single look and you want him o your porch. He looks like he ran into
a telephone pole and caved in around it. You think: What did they do to you, man? He never had a job. He stole credit cards. But I fronted him
the money for a business. He failed miserably. But I do that. They only
get one shot but I help a lot of guys. I wouldn’t have before. But I think, I had everything going for me and I ended up in here, what chance did they have?”
He’d once looked at me sharply. “Your experiences enabled you to remain an idealist.”
I nodded, quiet with the sense of my own privilege.
He looked at me for a long time without speaking or blinking. “Why don’t they just execute us?”
Taken aback, I didn’t respond.
“I’m no good to anyone in here. One fuck-up and they’ve stripped everything from me.”
“I’m a talented guy. I could make a di erence. There are lots of us in here with knowledge and skills. But they’ve trashed us!”
“Are you saying you’d rather be dead?”
The unspoken assent in his xed stare chilled me.
“But you told me that you do your time di erently! You told me
you try to make a meaningful life in here!”
I blabbed on and on while his cool blue eyes bored into mine.
When I was nally silent, his intense stare remained. He wanted me
to read the emotions on his face. Only then did I notice that his blue
eyes were red and watery. But their gaze was un inching. There was no surrender there. If he could, Wulf would choose to die a fast, digni ed death rather than the slow decline planned for him. Still, he said nothing. Then a wave of self-consciousness bathed his brow in a sheen of sweat.
Dr. Merkel next held up a page torn from a magazine. The red lips of a woman’s vulva. Smeared with white lubricant.
I glanced away. I’d come to that talk, eager and curious. But pornography bored me. Titillation for jaded souls. I’d chosen long ago not to tether my understanding of the men I visited to the things they’d done. I wanted to focus on reinvention.
When I’d met my second prisoner, Earnest, he had almost completed an eighteen-year sentence for armed robbery. Earnest was
a gentle giant who’d wielded a gun, an illiterate gang-member with
a surprising vocabulary, an abused child grown to manhood with a conscience and deep regrets, a mentally-challenged consumer of psycho- tropic medication, a disconnected father and beloved nephew, adorned with tattooed tears.
“When I rst came in here,” he said, “I was full, I was full, I was full of rage. I threw feces at the guards. I fought them.”
He seemed to want an acknowledgment and I nodded quietly.
“I tried to kill myself,” he said, cradling his bald head with both hands. “I hurled, I hurled, I hurled myself at a door. That’s what this lump is. Later, I cut, I cut, I cut myself. Guards said I did it to seek ’tention. I wanted to say, ‘I don’t want no ’tention, I’m cutting myself so I don’t hurt you!’”
Earnest frowned. He had beautiful, caramel-colored skin, smooth and unblemished except for the facial tattoos. He glanced at my eyes before gluing his to the tiled oor. “I cut myself for a long time.”
There were no scars on his arms. Where does he hide them? Marks of pain, incised on skin so he’d never forget.
“I’m sorry. It must have been hard. I’m glad you stopped that.”
His troubled face melted into a grin. “You so sweet! I ’sider you a friend. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t come, I wouldn’t come, I wouldn’t come out to see you all these years.”
He once told me it was dangerous to show tenderness in prison. But when I told him about my divorce from a man I’d loved for twenty years, he shook his head and looked at the oor. “When I came in here,
I missed, I missed, I missed my woman so bad. She was in my heart.” He held his belly and started to rock. “I know, I know, I know that pain. When I knew she’d gone, I couldn’t sleep. But you gotta let go of it.” He creased his face until it looked like a walnut. “Thinking about it makes it worse.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You have a beautiful daughter. You can read.”
“You’re right,” I said, taken aback. Besides me, Earnest hadn’t had
a visit in fteen years. A man with so little comfort in his life o ered me solace. “I know my stress is nothing like yours.”
“Never say that!” Unfolding muscular arms from his chest, he leaned forward. “My stress, my stress, my stress is my own doing. I put myself here.”
I looked at him fondly. A man who’d borne his heartache in a tiny cell where his feet drooped o the end of his too-short bunk.
And then, there was Ringer. He’d been inside for thirty years, for a crime he didn’t commit. The Innocence Project had been working for his release for two years.
Even at fty, he was as tall and loose-limbed as an athlete. His full-moon face was young looking, too, with a handful of pitted scars strewn across its black surface. When he was rst imprisoned, he’d probably had pimples. A mustache like a gray scrubbing brush was the single nod to his age. But although his body had aged gracefully, Ringer was wracked with anxiety. With elbows resting on spread knees, he revolved his hands constantly, as though washing them without soap. He didn’t seem able to stop his head, either, shaking it from side to side, as if every cell in his body were saying: no, no, no!
“I forgive them all,” he’d said to me once. “For putting me in here for something I didn’t do.” Ringer’s milky brown palms fell into their familiar rhythm and I wondered if the movement was so mindless and habitual that he’d continue it when he left prison.
“I signed up for an anger management course.”
“Why? You’re not an angry person, you’re not impulsive.”
He shrugged. “People get tense just before they get out. They ght
and say things they don’t mean.”
“How are you coping with the frustration?”
“Trying not to think about it. A good friend from my block was released last week.” He shook his head. “Me and some guys in our block saved up to buy him clothes for the outside.” With a wry smile, he added, “I was glad to see him go. He kept talking about what he was going to do on the outside. It got to me.”
Dr. Merkel showed our volunteer group several more pictures. I didn’t look. I imagined a window, but even if I could have seen outside, there were no trees, no shrubs, not even grass, and prison walls blocked views of the mountains surrounding Tucson on all sides.
My anger slowly dissipated. I still felt disrespected, but she had probably been trying to be helpful. In a way, we were allies our di erent programs both helped reduce the high rate of prisoner recidivism.
Although two-thirds of Challenge Program participants dropped out, Dr. Merkel had devoted her life to a hard job and hardened men.
Finally, she snapped shut the le. “Are there any questions?”
For long seconds, none of the volunteers said a word.
Wanting to ease the tension, I asked her two assistants, “What do
you do to protect your tenderness in here?”
The burly one shot up his eyebrows. “I run. I do push-ups.” The
slender man with a beard slowly nodded. “I compartmentalize.”
Not the kinds of responses I’d hoped for. But then, prison is a
distorted place. A place where expectations are always wrong.
I hadn’t addressed the question to Dr. Merkel, but she trained her
amber eyes on mine. “I never let them eat lunch by themselves. We take lunch together and we talk.”
I nodded, feeling my attitude lighten. It is the thankless tasks that can save the world.
When I rst decided to visit prison, I thought it might be like visiting another country. Intriguing. I couldn’t admit that just like
the inmates, my life had shrunk. I was a migrant to two continents, uprooted from community umpteen times over, and now, I lived with a brain-injured husband. I couldn’t even voice my hope that I might make a di erence in men’s lives because unless you are being trite, it takes courage to own a desire to help someone. It requires acknowledgment of your own power. And when I started visiting prison, mine was at its lowest ebb.
Before I met Wulf, Ringer, Earnest and my last prisoner, Dodge, I had envisaged limited relationships. Deep connection seemed unlikely because we were randomly paired, not drawn by mutual attraction. I imagined that sad stories would be our currency, and I was prepared to pay. But long deprived of friendship, the men understood that it requires a willingness to own vulnerability, and from the rst moment, they divulged extraordinary intimacies. Despite my shamefully mistaken expectations, four felons gave me many gifts. Not the least of which was allowing me to witness their struggles to make sense of thwarted lives.
Dodge, a self-professed sociopath, was the most puzzling of all my prisoners. Imprisoned because his wife and the mother of his twins was underage when they rst had sex.
I understood what it meant to be a sociopath, but on our third visit, I asked for his take on it.
Dodge’s face was heart-shaped and boyish, but his dark eyes never lit up. “I had a cellmate once. A good guy and I got on well with him. One night, I leaned over the edge of my bunk to see him on the bottom with his blood pouring out.” Dodge’s hands moved up the pale insides of his forearms, demonstrating as he spoke. “He’d slit the veins up and down his arms and across his throat.”
A red-hot wire seemed to short out in my stomach, but Dodge’s face remained blank, his voice so perky.
“I don’t like mess,” he grimaced. “I’m very clean. But I wanted my cellie’s radio. I wanted to listen in bed. So, I climbed down and picked my way to his locker. There was blood all over the oor. It was sticky, but I made sure I didn’t get my feet wet. A while later, I thought about his food. I climbed down past his bed again and got his pack of tuna. I ate it while he bled to death.”
I was horri ed. My kindest interpretation was that Dodge respected his cellie’s right to take his own life.
But listening to Dodge over the years, I realized that sociopaths are layered and nuanced, just like everyone else. Reminiscing about Christmas spent with a foster family, after his dad murdered his mom, Dodge said, “I loved it. We strung popcorn on the tree and baked cookies.” Not gifts, but family. Not excesses but pleasure in shared activity.
Five years later, Dodge joined Dr. Merkel’s program. “Man, she’s good,” he said. “I told her things I’d never told anyone.” He’d bent a leg to rest a foot on his grey seat and clasped the raised knee. With no fat to impede it, his body folded as neatly as a penknife. “Look. I joined that program to brown-nose. I went through the motions but I wasn’t invested. But not now. She drew me in and now I love it.”
As a child, Dodge had been abused by his father who sold him for sex. There were scars all over his body, and he never learned about love.
But in prison, Dodge tended a mouse. He told me he fed it popcorn and milk; he cut up his sock for a nest; he built it a run from toilet-paper tubes and co ee jars. He let it part his hair like a eld of barley. He con ded that he slept all night on his back so that Bo Jangles could nestle in his belly button.