Rick leaned forward in his chair, arms tightly folded, staring out at the group. “If I’m supposed to talk about my life today, then I’m going to have to stumble through it. I’m not good at talking. I hate talking.” He looked down at the ground. The moderator of the group, Bob, is an older man whose youth was immersed in organized crime and jails. Yet somehow, Bob made a decision in his early twenties, a decision to escape the life of the mafia and the prisons. He now devotes his life to helping prisoners turn their lives around, just as he himself did. In a heavy Brooklyn accent, Bob called out “Just talk Rick, just talk.”
“My pops was an alcoholic. My mom, was, uhh… I was drinking pretty heavily by my early teens. I just always knew I was worthless, I just always knew I was worthless. And so, I drank one night, and got into a car. And, I…” Rick paused, he stared at the floor, and squeezed his arms tightly, so tight that they turned red. He shook his head. “You know, I’m not one of these guys here in jail, who’s saying he’s innocent. I’m not. I’m guilty. I’m guilty. I hate myself. I just hate myself.” Bob interrupted. “Rick, keep talking.” “Okay. Well, I took some poor, innocent guys’ life, I hit him with my car.” Rick’s face contorted, he winced, and his jaw locked. “I killed an innocent man, drunk driving. It was an accident, but… I killed him. His poor family, Oh God. I don’t know how to, how to…” Dropping his chin, he buried his face in his own chest, trying to disappear. “I deserve my sentence, I know that society needs to be protected from me. I want to be locked away in a cell, where I can’t hurt nobody no more.”
Another prisoner called out “Yeah, you wanna be in your cell. Man, you disappear into there for weeks, and never talk to nobody. You’re some antisocial freak or something.” Rick looked up, not angrily, but with despair. “I used to be social, when I was a kid. Now, I’m angry, and if I walk out of my cell, I’m gonna break someone. And I don’t want to hurt noone. I stay in my cell and don’t talk, because I can’t control myself.” He had red hair, a powerful build, and his tattoos ran up the side of his neck. Nobody disputed with him, that he could do damage with just a swing of his arm.
Bob urged Rick to continue. “Well, then, after serving a long time behind bars, I came out a gang member. I dealt drugs on the street. I had an area of Yonkers that I called mine. I dealt it all from my bar. I just couldn’t forget that innocent guy that I killed, drunk driving. It kept me awake at night. Only thing that could help me to forget was to drink, and do more drugs. When the police got me for dealing, and threw me in jail, then… then… my brother came to help me. My little brother was straight- he never drank, never used drugs, never. He went to college, got his degrees, got a wife and kids. He came three times a week from Westchester to run my bar, just sos I’d have a business to return to when I got outta jail. And, umm, and…” Tears came to his eyes, and he squeezed his arms violently. “While I was in jail, the rival gang came into the bar, and shot him, just to make an example of me.” Tears came rolling down his face, and Rick writhed in his chair. “I killed my brother, oh God, I killed my brother, it’s all my fault! My poor little brother, it’s all my fault.” All the other inmates sat quietly, staring at the ground.
I squirmed in my chair, and kept listening. The inmates spoke with Rick, giving him their advice on how to deal with his anger. Many of them scolded him for staying in his jail cell, and not speaking to any other inmates for weeks on end. Other inmates offered their friendship, and invited him to hang out in the yard. After twenty minutes or so of listening, I spoke out. “Rick, I have something to say.” My throat was dry, and my voice trembled a bit. “Rick, I know I’m this weird painter, coming in here with Greek statues and easels, teaching, doing a painting. I’m not here to say who is guilty, who deserves what. I’m painting the stories in your faces. I’m just here to let you know that you are worth something. I realize that you don’t even know how much you are worth. Rick, you are created in the image of God, and you don’t even know it.”
Rick’s face lifted up, and I watched his hands unclench his arms. His eyes slowly widened. He stared, speechless. And a slow relief washed over his face, such as I’ve never witnessed before.
Bob said “Rick, you know, you’re guilty. You did those crimes. But, you got to forgive yourself now, it’s what your brother would want you to do. Finish your sentence, and get back into society, and do something useful.”
The group continued to counsel Rick, advising him to fill up the next few years of his sentence by getting involved in group activities, by socializing, by getting out of his cell. Bob gave him practical advice on how to communicate better, on how to have friendships. A sheriff came up quietly and tapped me on the shoulder. “You should do Rick’s portrait next, after you are done with these three. I’ve been a sheriff for many years now, but I’ve never seen a man’s face change like that before, so quick. Look at him, something just happened. Do a before-and-after of that guy.”
A few weeks passed, and Bob remarked that Rick was socializing with the group. Rick came over and said to me “Kev, man, we missed you while you were away at that cabin thing. I’ve got bad news- I’m being transferred. I wanted to do the portrait that you asked me about, but I’m going upstate to another prison. But Kev, I gotta let you know, I believe what you said the other week, I think, I think you’re right, the worth thing.” He paused. “And, I was wondering if we could keep on talking, if you would maybe let me write an occasional letter to you from the jail upstate. Don’t give me your address, I’ll send the letters here to the jail. I just, I wanna talk more.”
I returned to the jail again, a few days ago, and worked on this triple portrait for seven hours. And as I painted, I realized that none of us- not the inmates, not me- none of us have any idea of what we are truly worth. To paint that.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
-William Wordsworth, 1798