Lately, in writing about the jail, I’ve had a bit of difficulty. On four or five different occasions, I began to write, then decided to not post what I’d written. The reason is, quite simply, the stories are so painful, and I worried that it might be hard for people to read. From here on in, though, I’m going to describe more honestly the world of these prisoners. I can’t not be honest; these men need help.
If you think that their stories might not be suitable for you to read, then I would not recommend reading on. But if, in reading, you might come to understand something new, then I believe it will have been worth it.
I sat in the middle of a rehabilitation group, in which inmates were being guided along in a discussion. About twenty guys were discussing how to treat people with respect. Some boring, old platitudes that went back and forth, and understandably these empty phrases were not received enthusiastically. Then one man got up, a young guy by the name of Macho. “Listen up. I know a few of you guys have been getting into fights with the guy on the third tier. You know who I’m talking about. Dude’s so wound up, he’ll fight anyone. He’s ready to pop. He’s crazy. But, you guys gotta leave him alone. You gotta protect that kid. He’s not what he seems.” The group listened. “Thing is, I know his story, and none of you guys do. I’m gonna tell it to you. When he was a little kid, just twelve years old, his mother was addicted to crack. He watched his mother run out the door to sell her body, prostituting herself to get money for her fix. His mother’s a crack whore. At twelve years old, he started to buy crack for his mom, so that she wouldn’t sell herself. He locked his mom in the basement, and would run the streets to get her fix, just so she wouldn’t get out. He never wanted to be a drug dealer, he was just trying to save his mom. So, leave him alone, he’s cool, he’s a good dude. He’s just dealing with stuff that you guys don’t even know. Help him out.”
When Macho finished speaking, I walked to the bathroom. Locking the door behind me, tears came down my face. I couldn’t cry in front of the group. I couldn’t believe that anybody could have a life like this. I just couldn’t believe what some people go through. A feeling of helplessness came over me. I didn’t know why I was there, what I was doing, why I thought I might be able to help. And then, I remembered the story of the little boy, with two loaves and fishes. Several thousand people were hungry, and needed food. The boy gave the loaves and fishes to Jesus, and Jesus performed a miracle- he multiplied them, and fed them to the thousands. I lifted up my hands, there in the bathroom, and prayed “God, here are my measly loaves and fishes. My two hands. All I know how to do is draw, and paint. Please use me, Lord, to feed these people.”
The time came for me to break off, and paint. But this day, I was informed that there wasn’t space for painting, and so I would be drawing instead. Storm volunteered to sit, and so we began.
Storm was from the other side of the coin. Storm used to run the streets, and he would get women addicted to drugs. He would then set them up in prostitution. But those years had passed, and now he was in jail. He spoke a lot about his daughters, about his son. For somebody who was a self confessed criminal, from the street, he had such tender affection for his children. As I drew his portrait, he asked me questions about my own life. I told him my answers were intentionally vague, for security reasons. He understood. He just wanted to know if I had a healthy life, and loved a woman. He went on to say that he had married a beautiful, amazing woman. “Kev, she works hard, she’s gorgeous, she’s great with the kids, she’s perfect. And I fucked it up. I chose the streets over her. And now I’m divorced, and in jail.” I sharpened a pencil, and blended the back of the head into shadow with the side of my fingers. “Storm, what are you going to do when you get out? You’re out in three months, right?” Holding the position, perfectly still, he opened his mouth and said “Shit, Kevin. I don’t know. A bunch of guys gave me their numbers, that’s how it works here. You get back out to the streets, with more contacts than you had before you went to jail. I just don’t want to do the same thing, though. But, what else is out there?”
As I drew Storm’s eyes, buried in the half shade of his eye sockets, I wrestled with all of these thoughts. His mouth has a perpetual grin. His hair is impeccably trimmed. I drew the wrinkles in the forehead that come from a man who raises his eyebrows often. I thought about Jean Dominique Ingres’ portrait drawing of Dr. Thomas Church.
Today, I was working away on a painting, in my studio. As I painted, I decided to listen to NPR. The anchor dryly addressed something or other about some election thing or other. Just as I was about to shut the radio off, “All Things Considered” came on. In this program, families of the victims of crimes were speaking out about the criminals who hurt them. Mothers who lost sons, parents who lost babies. But these people were not advocating eternal incarceration. One woman, whose son was shot and killed, spoke about her son’s killer, a sixteen year old boy at the time of the shooting. A decade later, the mother went to visit her son’s killer at the jail. There, at the jail, in speaking to him, she forgave him. At the end of the meeting, he asked if he could hug her, as he had nothing else to offer in exchange for her forgiveness. Twenty five years after the shooting, the killer, now a man, emerged from jail. He got an apartment next to the mother of the man he had killed. He stops in to check in on her every day. He takes out her garbage. She watches out for him. They spend weekends together. She said he is like a son to her.
Storm, pencil on paper, 4″ x 6″