The man sitting across from me never got to say goodbye to his mother. She died while he was incarcerated and he wasn’t able to be with her during her last days or to join his family at her funeral. He hasn’t been able to see any of his daughter get married, go to any of his children’s birthday parties or see his family regularly on visiting days. As years ticked by, he noted that their visits with him became less frequent.
“If I call them up and ask them for help with money or say I need something, they’re there for me,” he said. “But if I ask them to be here, that’s another thing.” It is difficult for families to travel to visit incarcerated loved ones for a variety of reasons including cost, distance and emotional hardship.
I observe that must be hard, and he agrees. “But,” he said, “I had to realize that was all my doing. It wasn’t them that put me here. I did that. And that’s not the worst of it,” he said.
I asked what was.
“The realization that I hurt people. That I hurt my victims and their families,” he said, describing the steps he took to do what he could to hold himself accountable while in prison and undo as much harm as he could.
We’re sitting inside a gym at the Macomb Correctional Facility, and all around us, similar conversations are happening. I’m one of about 80 people taking part of the Confined Minds program, a day put together to highlight the programs at the Michigan prison that teach coping, job and life skills to the men incarcerated there and that bring them face-to-face with the volunteers who come to share their time and knowledge with them. But just as often, I would hear, it was the volunteers who also learned from the people incarcerated at Macomb.
Because of the deeply personal nature of the things these men shared, I’m opting to share their stories and observations anonymously. However, the things I am sharing represent recurring themes I heard throughout the day.
The people I spoke with had a lot of things they wanted people outside prison to know about their lives, their hopes and their thoughts. Over the day, I heard several ideas repeatedly, and I’d like to share a few of those:
- They were genuinely surprised that so many people showed up to learn about their lives and what they were doing. I was told that this was the first time in about 10 years that people from the outside were invited in as a group and incarcerated people were asked to show off the good things they had been doing. They often feel like people on the outside don’t care about them anymore, and to see that people are showing an interest in them gave them a lot of hope.
- They want people to understand that they are human beings, not monsters — that word “monsters” was one that many of them chose to describe how they feel others perceive them. They want people to know that their hopes for the future are like anyone else’s: to spend time with their children and grandchildren; to do meaningful work; to look back on a life that meant something. They also know that they have done regrettable things, and a lot of them have spent years trying to come to terms with that.
- They want people to understand that what they see about prison in movies and on television doesn’t match their daily lives. What is shown in the media is often filmed in the highest security, most dangerous places but where these men live, at least, isn’t like that. I can tell you for myself, I was a thousand times more intimidated by the checking-in process in the administration building, which included going through a metal detector and getting patted down, than I was at any point talking one-on-one with someone who has been incarcerated for 30 years.
- They want people to know that who they are today are not who they were when they were first arrested. By some wild coincidence, I seemed to keep meeting people who had been incarcerated since 1989. That stood out to me because I graduated from high school the same year. I think back to how much I’ve changed in that time, and how much anyone is capable of change over that many years. They’re asking for the chance to show that they are as capable of change as anyone.
- They may be in prison, but they want their time to be meaningful. They want programing like education, creative arts, emotional education (learning about feelings and how to handle them) and job skills training. There were two dogs being trained to be leader dogs for the blind when I was there, and two teams of incarcerated men who were responsible for their training. They want these opportunities both to better make use of their time while incarcerated and to prepare for their eventual release. Also, they want this programing available to people who will never be eligible for release so that they can become mentors to people who will be in prison for shorter stays.
Finally, I want to add a note about the saddest thing that day. My conversations with these men were often incredibly intense. It’s fair to say that most people would never want to open up to complete strangers about the worst moments of their life, but these men were doing exactly that to me — someone they had never seen before and will likely never see again. I was awed and humbled over and over by their willingness to be open and honest with me. Often, I simply wanted to act humanly with them in return — to reach out and hug them. But I couldn’t. Michigan Department of Correction rules limited us to handshakes only and nothing else.
“I wish I could hug you,” I would tell them in those moments.
“You saying that is just like doing it,” one of them told me.
I thought I would be leaving Macomb Correctional Facility that day feeling relieved to put the prison behind me, or sad for the people inside. But after eight hours inside, I came away inspired by the men I met, and ready to fight harder than ever for the criminal justice reforms they deserve and that our state needs.