The prison has a mood. Walking through the first of the gates does not give you access to this vibration, but once you pass through the third, you can feel what the morning is like. Somehow, all that collective energy in one place is caught behind the high fence and the coils of barbed wire. Pent up energy.
On this day, I felt it as I stepped out of the enclosure and into the prison yard proper. There were three fat hens and a rooster completely oblivious to their captivity. Their feathers were lustrous and their demeanour relaxed as they pecked the ground and bobbed their shiny heads. There were no predators in here.
The basketball court was empty. It was not yard time yet. Instead, there was a sort of festive bustle as prisoners cut grass and moved about the compound doing a variety of daily tasks. If I had closed my eyes right then, I may have been anywhere else. The hubbub of voices, a stray peal of laughter, the scent of recently shorn blades would have been my only clues to my surroundings. With my eyes open, as they were, the reality of the situation was starkly apparent. No one was here because they wanted to be except me. It’s a different feeling to be the only one who chose to be in a place.
The perimeter of the jail is a hybrid of half metal sheeting and half chain fence with segments so tiny that a finger cannot fit between them for purchase. I know because I had poked the tip of my own into it one day as a test. I suppose this is so you cannot scale the sides to escape. The metal sheet is higher than any natural human could grow, so it creates a world of its own. “Out There” and “In Here” as I learnt it to be called. The top of the fence is adorned in multifaceted barbed coils which would be a sorry fate for any small-fingered wannabe Spiderman on the lam.
A classroom sits unapologetically between the blocks, its stout stature doing little to boast its interior. The room we use is comfortable and clean. I made the mistake one day of saying how much I was beginning to like it and may actually prefer it to my own classroom at the high school.
“But in that classroom you are free,” one of the prisoners said to me.
Over time, our meetings had eased us slowly into a sense of fellowship. The common denominator being literature and writing, two had brought down their books of poetry for me to see.
“Can I give feedback?” I asked.
“Sure, I’m up for some positive criticism,” said one.
“Nah, my stuff don’t need no correction, ya check?” said another.
“You sure? Cuz you’re in a correctional institution…” I laughed, in spite of the poorly-timed pun. He regarded me with mock malice.
His poetry was more profound than I had expected, although truly, I don’t know what I had expected. The edges of the composition book were worn and dogged, hanging in on themselves to expose the private brown layers of cardboard beneath the traditional marbled veneer of the cover. It felt a bit like a clichéd metaphor for everything not being black and white. The inner pages of the book were worn from frequent perusals. I imagined him lying on his bunk reading and re-reading his own words, the din of the prison drowning his inner monologue. The imagery was blank, however, as I had never seen the inside of the jail, so I had no previous knowledge on which to build a setting.
I looked at the first proffered poem again, this time at the tender pencil smudges to change words, and the grease blotched corner of the page where some crumb clung to its own immortal stain. The lines of the poetry were tangled in their incarceration. The themes ran through the verses like bars: regret, reflection, remorse, rebirth, re-anything that would allow one to transcend the past and start again. I thought about clean composition books with no crumbs on the pages. I thought about fresh starts and suddenly the image of the inmate operating the laundry right outside the classroom door sprung into my head. During one session I had asked them what their prison jobs were. They asked me what I would pick as mine and I said “laundry” in my naïveté since every class I had to pass the morose inmate in the laundry room and the job of transferring things from washer to dryer looked easy enough.
“Nah, Teach. When you gotta be washing all them man clothes and some of them fellas big and sweating and don’t know how to clean properly or them does wear the same boxer all week. Nah.”
I flicked the crumb off the page.