I have been living in the California desert for awhile now, renting a room in a family’s home. My almost seven-year marriage to a Turkish man broke up, and he is living somewhere on the streets of Los Angeles, stuck in his paranoid delusions that everyone is after him. He leaves voice messages on my smartphone, though I had to get a restraining order against him, and he should not contact me. I hope he goes home to Istanbul for medical help. I feel alone, as the desert wind howls across rocks and sand, and autumn sun cools beneath clouds. Better to be alone than abused . . .
Who would have thought that I, a free-spirited writer who has traveled much across this globe, would land in a regular job, from 07:30 to 16:00 Mondays through Fridays, 40 hours a week—teaching inmates in a prison? I got the job after a 5-week background check (I had to list everywhere I lived since I was 16), a physical exam, and drug tests. The prison felt that I was safe enough to enter.
I drive to work across a desert Apocalypse landscape littered with rock queries, railroad tracks, and old industrial warehouses with broken windows and metal pipes. Homeless people scarcely populate it, pushing metal carts or baby carriages without a baby. I lost my three-level, wood-carved home in the mountain forest near a lake. My children are young adults now, and I don’t see them much.
My 2 oldest children have completely shut me out of their lives (and my grandchildren’s lives). An enemy has much to do with this (an ex-husband who once laid me on a bed and strangled me, which I wrote about in my book “Fire and Ice”). I don’t know what he’s said or why they listen and refuse to meet so that I may answer charges laid against me . . .
My few friends call me “Sweetie.” I am not a serial killer or assaulter, some crazy grandma gone wild. I can not understand how my own daughter, my firstborn, could take away my little remaining family . . . I lost my father at age 4 and my mother and only brother (that I knew about) not long after. I never had a sister.
So . . . the best part of my life is the “Special Needs Yard” prison where I teach male inmates their high school GED course. We cover mostly English reading, writing, social studies, and science (my inmate clerk helps with the math). Most of the inmates are sex offenders who could not be in the general population; some are ex-gang members or ex-cops. My classroom is the last one on the left, near the moving white-barred gate and blue door that leads to the desert yard. I must have my special ID and my keys on a chain to enter the prison. If I lose my ID or keys, the whole prison would be locked down until we found them. I must wear professional clothes (like black slacks and a collared shirt, sensible shoes, my hair clipped back, with no identifying jewelry showing). I walk through a metal detector, surrender my clear plastic bag for inspection, and pass through 9 gates. A young guard in his khaki uniform with silver badge says, “Morning, ma’am,” as he holds the heavy door for me at Central Control’s Sally Gate. I peer into the dim room filled with camera surveillance screens and many keys.
Everyone is watched here, not just the prisoners. I self-consciously adjust my three-part name tag that clearly says what to do if I see a rape victim, which codes to call on a radio, and so on. It also has a little silver whistle for emergencies. I walk along a shiny hall kept clean by inmate porters and illumined by overhead electric lights. The morning sun almost blinds me as it slants through the yard opening. I reach for the metal door handle where up to 24 men wearing blue “CDCR” (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) uniforms that also spell out “PRISONER” are already using the computers that line 2 sides of the room.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I say as I step in and move to my wood desk up front near the smart board and file cabinet. I carry no radio or weapons. A Correctional Officer (CO) is always somewhere nearby in the long hallway on the other side of the bar-enforced glass classroom windows. I unlock the file cabinet and take out the phone. I get a box of pencils, a few erasers, some whiteboard markers, calculators, and my flower-covered folder that holds papers I carefully marked so that my students can rewrite.
“Good morning,” they reply. My clerk hauls out the big plastic box with textbooks and sign-in sheets from the back cabinet that holds our little library of literature, novels, and dictionaries. “How are you, today, Ms. Williams?” one or two students ask.
“OK,” I reply as I organize items on my desk and sit down. “There are clouds outside. Do you think it’s going to rain?”
I like to think the clouds are angels hovering over this austere desert place, wings outstretched above anger, boredom, sorrow, loneliness. Wings that also bring hope—an elusive thread we all hold on to, the wispy white line that will lead us out of dark caverns and toward the sunlight.
Fifteen men graduated last Monday, and I got to speak to them as staff members and family listened and watched. I felt sad as I walked up to the podium with my little black book of hastily-written notes. Only 3 family members came to visit. Some prisoners never get visitors or letters . . .
I identify too well with that. As autumn and winter holidays approach, I am unvisited and uninvited. I see no red and golden family holiday parties in my future, next to evergreen trees—as the prisoners here do not.
Rallying against sorrow, I spoke to the graduates, urged them not to stop with just high school, but to reach on for college and university, as one takes steps on a mountain journey. Always a higher peak waits for us to climb.
“Education is something no one can take away from you,” I said. “They may take your house, car, bank account, family, and even your freedom. But education stays locked up in your mind.”
They looked so proud, smiling in their plastic chairs. Another teacher called their individual names and they stood, one by one, as he handed each a diploma with a gold seal from the state of California, safely tucked into a brown case like a big, thin book. They posed in blue cap and gown with tassels as an inmate snapped photos for remembrance.
Culinary inmates had baked a cake and mixed punch, and staff members served the graduates. Although inmates generally cannot touch us, a few came to shake our hands and say,
Thank you for treating me like a human, not a criminal. Thank you for not judging me. Thank you for showing me a little spark of God’s great forgiveness and love. We all make mistakes. We are all connected like family . . .
After the graduation, I returned to my classroom down the long, bright, light-yellow hallway. Our building is one-story, pure concrete blocks, able to withstand the worst earthquake. Although each late afternoon I can walk out the main Sally Gate surrounded by tall metal fences and circled razor wire, I am usually too tired to drive far.
My Training Lieutenant said that driving somewhere natural in her car after work made her feel free. I imagine my car windows open and wind in my face, smelling mesquite bushes and pine trees, past the canal and desert hills, toward lakes and mountains where I used to live with my children in that 3-level wood house nestled by a stream and forest. In reality, I usually just drive home to rest, falling on my bed in an exhausted bundle, alarm set for 06:00.
Sometimes I dream of the prison: the big chow hall where men kneel at the metal, picnic-style tables screwed into the floor. Others stand, hands lifted gracefully in prayer or playing guitars, reading the Bible, praying, singing . . . God’s beloved children, heirs, friends–not slaves with chains shackled.
I’ve never heard anything as beautiful as those inmates singing, their voices raised in hope, music traveling down the hallways. Hope lives in this dark place where all who walk can feel that we, too, lost our lives, our families, our homes, our freedom.
Jesus is here, among the prisoners he urged us to visit and remember. Even giving a glass of water helps.
Jesus turned the whole system upside-down. No wonder the rich religious leaders and foreign governor with his soldiers—crucified him. They didn’t want a brotherhood and sisterhood of equals. They wanted to rule with an iron bar, gather up gold, sit proudly on silver thrones. They rejected humility—the free, great gift of grace—given because we could never be good enough to purchase our own salvation. How can such love spring from the Creator of the universe who left Heaven to be a man?
“The first will be last, and the last first,” Jesus told the rag-tag group of men and women who followed his dusty sandaled footsteps across a desert in another land. “And the greatest among you will be servant of all.”
I can’t bring my smartphone or my Apple laptop or a camera into the prison. There is nothing close enough to drive to for lunch (though sometimes we eat a free tray of hot food prepared by inmates—in the big break room with its long table and TV, next to the kitchen). We usually sit in our cars during breaks, catching up on our emails with our engines humming, checking Messenger for news from a family member or friend far away, lost in our Virtual Reality made of metal and glass with light and images captured inside. We don’t even need a 3D headset over our eyes to block out the desert sun . . .
We who are staff at the prison watch out for each other. The Assistant Warden, wearing his neat, dark suit by his office door, said that he would pray for me, and that his door is open anytime I need to talk. When my car was in the shop for a week, the receptionist (who started working the same time I did) picked me up and drove me home. She lives not far from me, as others do . . . My boss saw me waiting once for an Uber car and offered a quick ride in his pick-up truck. He wears bright-colored, collared shirts with white buttons and hums while working. His secretary writes positive sayings on the office whiteboard, like “Either you support the visionor support division.” We try to keep negativity away, shining a candle against darkness, holding the small flame high.
When an inmate yelled at me and stood too close, handling my desk papers as a form of intimidation, a Corrections Officer moved next to me without me asking or even looking up. I have seen an Officer escort a handcuffed, half-naked troublemaker down the long hall, calling out, “Coming through. Stay against the wall!” He did not smile, nor did the inmate headed for a solitary cell instead of his bunk in the dormitory. He will face a write-up, time added to his sentence, and maybe a transfer out.
That same Officer told me how one CO in California was jumped by inmates and died from his injuries. “It can happen here,” he added, his no-nonsense eyes unblinking.
“I believe you,” I replied.
We all know this. We can never become too comfortable. We can not forget where we are. Safety comes first! As our Training Lieutenant told us new recruits 6 months ago: “We who work in law enforcement have an EDGE to us. We are more likely to get divorced, fall ill, and die sooner than others.”
So why sign up for this? I sometimes wonder. She also said we must keep our sense of humor. I learn from my students as they learn from me, as hours pass each day according to their schedule, not mine. Where else but in a prison could I have figured out how to say (over a radio): “Code One, Code One. I have a 10-12. Request a 10-14 because of a 10-66. What’s your 20?”
When I was depressed and feeling insecure over my failed marriage and the horrid, looming job of surviving alone, the Chaplain held my hand and prayed for me, just outside the prison gate, near a small tree, as wind blew over desert sand and us—like living water.
When our outside life is harder to face than prison, we know it’s time for change. Sometimes, prison sets us free.
“Weekends are the hardest,” my clerk told me recently. “They last so long.” On Friday afternoons we live this mostas my 4 inmate tutors and clerk sit in the near-empty classroom devoid of GED students needing help with math or reading. A couple of inmate online college students type assignments on the back wall computers, and we all chat about random topics. Each prisoner is different. I saw one who looked like a monster, silent, frowning, eyes like deep, dark water, arms and head covered with skull tattoos. Tears—for the people he murdered—were inked beneath his eyes. Another inmate had a face like a baby, always smiling, his mind unable to grasp simple reading. I wonder how he could have been condemned with the others in this place. Some inmates are philosophers ready to engage anyone who will listen. Some are writers, feverishly researching the law and typing out appeals for a pardon.
How can any of us take the role of God—or judge and jury? Even courts can get things wrong and incarcerate an innocent person. How can I have a heartand work in a prison? I’m not like the veteran employees who have stood the test of years inside this locked-up place. I am a teacher, not a Corrections Officer. Jesus said, “Judge not.” What did he really mean?
“Did you get the flu shot?” one of my bored tutors asks, bringing my wandering mind back to the classroom. We discuss what may REALLY be inside injections, and how we ALL may be guinea pigs in strange experiments. As we converse, our sentences sound slow, as if a wormhole entered the prison, and we are trapped in time-loops.
Prison is, indeed, a place where time runs more slowly than outside. We have hours and days and months to think about our mistakes. We remember, for years and decades, the wrongs done to us. We long for a new life, for justice, and—most importantly—for grace. Friday I walked by a young prisoner during a “cease walking in the hallway” moment. He looked so small and insignificant, sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his face turned toward me, scared, unsmiling. Bad things happen in prison. Secrets are never kept. Sometimes it seems we are all together treading, exhausted, sick, our feet barely able to step forward . . . on an unending, timeless march through twilight.
In shock, we wonder—as that seated inmate staring upward, as a newborn baby screaming, as an old woman facing her last illness:
“How did THIS become my life?”
“I live in my own little fantasy world,” I sometimes tell my students. “Most writers do.” There is no Internet here. The few TVs in viewing rooms are fought over. Who gets to choose the channels? The inmates know all about reading BOOKS to escape, and often visit the real library down the hall near Central Control. A book is more personal, for holding on a bunk bed. Writing opens doors.
My fantasy world seems more like science fiction lately. I am a space traveler from another galaxy who crash-landed on this strange blue planet. My intergalactic radio is broken, my spaceship crippled, my crewmate dead. I creep outside, wide-eyed, unable to step lightly under the press of this new gravity, unwilling to breathe deeply in the chem-filled air. I wonder,
“Where can I get my fractured ankle mended, my engine serviced, my food replenished? What alien creatures may hunt me here? Why did my partner, who stepped beside me on assignments, who always had my back—why did he have to leave me, killed in this crash?”
Today I am in my room at home, writing on my laptop. I am trying to get over The Virus of the Week. Before dawn I got in my car. After work and errands (like shopping for food and seeing the doctor), I pulled in the driveway after dark. I fell on my bed and slept for awhile, then woke up to write.
I look up at the little books I wrote. They lean together, rainbow colors on a shelf across the room. I hardly promote them or write new stories lately. I miss my children and their children, wondering how such a crazy thing could happen to anyone—that we could be treated as if we’re dead, erased, or murdered . . . like inmates forgotten, locked behind the prison bars. I wonder if I should run off to New Mexico (which I heard is a “happy little state”). I could just leave California as I entered it at age 18—with nothing.
I miss my crazy husband and Turkey. They need hope for freedom restored, though their dictator tries hard to put them all in Turkish prisons (which I tell my students are much worse than what we have in California).
When I got divorced and couldn’t find a job in America, I taught English in Russia for 6 long winter months. Then I flew to spring-filled Turkey for 2.5 years. I drank tea by the Marmara sea, wandered through flowery parks of Istanbul, islands of Izmir, monuments at Ankara, the port of Atanlya, the seaside castle at Alanya. I hiked across mountains, through cobbled cities once controlled by Greeks and Romans, down ancient tunnels, and up old castle towers.
I visited a prisoner in a Turkish jail. I stared inside the tiny, barred cage that held him, bruised and bleeding because he was forced to kneel with his hands handcuffed behind his back while 3 officers beat his head and neck and face and pepper-sprayed his eyes, all while threatening to rape his wife. I, myself, was almost arrested for a photo I published. I escaped to China and then back to California, struggling even more than my 5 years overseas, sometimes homeless, sleeping in my car at truck stops. Now I have 2 banned books about Turkey. Can my writing really help?
A friend of mine, a former Turkish Army Officer, spent 16 months inside a Turkish prison. His crime was seeing clearly the state of his country. Its Constitution was ignored and freedoms stolen by an upstart who built himself a billion-dollar mansion on seized Ataturk parkland. Many Turks live in small apartments and can’t pay electric bills. The American Pastor Brunson, whom I once met briefly in his Izmir church, was recently released from a two-year sentence—for the high crime of “Christianization.” Over 2000 years ago, Turkey was the setting for Paul’s journeys, the recipients of New Testament letters, and the home of Seven Churches Jesus spoke to in the book of Revelation. Each church blazed, a candle in a golden lampstand. Churches were never illegal in Turkey.
I guess what I’ve learned by working in a prison is that we ALL can be prisoners—of bullies, our own broken minds, our past, fear, loneliness, a society that forgot how to drink tea and speak together, face to face, on Sundays. I want to say I learned to STOP being the victim. Instead, I hesitate, wanting to run away from the fight. Why must I inch backwards up a jagged hill as half-seen foes continue to press against me on this hostile planet? But instead of running, I should promise this:
“To my last breath I will fight against oppression, abuse, and slander. I will oppose the evil forces that break hearts and families, though I myself have been guilty of hurting others. I will stand in my armor like Paul wrote in his letter to the Turkish church at Galatia 2000 years ago. I will hold HIGH my sword and shield. Meet me on the battlefield.”
Weary as a poorly paid guard who paced across the prison floors all night, I know that—one day—the battle will be over. No prison door can stand forever. No broken ship or alien planet can keep us from going home. Doors will slam open, and a clear path will glisten beneath our feet. No enemies will stop us. Like Isaiah prophesied and Jesus fulfilled, we will FLY. Like the origami bird an inmate folded for me from a little scrap of white paper—that I placed on my prison classroom windowsill—we will all fly free.
Read Part 2: “What I Found in Prison: Love”
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