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Prison, Poetry, Grace

by Sharon Charde

I had been looking forward to this experience for such a long time. Years, really. When Id gone with the Touchstone girls (The Writers at Touchstone) for our field trips I had been horrified, fascinated, compelled by the women in their maroon tee shirts and blue jeans, the sterility and coldness of the buildings, the sternness of the corrections officers. Walking through wide cinderblock halls, noting the thick black wire benches screwed to the floor, the lack of any human touches, I had felt my skin prickle with anxiety despite the winter day and my warm turtleneck.

Outside, in the compound, I had seen women shackled, heads down, being led here and there. Inside, we viewed the 'seg units where inmates were sent for infractions of the prison rules, to contemplate their sins in solitude. The cells in the segregation units as well as those in the detox units were pure stainless steel, toilet paper the only soft thing inside them. In the detox unit, a few women, scrawny junkies just off the street, caterwauled and rocked back and forth, their tinny cries bouncing off the steel and cement. The girls and I peered into those cells, fascinated and horrified voyeurs. For the girls, the experience was supposed to be scary, frightening them enough to stay out of prison and get on a healthier path. For me, it was a view into a world that was totally foreign. It might as well have been a trip to Tibet, so different was it from anything else I had known or seen.

The girls I worked with were incarcerated, yes, but in a homelike setting with real bedrooms, teddy bears and family photos, teenage messes on the floor. Touchstone, a residential treatment facility for adjudicated girls, was grim in its way, but nothing like the womens prison. And the girls could wear their own clothes, do their hair, eat the cookies , birthday cakes and soda I frequently brought in.

But yesterday, I rethought that experience, prompted by my third trip to Niantic. Perhaps it hadnt been so foreign after all perhaps it was more familiar in some way than I had realized. Dale Griffiths, a teacher at the prison and a co-facilitator of a writing group led there by Wally Lamb, had invited me to come to do a poetry workshop for two groups of women after I had sent her a copy of the anthology of the Touchstone girls poetry I had edited and we had corresponded by email for several months. I drove down to her house in Old Saybrook the day before, and we went out to dinner with her friend and colleague Joe Lea, talking all the time about poetry, about the prison, about our work, Connecticut politics, books and relationships. When we got into relationships, Joe began looking at his watch after all he did have to drive back to Manchester that night and back to the prison the next morning but Im sure he could tell Dale and I were into it for the next few hours. And we were, brought together by our love for the work we do and the commonalties of our lives in other areas.

Dale was the first person I had met who worked with incarcerated women, and it was thrilling to have a colleague at last. We agreed that our own stories pulled us to these women. There, but for the grace of God, go I, she wisely and astutely observed. I had a restless night in her newly redecorated guest room dreaming that her house was full of people, crowding around me, talking, laughing, arguing; however with relief I found a secret top floor, a serene and open room with a blazing fire and a big flokati rug and finally I was able to sink into a deep sleep.

It was against this intense backdrop that I arrived at Niantic the next morning, having carefully followed Dales tan Corolla onto and off route 95. As we drove up to the prison I could feel my indrawn breath again. It looked just like what it was a sprawling series of low gray stone buildings they had a menacing look. I wondered how they appeared to the women who were arriving for the first time. The guards cleared us for entry to park, and then searched my bag and gave me a bright green visitors tag after I signed in. Being with Dale made it easier, I guess. The tall blonde CO who checked me in laughed and joked with usit was 7:30 and the stream of people entering were mostly teachers, obviously known to her.

To enter Niantic one must go through a series of heavy locked doors which slide open when an invisible presence behind a one-way window sees you and pushes a button. The visiting room, a huge cavern full of dark tables and orange chairs, is on the left, empty at that hour of the morning. Then there are more locked doors and hall, a room with those black metal benches screwed to the floor. It all has a sinister feel perhaps the energies of all those inmates who have passed through these doors and inhabit the compound are somehow caught in the stale air, and were crowding around me. I was reminded of my visit to Auschwitz years ago, the saturation of suffering in its brickssomeone has written that birds dont sing at Auschwitz, and Im not sure they would sing at Niantic either.

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©2003 Sharon Charde for SeniorWomenWeb
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