The muted colors of stone, the horizontal lines of the walls, and the straight walkways are calming as I pass through the middle of the prison complex. The housing units and yards are to my left; the chapel, school areas, and State Use, where prison clothing is made, are to my right. Because it’s count time, the complex is empty. Seagulls soar overhead, and I can see low-flying planes landing and taking off from a nearby airport. I wonder if these are especially difficult sights for those not yet used to imprisonment and for those whose sentences stretch long in front of them.

Inside the buildings, the officers are behind plexiglass. They let civilian staff proceed through heavy doors by buzzing them open. Not buzzing is an easy way to badger a person who has become annoying, though sometimes the officers are just not alert. It must be a boring job, watching constantly for someone to arrive and to buzz them through.

As a teacher, I pass through five of these doors in the morning to get to my classroom. The definition of maximum security is seven locked doors between a man in his cell and freedom, and this is a maximum security prison.

I worked in the system for five years, left for five years, and then returned to the classroom in 2000. Below are excerpts based on my journal; the first ones from the earlier period, when there was less overcrowding and a more relaxed administration, and the later ones from the last two years.

Diamond is the barber. He’s the one who has created the words and designs I see on the backs and sides of the heads of prisoners with new haircuts. The corners around the letters in FREEDOM are crisp. When the back of a man’s thick neck wrinkles, as happens with the necks of stocky men, FREEDOM wrinkles too.

One afternoon as I was leaving, I sensed a presence, turned, and there was Diamond, breaking a rule to be there at the classroom side of this building segment. With sheets of notebook paper in his hand, he asked me if I would listen, and then he read a very long poem. It rhymed and was about freedom and love and the world.

The day before he left, Diamond clasped my hand in this place where any physical contact is a mild defiance of the rules. He was an enormous man, and his hand swallowed mine. "Goodbye," he said. "Good luck," I said.

Mr. McCory, a smart and funny man, came to class but did little work. We developed a good-humored riff; my part was to urge application of his mind to academics and even a plan to aim eventually at college work, and his part was to dodge and challenge me with smart and funny replies. One day, just before class, he burst in, got on one knee in front of me, and clowned a proposal. "Get out of here, McCory," I laughed. "Cut it out." Then he did it again a few minutes later.

By the time I figured out that he was trying hard to get me to write a charge, he was in administrative segregation ("ad seg") for making liquor in his cell. McCory’s sentence to "the hole" was more than a year because he kept compounding his offense with noncompliance with this and that. I brought books to ad seg for him; you could do that at that time. Some officers would even unlock the cell doors.

Men got written up for breaking rules. After a hearing, they might be sentenced to ad seg, a prison within a prison, in a building to itself with a large central atrium surrounded by tiers of cells.

Everything is metal and sounds echo. Each cell has a solid door. To the right of the door, at waist height, is a slot where food is delivered. By crouching down and bending his head sideways, a man can look out the slot, and call out from it. When I went to see McCory, I would see a row of the horizontal faces of locked-away men. They asked for things, mainly things to read, or for me to deliver a message to a friend who was in school. There was no discourtesy to me, though officers often warned me that there would be.

McCory told me that his mother had died. Not long before, there had been deaths of other family members. Over the course of a few meetings, I came to understand that he wanted his external environment to match his internal landscape of grief. He sought the prison within the prison.

Sometimes we had smart young men who would not humble themselves to become unnoticeable, to follow orders, and to put up with the countless irritations of prison without a comment. They saw themselves as warriors ready to fight. They always got locked into ad seg. They didn’t know yet that impersonal institutional procedures could not be fought the way you would fight a human enemy. They might come out of ad seg after months or, in some cases, years, sometimes very quiet. We also had several young students who blossomed in school, and forgot how to be careful and humble. They, too, landed in ad seg.

In some, mostly older men, I came to recognize a deep patience that I’ve never known in anyone outside of prison.

I was given a purse made from Pall Mall cigarette pack wrappers. They were carefully, sharply folded, then woven into an intricate design. Inside the purse the craftsman left several of the red and white Pall Mall strands intertwined to show the method.

The old, white-haired prisoner who gave me this gift was not my student. I only said hello to him, as I would to anyone else, and once in a while I listened to try to make out what he was saying and respond.

He was always bowing. His clothes were large for him and his movements were servile, like someone from a Dickens novel. He would insistently try to talk to the teachers, and my supervisor spoke to him as if he were a child. He had been in prison a very long time; I don’t know his crime.

Joseph was a middle-aged man who mopped the floors after classes were over. He had been a career burglar. He said that if he stood on the walls of the prison, he could see his house, where his wife and children were living.

One day after classes, a different man was doing the mopping. I didn’t see Joseph for weeks. Then he was back again. "What happened?" we asked. All the teachers liked Joseph.

He explained that the new officer assigned to the area had an attitude. Joseph knew how to become unnoticeable when any kind of tension was in the air. In the case of this new officer, he’d decided that short range invisibility was not sufficient; he needed to arrange to stay out of the area altogether until the tension abated.

Many of the men had learned how to become unnoticeable; it’s a matter of positioning, posture, and stillness. The tendency of some officers to categorize prisoners as barely being people aids them in achieving invisibility.

Mass Movement is when men can walk from housing units to job assignments, to school, to programs, or to chapel. All movement is theoretically under control of the officers, but officers and prisoners are people, therefore variable. A prisoner’s goal is more movement, more places to be. When there is less staff, or when staff is busy or lazy, then prisoners have more of an opportunity for movement. Skill in being "invisible" helps; a prisoner simply goes from one place to another not noticed by anyone: the library, the barber shop, classrooms with computers, the kitchen. This small freedom of movement may afford a little comfort, a little occupation, maybe some extra food, maybe a conversation with someone who is not an officer and not a prisoner.

By the year 2000, a new superintendent had come in. There had been a gang fight in the cafeteria during which several officers were injured. The incarcerated population also had risen. Everything was tighter and harsher. Movement was much more controlled and restricted; invisibility no longer worked.

P. is from Trinidad. He had his own boat and was a diver and an underwater welder. Once in a while after class, he draws the tropical ocean on the blackboard, with a small island, a smaller boat, and a tiny diver under the sea. P. is remarkable in that, despite the light brown, ill-cut regulation clothing, an ever-present sign of the status of inmate, he avoids both the obvious and subtle distortions of relationship that generally happen between prisoners and staff members. He never asks for small favors, like a pen or extra paper. He’s neither subservient nor swaggering. In his prison job, assisting in the Education Department, he’s especially good at counseling students whose cynicism, fear, or hopelessness get in the way of learning.

H. is 45 years old, a very dark-skinned bullet of a man who has been in prison for a while. He increased his family’s income (he has a wife and six kids) by selling drugs. When he began in my class, he wouldn’t look at me, and I noticed his speech was a little indistinct. He had a third-grade reading level and handled questions about text by picking out some exact words that addressed it. Over a year and a half, he learned to read proficiently and write, and fell in love with words. It began with reading, and for almost a year he wouldn’t write anything nor would he speak out in class. Now, his is a reliable class voice for morality and realism. He told me recently that he was on the phone with one of his sons, who said that he liked very much what his Daddy had written to him. H. told me he started crying on the phone. Here are some of H.’s words:

I have only just begun. There’s no stopping me. My whole life has changed since my priorities are in the right direction. Don’t stop the education process. If you can dream it, you can become it.

M. is half Roma and half Italian. He told me that whenever anyone in his family is in prison, the family only tells them the good news, since there isn’t anything the incarcerated family member can do about bad news anyway. So he knows he will not get any bad news until he is released.

"It’s the small things you miss in prison," he says, and mentions the pleasure of stopping by the corner store, picking up a candy bar, or just taking a walk. "I just want to get home to my wife," he says, and adds, "It doesn’t matter what she looks like. We’ve been married 22 years." M. has the most compassionate voice in the class. About a very supercilious, cold, and angry student, a student of very average ability, a student I was advised by almost everyone to throw out of class, he said, "He just wasn’t loved enough when he was a kid."

"Fellas," M. begins when he talks to the class, "You know I can’t read. But I’m working at it, and all of you should take this opportunity to learn." M. is dyslexic, and for him, printed words are slippery and inconstant. Yet he can write, and he writes letters to his wife in class. These are far from "correct." He gently informs me that editing is unnecessary as his wife knows how to read them. His wife has liver cancer. His parole date, the date he can leave, has passed and still he’s incarcerated and his wife is dying. Writing messages, seeing the ombudsman, writing to his family—nothing works. Weeks pass. When he stops getting visits and letters from his family, he kind of knows. To get information he phoned an acquaintance, saying, "Hey, I’m coming over to see you." The man replied, thinking M. had been released, "I’m sorry about your wife." That’s how he came to know of her death.

M. showed me photographs of his grandchildren before he finally left. He recommended a palm reader, too, who was his cousin and, he said, the niece of the gypsy king.

The delay in M.’s release was because a clerk had mistyped the street number of his address, and that mistyped number designated a vacant lot which parole would not approve as an address. It’s not infrequent that clerical errors have major impacts on prisoners’ lives.

Prison staff, teachers as well as officers, are encouraged to presume that men are lying. We are cautioned to avoid being manipulated. All of us have enormous power over men whose freedom has been taken away and whose identities are systematically discredited. Only once in over six years did I hear that one must be wary of the misuse of this power.

V. is a boy in his early 20s, with dark eyes and a gentle manner, facing 15 years in prison. We did a lesson on constellations. It is something a man can teach his son or daughter. Knowing the distances to stars, you know that your eyes are taking you far, far away from the confinements of the walls. V. spends time poring over that page in the large atlas in our room.

R. was locked up at 17 and is now 23, and he’ll be 39, he tells me, when he is released. He was a disruptive kid, always in "lock-up," he tells me, but he comes to class every day, sometimes twice, and works. He’s bright, in my opinion, but utterly uneducated. The other day he was loud and a little raucous, and wouldn’t stop, so I sat between him and another student with some paperwork that had to be done.

"I’m going to get myself locked up," he told me.

"Don’t," I said.

"Why not?"

"It’s not good for you," I replied.

"How do you know that?" he said. "You’ve never been locked up. You go home every day."

I didn’t know, really, and admitted it. Then he told me that being locked up in solitary (which is 23 out of every 24 hours and no TV) was hard, but that you could get somewhere with it. "You find yourself by yourself," he said.

Here are some of R.’s written words:

I have an important dream about helping kids so that they don’t mess their life up like I did at the age of 17 years old. My dream is to go home and keep the little kids off the street all the timeth. The street will catch you up in the game—thinking it’s all good to walk around with a gun or walk around selling drugs and robbing people. Just to get a name. I thought it was cool to rob people, hurt people. . . . Now I have 25 years with 85 percent [mandatory service before release] for not having the understanding to what I was doing. And now I hope and pray that the younger youth don’t get caught up.

I have not been the victim of my students’ crimes. Some men, like R., openly speak or write of them. Others don’t. Of those who claim innocence or describe being railroaded, some speak truthfully, and some, I’m sure, do not. With any given person, I never know for sure what happened.

I could go on and on, multiplying the number of these small portraits. Every day in our classroom, against the backdrop of the prison, the men’s humanity shines out.

Mary Grace Larsen

Mary Grace Larsen is a member of Montclair (N.J.) Meeting. © 2002 Mary Grace Larsen