Commentary

Saunders: I’m trying to go to jail – so prisoners will know I care

bsaunders@newsobserver.comAugust 8, 2013 

Man, who knew getting locked up would be this difficult?

For at least the past five years, I’ve been trying to get into the N.C. prison system – not as a guest of the state, but to spend time with some of the souls confined therein.

I’ve called the Department of Corrections and written, at its suggestion, individual prisons, trying to secure an invitation to talk to the dudes behind bars, to teach writing, to help them prepare for when they get out.

In a column this week, I wrote about how Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas meanspiritedly ruled in two cases against prison inmates who’d been brutalized. In one instance, after not disputing that guards had beaten the snot out of an inmate, Thomas said there was no evidence they intended to seriously injure him. He justified his dissenting vote by writing that prisons are, by definition, cruel places.

They don’t have to be. They’re made that way by cruel people. Or by people who don’t care.

Ninety-five percent of prison inmates will eventually get out, and we’ll all be better off if they’ve been armed with something other than a shiv when they do. A Northeastern University study in 2009 showed that one in 10 high school dropouts ends up incarcerated; the rate was one in 35 for high school graduates.

If you’ve got a skill that could be shared, that is a massive captive audience with which you could share it. Speaking up for inmates in a newspaper column is easy; going inside and fellowshipping with them, teaching or providing notebooks and pencils and books and an ear, is not.

Read in the joint

My mission to go behind bars started even before an encounter with Darryl Hunt on a downtown Raleigh street several years ago. Hunt had been freed from prison after nearly two decades for a rape and murder he didn’t commit, and I went up to congratulate him on his freedom and to introduce myself.

“Oh, I know who you are,” he said, his attorneys standing on either side of him. “We used to read you in the joint all the time.”

The irony is as inescapable as death row: someone who spent the first 17 years of his life trying to avoid getting locked up – not always successfully – has spent the past several trying without success to get behind bars. I gave up about a year ago after talking to an administrator at a local facility who dutifully took my name and address and promised to send me an application so they could do the requisite background check.

I’ve heard bupkis since then. Just because I can’t get in, maybe you could make that your feel-good project. Trust me, you will feel good after you go. So will the people you visit.

I visited a pal in a minimum-security prison near Rockingham 30 years ago, just to chat and reminisce, but mainly to let him know that he hadn’t been forgotten. We had been running buddies from first grade, and both of our mothers had died young – when we were young – leaving us with a nebulous but still real anger that had us lashing out at everything and everybody.

Caught up – and caught

Fortunately, for me, I had an extended family, aunts and uncles who took care of me. He didn’t.

The main difference between us, though, honestly, is that he got caught up – and caught. I didn’t.

Nothing memorable was said during my visit, but his parting words remain unforgettable 30 years later. “You’re the first person who ever visited me.”

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2818

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