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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Lessons from Prison

I was in a prison this morning. It was for the Children's Literacy Foundation, where I work. We have a program called Children of Prison Inmates that, among other wonderful things, involves us leading seminar discussions with inmates about reading and connecting with their kids. After each seminar, the parents choose new books for their kids (or grandkids, nieces, or nephews). This week, I'll help our volunteers process and mail each book, and we'll smile over the sweet notes written in them.

Today I was there with author/storyteller Marv Klassen-Landis, who told a hilarious rendition of "Lazy Jack" to 50 inmates to model ways to get kids excited about stories. After helping these fathers find the perfect books for their kids (I recommended a Llama Llama book to one guy, who was STOKED when I told him about this.), they had a count and everyone went back to their blocks, except for the two volunteer inmates who were helping us. One of them was telling me how proud he was of his son in the Marines when a guard came up, looking somber (are they allowed to look any other way?).

He turned to the Family Connections Center coordinator and said, "We're in full lock-down."

"Are you fucking serious?" she replied. Apparently this doesn't happen often. The guard and employee talked in the hall while Marv and I waited with the volunteers, who rolled their eyes at the inconvenience.

"It's too bad," they agreed, that the other 66 inmates who'd signed up for seminars and to get free books for their kids wouldn't have the chance. All programming cancelled for the day. The guard didn't know how long the lock-down would last.

"Three main things that cause a lock-down," one of the volunteers said, "a medical emergency, someone got stabbed or something, or somebody start a fight, like, 'he hit me' or whatever." He shook his head. He's been coming to our seminars for years.

The volunteers had set up the books, organized by reading level. They'd even made signs to categorize the books by age group. They put hand-outs of tips for reading and telling stories to kids on each brightly-colored plastic seat in the Family Connections Center. They handed out the forms each inmate had to fill out and collected special request forms for particular books. One guy asked me if he could get a book on the women's world cup for his niece, who plays on two soccer teams, and I directed him to the volunteer, who showed him the right form to fill out. Both of the volunteers seemed a little disappointed that the day had taken a turn for the worse. One of them told me that he'd been coming for several years and, even though his son is now grown up, he still comes to help other guys get books for their kids. He tells me how special it was for his son to get a book from him, that he'd picked out special and written a note in. "That's something he'll keep," he says.

I had many fewer boxes of books than expected to load into my car once I was ushered out three hours earlier than scheduled. The place had been eerily quiet. I walked into the bright day and thought about getting a coffee, whether I wanted hot or iced, as the heat had gone up considerably since I'd gone in and I had to take off my cardigan. The privilege in that sentence is pretty stark, considering the situation. I got to leave, go home, or drive wherever I wanted; Marv had brought hiking gear, just in case, and was going to scope out the White Mountains. I could go buy a coffee, hot or iced, or just about anything I had a craving for (that could be found in rural New Hampshire, granted). I got to roll the windows down and turn the music up. I got to go home to my dogs and turn on the TV. I made it home with plenty of time to spare to get to my weekly pick-up soccer game. I didn't know what the men who'd helped us were doing.

The only night I've ever spent in custody was in the police barracks of the Brussels-Charleroi airport when I was 21. I was stopped on my way from Shannon, Ireland because my Czech student visa had recently expired. My study-abroad program in Prague had just ended. I spent a week in the city with my mother and grandmother, then another week traveling around Ireland with my aunt, her partner, and her mother. I knew Americans didn't need a visa to just travel most of Europe, and I had (vague) plans to do just that for the summer. I had a ticket from Heathrow to JFK the following month, and planned to Couchsurf my way to London. I had a 3-euro deposit down on a hostel room in Brussels for the night I landed, but instead I ended up sleeping alone in the women's barracks before catching the first flight back to Ireland.

They'd stopped me at customs in Brussels, examined my passport carefully, then asked me to step aside. I spent the next few hours in a white room with scuff marks on the walls, trying to explain in my high school French why I'd had to get my Czech student visa in Dresden, Germany, while I was already studying, instead of getting it before I came to the country (short answer: I was in North Africa the previous semester. Not sending passport anywhere.). They didn't like that I was still in Europe two weeks after my program ended. When the official decision to reject me finally came in around two a.m., I begged them to let me use their computer (pre-iPhone days) to book the first flight home from Ireland. They agreed and I cleared out my bank account to book a flight from Dublin to JFK the next morning. I'd figure out how to get back to Vermont once I arrived in New York.

I rode in a POLICE van with just one other passenger, an Arabic-speaking middle-aged man in a suit. The light over the fields was muted, pre-dawn. It was the only view of Belgium I got. We got to a lonely brick building and had to go through security again before I was led down a long hallway to a room with a bunk bed and bottled water on a table. I didn't touch it. I lied down on the bottom bunk but never closed my eyes, staring at the blinking red light on the viddeo camera in the corner. Lights were still on in the hallway. Imagine having to stay here, I thought, not knowing when you'd be released. I knew I was going back to the states the next day, although it still didn't seem real. I wouldn't feel safe until I was back in my parents' house.

A few hours later, the same van took me back to the airport, where the plane had to be "locked down" before it could be boarded, my passport secure in a box held in the cockpit. I had to be escorted across the tarmac by guards carrying AK-47s before anyone else could board. I felt the stares of a plane-ful of confused passengers watching the American girl in an over-sized Irish wool sweater and aviator sunglasses with a hiking backpack board the plane. By the next night, I was home in Vermont in my bed.

As I write this, I am very aware that it's just dripping with privilege; I guess that's what I'm trying to say. I see my privilege. It was very evident to me today, walking through prison hallways, stepping out into the sun while whatever-was-going-on-back-there unfolded. I was embarrassed by my privilege when my one experience being forcibly held somewhere came to mind, as it seemed so clear to me that a minor inconvenience/adventure is not at all comparable to actual incarceration, being separated from your children for many months or years. To have had your son grow up away from you, to be grateful to send a book home now and then, knowing that even that could disappear at any moment.

I'm trying to call myself out. I see how my life looks to a parent in prison, whose one connection to his kid might be sending a book home once in a while, and who today didn't even get to do that.* It doesn't feel like enough, but I look forward to reading those notes that their kids will hold close.

*Don't worry! I'm pretty sure we're going to let everybody who signed up and didn't get to come choose an extra book next time! Happy Ending. Sorta.

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