On a Friday morning early in 1986 in Wisconsin’s maximum-security prison at Waupun, a new man fidgeted in the back row of my writing class. A white guy in his mid-twenties, he looked very uncomfortable. He said his name was Jim and he wanted to write about some funny things that had happened to him. Walter and Davey and some of the other guys said they liked humor, Brian, the thoughtful guy, just smiled. I asked Jim if he had something he’d like to read.
“Well, I got this story about how me and some buddies blew up an outhouse.”
“All right, let’s hear it,” Walter said. “Was anybody in it?”
Jim started to read, tentatively at first, as if he wasn’t sure how he would be received, but in a few minutes we were all laughing. His facial muscles relaxed and he stopped fidgeting. The guys gave him a round of applause at the end and then he read a story about how his buddies dared him to jump from a high bridge near Madison.
He sat down and participated in the rest of the class with enthusiasm. I wondered at the dramatic change from nervous squirming to active participation. When class was over, I pulled him aside. “What do you do around here? Your job? Your activities?”
“Nothing. I hate this place.”
“I mean what do you do all week?”
“Nothing. I sit in my cell. Sometimes I write.”
“You don’t leave your cell, even when you can?”
“Your family, do they come to see you?”
“Those stories you read – they were great. Ever think of writing about this place?”
Jim sneered. “I hate this place. I can’t wait to get out of it. I don’t want to even think about it, much less write about it. I write about happy times from my past life.”
Writing was important to Jim, but not politics and not prison reform. How did this fit into my crusade for prison reform?
The guard cleared the classroom and ended our conversation.
Jim came to class every week. At least he got out of his cell for that. He differed from Brian in most respects. Brian approached everything seriously, while Jim loved fun. Brian wrote essays, Jim wrote humor. Brian hid his inner feelings, Jim’s were right on the surface.
I started to visit Jim on occasional Sundays. He was soon transferred to a medium security prison and I followed him there for a Sunday visit. This institution provided a lunchroom inside – and a picnic ground outside – for visits. The atmosphere led to more relaxed visits than at the maximum prison at Waupun. My family joined me as well. My son, 14, and my daughter, 12, loved Jim’s stories and our visits flew by. I remember one Sunday my daughter was so entranced with Jim’s humor that she took out her retainer to eat a candy bar and left the retainer on the table. When we got back to our car, she reported it missing. I dreaded the thought of going back in to the guard house and explaining what had happened, but I did. Luckily the guards on duty understood and I didn’t have to sort through too much garbage to find the retainer.
Was it wise to take my children into prison? I don’t know, but I know that today they both stand up to the mindless comments one often hears about crime and criminals.
Through my visits I learned a lot about Jim. He, like Brian, came from a home where he was abused. He felt a strong sense of shame about where he was, so much so that I began to suspect it was he who told his family not to visit him there. I think he hated himself, too, and covered it up with his constant joking.
I never asked about his crime and he never volunteered the information, but he did tell me he had a cocaine addiction.
He continued to write humor and I encouraged him. I visited him on a few Sundays for about a year and then one day he was gone, sentence over. Like so many others, I never saw him or heard from him again. But I understood. Jim hated prison and anything to do with it. Unfortunately I was part of that past, a past he wanted to forget.
Do you think it was wise of me to take my children into a medium security prison?