Welcome to Stories of Good: these are stories submitted by readers to my website. The running theme is goodness found, lost, experienced, witnessed, or discovered. A secondary theme is the theme of place.
Tessara Dudley is a young, Black rights activist who I met through social media. She wrote a stunning essay on being a Black traveler who felt safer in foreign places than in her own city. I was very moved by that piece and asked her to write something for me. This essay on visiting a prison for the first time to attend a poetry reading was the result.
As with all the Stories of Good submissions, I always offer to trade work and I'll be sharing a piece on Black women travelers/writers history has forgotten on Tessara's website later this month. This is a topic--as many of you know--that excites me and I'm very happy to craft this piece for her.
Read on for a few lessons from this young woman whose open heart belied her fears and anxieties about visiting a men's prison for the first time, and who found a lasting good not just inside of herself, but in the inmates she met.
I hit send with some trepidation.
Frightening scenarios float through my head: receiving an email that said I was barred from visiting; getting pulled aside for questioning once I got there; being detained because of something I didn’t know about in some FBI file I never knew existed. Of course, none of these scenarios were actually very likely, but I couldn’t help worrying: it was my first time going to a prison.
In order to visit the Oregon State Penitentiary, I had to email my state ID number, my date of birth, and my full name to the staff advisor of the group we were visiting. I received a confirmation that my background check would be run, and a couple sheets of instructions.
There were so many rules:
no low-cut blouses
no spaghetti straps
no underwire bras
no solid blue clothing
no tight clothing
no sheer clothing
no halter tops
no tube tops
no crop tops
no mini skirts
no controversial slogans
no cell phones
no paper money
bring government-issued identification
The restrictions were intimidating.
Waking early on the scheduled day, I fretted over my clothes for an hour, changing several times before my friend Lesia came to pick me up. The ride down was pretty comfortable: we talked about classes we’d each taken at our university, teachers we liked, and what we wanted our class project to be. I checked the time frequently--we were a little behind schedule. I wasn’t sure if that mattered. I still didn’t know exactly what to expect.
On arriving, we went up the stairs to the visitor entrance: a loud, busy, tiled room filled with children and adults on one side of a metal detector, and tall rows of drab metal lockers on the other. The officer behind the counter looked at our IDs and checked our names off a list. We stood waiting for our names to be called so we could pass through the detector and into the prison.
The corrections officers chatted and joked behind the desk. They reminded each visitor of the rules when they checked in, and made sure they were only taking in items from the approved list. Mothers corralled grumpy children towards uncomfortable chairs. Last names were dispassionately called, signaling the next person could come forward and pass through the metal detector. The walls were white, plain. There were waxy potted plants scattered near the seating area.
It felt like being at the DMV or the food stamps office: uniform, clinical, depressing.
One child kept escaping his older brother and running off. Another gave several piercing shrieks, crying and flailing in his mother’s arms. Two girls elbowed each other when they thought no one was looking. There was a chorus of coughs, and lockers clattered as visitors stashed their belongings inside. Three generations of a single family followed each other through the metal detector, setting their shoes on the conveyor belt, to ride behind bowls of change and wallets through the scanner and be collected on the other side.
Because Lesia and I were going to an event (rather than visiting a single person) we waited with several others until we had a sizeable group. Eventually, we all filed through the metal detector one by one, collecting our things and then trouping down a ramp and through a mechanized gate, which closed ominously behind us. I was glad that I’d remembered to take something for my anxiety before I left my house--even through my medically-induced calm, being shut in by that gate was unnerving.
Each of us checked in on the visitor’s log—writing name, purpose, and time in—before exchanging our IDs for blue plastic visitor’s badges from a guard behind thick glass. The badges had to be clipped onto the left sides of our shirts, and then we were let through another gate into a long hallway. We walked single file to the far end, where we were individually checked off of a list by yet another guard enclosed in bulletproof glass, and buzzed through a final gate.
On the other side of this checkpoint was an open floor, almost a relief after the series of small rooms and narrow hallways we had just come through. Men wearing baggy blue jeans and long blue shirts passed by us, entering and exiting the various doorways that led off of this transition area. Seeing these men in their uniforms, with “INMATE” stamped prominently on legs and shirts, it occurred to me for the first time, rather distantly, that I should probably be afraid of the men incarcerated here. But I wasn’t afraid of them. True, the environment made me nervous, but I was reacting to the overwhelming sense of state control, rather than fear of the men under that control.
The officer guiding our group led us up a flight of stairs directly across from the guard station. We waited at the top for a minute, and then we were let into a large gymnasium, with a stage at one end and several dozen seats set up in rows that faced it. We filed past the guard sitting next to the entrance, and began finding our seats: each of the outside visitors had been assigned a spot in the first two rows. Dez, the MC, came over to tell me I would be reading after Crash; he pointed out a tall, gangly man in bright red jeans, sitting at the other end of the front row.
As we sat there, men came to speak with Lesia about the writing group she usually led there. One of the men brought us each a bottle of water to drink, and a few cookies wrapped in a napkin.
This was the annual Uhuru SaSa poetry share.
Uhuru SaSa, a Swahili phrase meaning “freedom now”, is the name of the African American cultural club at OSP, a place for empowerment and community for Black men doing time. My friend Lesia volunteered with them and I was there at her invitation; she’d heard my poetry in a class we shared previously, and thought of me when she heard about the show. Now, I sat shyly next to her, self-conscious in spite of my anti-anxiety meds, resisting the urge to edit the poetry I’d brought while I waited to perform. In the next fifteen minutes, the rest of the outside guests found their seats, and we were ready to start.
Dez began by thanking and welcoming all of us in the room and talked about the theme for the event: Love and Redemption. It was a theme meant to affirm our humanity and despite incarceration each person present was still a person, worthy of love.
“Who,” he asked, “is willing to set a new tone?”
He left the stage, and a voice boomed from the speakers, rapping about the struggle of incarceration, the difficulty of being a Black man in America. The voice belonged to one of Uhuru SaSa’s members, and his powerful lyrics made me shiver. I felt connected to his struggle, knew that my work against police violence in the months following the murder of Michael Brown were linked indelibly to his freedom. Our resistance to the prison industrial complex looked different, but we were both resisting, both making it through each day in a system meant to destroy us.
When his voice faded, the incarcerated men in the rows of seats behind us cheered loudly. In solidarity, I cheered along with them. Next up was the first of the performers from the "outside." We were a varied bunch: a professor, singers, poets, brought together under the banner of love to share space with one another and the men on the inside. We had talent, but it was plain that many of the men incarcerated here also had vast talent; beauty and imagination came out in the work they performed alongside us. We were together for an hour and a half, swapping strength and soul between us.
It felt powerful.
When the show came to a close, I got a chance to speak with the other performers and some of the audience members. Many of the men I spoke to were shy; they complimented my work, and they expressed awe for the talents of their friends and comrades, and several of them gave me hugs. When the performers were called to the stage for a group picture, the man I was talking to half-joked that we were special—not like him.
When we hugged, I told him that he was the special one.
Dez closed the show with a rap about global struggle, illuminating the connections between fracking, imperialism, poverty wages, police violence, school-to-prison pipelines, sweatshops, LGBTQ rights, bullying, racism, and healthcare access. I listened, recommitting myself to correcting these injustices. It can be easy to get burned out by evil, but going to the Uhuru SaSa poetry share was replenishing me. I realized how the theme of Love and Redemption was timely in not just my life, or these inmates lives but in the lives of all of those people in world struggling right now.
Invigorated by the solidarity with other struggles present--the MC had shouted out about the protestors in Ferguson--I returned home, and wrote this message on Facebook:
"I just got back to Portland from the Oregon State Penitentiary, and I feel revitalized. It was so rejuvenating to be around so many, smart, passionate, thoughtful artists! Both the brothers from the inside and the visitors from the outside brought so much strength and vulnerability and beauty to the space."
Today, I'm so grateful for the opportunity I had to go and share my work with these men and for the gift of their art that they gave me. It was a good reminder of why I write and who I do my work for. I am re-affirmed in my belief that sharing stories makes the world a better place, and today was a perfect example.
It is astonishing to me that a place that is as evil as a prison can hold within it such beauty and truth. The mainstream narrative about incarcerated people paints them all as hard villains, hateful individuals that have to be locked up for the good of society. I’ve always known this isn’t true, but it was different being there. I gave and got so many hugs. I spoke with and was deeply touched by those men. I am intensely grateful for the time I spent with them. The tragedy to me is that so few will be exposed to their voices, and that there are millions like them, condemned to be locked in a box for years.
Their blooms are hidden away.
Sharing that space reminded me to have faith that together we can create a better world, even when things look so dire and dismal, so institutional and grey as the inside of a prison. Like Tupac’s Rose That Grew from Concrete, beauty is waiting to surprise us in the most unlikely of places, if only we are willing to look for it.
Here is Tupac, talking about his life. A perfect end to this piece.
Tessara Dudley lives in the rainy Pacific-Northwest, writing poetry and personal essays from the intersection of a working class Black queer disabled life. She hopes her art will help to build a better world. Her first published piece, an examination of transit and travel as a Black woman, went up on Black Girl Dangerous in 2014. In addition to freelance writing, she recently founded a small press. Tessara can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and http://tessaradudley.com
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