In 2016, I went up to the Lane Murray Unit every week to facilitate Truth Be Told (TBT)’s Talk To Me Writing curriculum. Why? Well, full disclosure, I was drafting a novel about a young woman who goes to prison for thirty years and I thought doing service work with TBT would be a great way to do research. It was, but little did I know that I would fall in love (read: build unforgettable relationships) with the these women. When December came, the women couldn’t believe that Carol Waid would move on to other classes and that we would leave them. One of the women looked at me and said, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t know. Like them, I felt bereft but I also knew that I couldn’t maintain a weekly eight hour commitment. Someone said, “What about a monthly, on going, support group?” They looked at me, “Could you lead it?”
A few weeks later, the warden okays our monthly class, and we call it Pay It Forward. Over the coming year, the women and I develop the class. It becomes one part support group, one part teaching, and a whole lot of exploring what works. No matter what we do, we follow TBT’s principles of community building, communication skills, creativity and self-care.
I went behind the fence last night to start our monthly class. In answer to the question: What does ‘pay it forward’ mean to you? One woman said, “What I put in my life gets reflected out.” And then we talked about kindness. How to give and receive kindness. We agree to think about kindness for the month: to observe kindness in themselves and others and notice when they give and receive acts of kindness even if it’s as small as smiling or holding a door or letting something go when you might have reacted. Yeah, paying attention to kindness this month. (January)
Next month, one of the women said, “You know, kindness in here can get you a case. When we do something nice for someone else. Like give them a bar of soap, it’s called “Trafficking and Trading. We aren’t supposed to give what we have to anyone else.” Another woman chimed in, “I think it’s human nature to want to be compassionate. But in here, we have to stop ourselves. We have to work against our nature. When we get out, it’s hard to be compassionate again. It’s like we have to fight to get ourselves back.” (February)
A lot of women in the class are seeing parole right now. Seeing parole means an inmate meets with a parole secretary for an interview. That secretary makes a recommendation to the parole board. A few weeks later, the inmate hears if they’ve made parole or gotten set off for another year or more. One woman in our group received parole and will be out in December after serving fifteen years of her eighteen year sentence. There are many restrictions and stipulations to her release. Some of them are hard and made her angry. She was having trouble focusing on the good thing that just happened until one woman leaned forward and said, “You have no idea of the blessings and gifts ahead of you. Yeah, it’s gonna be hard. But there will be blessings ahead. You need to remember that or you’re gonna miss them.” The student becomes the teacher. (April)
Over the past month there have been more than a few deaths at Lane Murray. One woman had a seizure and died in her bed. Three women committed suicide. One woman attempted suicide. Each death hits the women hard. As soon as our circle forms, they begin to talk: “When you first come in here, people outside write and visit but after a while they stop and it feels like you’re forgotten. It’s hard. You want to give up.” “We try to take care of ourselves. We try to stay well. But when you have something wrong, the nurses act like you’re a burden.” “It’s scary when you need medicine because you don’t know if you’re going to get it and you don’t know if they will adjust the dosage if you need it.” “It feels like it’s too much trouble to care about us.” (May)
The leader of this week’s class asked us to think about what kind of animal we’d like to be and why. Here are some of the women’s answers. “An eagle because they are freedom;” “A Red Bird because they are supposed to be lucky and I could use a little luck;” “A lemur because this place is a jungle;” “A monkey because I like to play;” “A chameleon because they blend in and no one bothers them;” “A skunk because everyone is respectful of them and keeps their distance.” (September)
This week’s class is led by a woman who is serving a 90 year sentence. She won’t see her first parole hearing until 2031. She is 52. Her homework for us this month was to think about “Why are you thankful?” Not: what are you thankful for but why. She wrote a long speech. This is how it began: To be thankful is power. (November)
Okay, so you’ve got to get this: The warden gives us permission to bring in Pizza Hut pizzas and chocolate chip cookies for an end of the year celebration. We forego the usual opening meditation and dig into the mini celebration of having food from the free world behind the fence.The women are talking about their Christmas, secret Santas, presents of gumbo packets made from commissary food (Yeah, that’s a post for another time) and what the women want to do in the next year of classes. It was so normal, you know? Just a bunch of women sitting around talking. I ask who would like to be the leader of the January class and the hand of one of the shyer women shot up. We were all a little surprised but it seemed like a little gift, right? We’re all smiling. So I ask her, “What’s our homework for the month?” Without hesitation (like she’s been waiting all month), she says, ‘If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?” Without missing a beat, another woman says, “Don’t pull the damn trigger.” We all fall on the floor, laughing. (December)
And what did I learn from this year of leading Pay It Forward? That Paying it Forward is about service. And real service is about showing up no matter what. At some point during the year, I realized that my vision for Pay It Forward is that I never want to see these women’s faces again. Strange, yes? My vision for this class is to never see their faces behind the fence again.