Here's the obvious: Inmates have a lot of spare time. I advised my mentee to use his (unfortunate) time to his advantage - to continue studying his area of interest (drug & alcohol counseling) and hone his intellectual skills. He wrote back: "I went to the prison library and looked for books on counseling. They were all copyright from the 1800s."
It's not a rumor or a flimsy complaint. State prison libraries are out of date and sparsely stocked, and with cuts in educational programs for inmates, I expect it to only get worse. I decided to do a little more research into this. NYSed.gov has a whole page dedicated to library services in state correctional facilities. While the site makes "general library" services in state prisons sound decent, I know the opposite is true.
The Office of Children and Family Services is currently working on legislation to broaden access to up-to-date literature in their juvenile correction facilities. However, I am not convinced enough is being done to keep state correctional facilities (where, sadly, many juveniles reside as well) current.
With some digging, I found some NGOs that are doing good work in addressing this problem:
While these programs are INCREDIBLE and effective, if we want long-term solutions, states need to get on board with funding facility libraries and more educational programs for prisoners.
Many newly released prisoners struggle with literacy, which narrows their job options and capabilities. Cultivating up-to-date libraries within state prisons and juvenile justice centers would increase literacy, promote educational and career development, and help inmates discover interests and useful areas of study. Allowing inmates to LEARN is yet another critical step toward reducing recidivism.
I made the mistake of reading Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata" on my honeymoon. I have this compulsion to punish myself with "important literature" - maybe it's cleansing to me, like doing squats and pushups while you wait for the pizza to be delivered. Whatever the reason, I still have Catch 22 and 1984 tapping their fingers on my shoulder.
Anyone else who has read this short story, or Tolstoy in general, will see the humor in reading it on my honeymoon. It's all about the unhappiness and immorality of marriage. I have read Tolstoy before, but I never realized he was a hard-lined Christian who believed music was the root of all evil (which, to me, is so outrageous and laughable, given that some of the most beautiful and poetic operas were being written in his time, and today we appreciate 19th century arts as a point of sophistication). Tolstoy didn't even believe sex within marriage was moral, and while he felt women needed to be treated better, he questioned their intelligence and valued their "purity," though they were bound to tempt men. From the beginning of "The Kreutzer Sonata," the narrator is building up an explanation for why he killed his wife - and hint, hint, it has a lot to do with the downfall of her purity.
Needless to say, I was confused about the fate of marriage for several minutes there, and only when I read Tolstoy's epilogue did I remember that he was a conservative cultural critic of his time, and his literature is considered important because it conveys a mindset. This mindset did not come from Tolstoy like some revolutionary spark; his story was the culmination of ages.
Even more unsettling is that his archaic, illogical ideology is not dead. My honeymoon happened to be in Turkey during their elections - so I was reading a lot about the political dynamics with their neighbor Syria, with refugees pouring across the border, and the current situation with the Islamic State. It hits me how closely Tolstoy's values align with those of ISIL, which doesn't permit music and believes that "the beauty of women can hurt her and attract evil" (Perhaps in the way that Tolstoy's character murdered his wife because he got jealous). Extremist religious code is very specific, and it is believed that one moral slip-up like forgetting the directions to your neighborhood mosque will lead to a domino effect of lascivious behavior. Tragically for those living under the Islamic State, one infringement can land you with an eerily unspecific death certificate - which alone reveals the contradictions of using immoral means to enforce an allegedly "moral" doctrine. After reading "The Kreutzer Sonata" and Tolstoy's other stories, I saw a little more clearly what is behind extremists who develop these fearful, moralist views in order to control their wives and preserve the security and privilege of manhood. I could see, too, how women buy into this system; by wholeheartedly believing that their oppression is virtuous, then they might be able to accept or live with their oppression. We're talking both fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam here, and perhaps any other oppressive expression of cultural beliefs that may manifest behind equivocal interpretations of religious texts.
I wish these mindsets didn't exist, but knowing them at least helps reaffirm my own worldview, which is the complete opposite. Don't get too hopeful that these ethos will disappear in our lifetime. Remember Tolstoy's words were expressed 125 years ago, and long before that, and these beliefs still are echoed today. Perhaps it wasn't a "mistake" that I read this short story on my honeymoon in Turkey. Perhaps I read it at just the right time.
It's strange that I started addressing a letter to my mentee's prison when I realized I was using a stainless steel Ritz Carlton pen. Revolting, even, because often, if I'm not feeling guilty for my privilege, I'm repressing it or pretending to reject it. Many Millennials with wealthy families wear this mask; we "hate" our privilege but continue to exercise it on the down low. Yes, I've stayed at a Ritz, which seems to serve a category of 'wealthy' bearing a specific connotation (imagine the stereotypical English drawl: Rupert! Get me another martini and bring it to the poolside. Quickly, dear! And more gin this time. Well, not exactly that...).
There is no way to fully reject the privilege you come from, though. I cannot change my silver tongue or my private education or the color of my skin, nor should I wish to. The pen merely served as a reminder of how easy it is to believe we live in separate worlds from incarcerated individuals, when really we're as close as the address on that envelope.
As a child, I was told that people who wrote to incarcerated men were sick in the head or incredibly lonely. I don't feel I'm either of those things, and I would certainly still be in touch with my mentee if he hadn't recently ended up back in for a parole violation. Still, it feels taboo. I rented a P.O. box for my return address. Some people ask me, "Why go through all that trouble? He screwed up. You're wasting your time..." etc. And I wonder, Why give up on him now, when he probably needs support the most? Can you look back, right now, and capture a moment when someone had compassion for you when you were at your worst? When they saw through your screwup and reminded you that your mistakes don't have to define you? Do you remember your relief?
Still, it must be this belief that we outsiders should not cross into "their world." As if we might catch a contagion and become criminals ourselves. Or as if we are dabbling in darkness. Or playing "white savior." Or getting duped. Or "why care about someone whose life isn't like yours?!" Any number of things. However, I see it as I'm writing a few words of encouragement to a friend, someone who is away for now but will be back in a matter of several months, likely with far less than he has now. I don't pity him, but I understand his circumstances and have seen how hard he worked to try to push past them. I never had circumstances like his.
Last summer, I invited my mentee to my parents' lake house. On the ride there, he admitted, "I had to Google what a lake house is. I don't know what to expect." My mentee frequently opened up to me; he hid a lot of things from the world that I wished he weren't so afraid to share. Conversely, I didn't tell him much about myself until that day, a year after we had been working with each other on a weekly basis. Perhaps I was shielding our differences from him.
"Oh, it's just a regular home but on the lake," I explained, but I instantly felt stupid for simplifying it. I didn't want to act as if a second house is nothing, or that such thing as a "regular" home exists.
I thought it would be nice to show him this beautiful lake, our good barbecue food, and my parents' hospitality. But more than that, I wanted my family to meet him. He was timid and shy - luckily, he brought his rambunctious younger sister along to break the ice - and told me he was worried he'd be judged at every turn. I assured him my family was friendly, but I withheld discussion about what judgements they might hold and who cares. I was proud over how my family made a sincere effort to get to know him and make him feel comfortable and welcomed. Then I misplaced my phone, and my father quietly accused my mentee's 7-year-old sister of taking it. I felt enraged at this ignorance, yet I knew I had to expect that sort of behavior from my father, who is generally always surrounded by people with similar backgrounds and status, similar stories and political views, and anything outside that seems scary and suspicious. I admired my mentee's bravery that day, going somewhere he knew would be a bit uncomfortable - perhaps to be nice, or perhaps to learn about where I came from, or perhaps to simply enjoy it.
My mentee texted me afterwards: Thanks for a great day. Sorry I didn't talk much but I had a great time. I hoped he was being sincere.
I continue to hate the phrase, "We come from different worlds." Sure, it speaks to how our lives can be so different. But we come from the SAME world, and everything we do influences other people, and how we live might determine how others will live, and we all are observing and being observed by strangers with different problems and hopes and beliefs. Our paths intersect constantly - but it's up to us to notice it, appreciate it, learn from it. In the case of my mentee and me, our differences - in how we grew up and the things we each knew and the people who always surrounded us - gives dynamic to our friendship, rather than complication. More people need to pursue friendships where they will learn and expand, rather than just feel comfortable. I'm not here to save my mentee from where he's from or change him to be more like me; I'm here to exchange something rare that continues to help us both grow.
So in this letter to him, gripping the cold steel of my fancy-pen, I write...Just wanted to say hello, you're in my thoughts, and I'll be here for you. I don't want to tell you things you already know, but sometimes it feels good to hear it - you will get through this. You are strong and you will see much better days.
For the past year and a half, I have mentored a young man who spent much of his teenage years serving a prison sentence for arson and assault. He was charged as an adult at age fifteen and thrown into a state facility for five years. In there, he earned his GED, helped run programs in the library, and kept a low profile, one could say.
Psychologists say that when you go to prison at that age, you suffer from "arrested development." You stay in that teenaged state; you don't gain the responsibilities and experiences needed to transition to adulthood. My mentee has had some difficulties maturing - desperate to attain some of the laughter and sense of belonging that comes from being a reckless teen. And a part of him is still a 22-year-old guy, prone to making foolish decisions for the sake of peer approval, or for the sake of just feeling alive. The problem is he has less leeway than his peers who might have generous parents or good lawyers who bail them out of tight spots. One slip up with parole can completely throw him off course.
But his challenges run deeper than that. He comes from a family with criminal records; his brothers taught him to be vengeful; his father questioned his manhood when he wasn't willing to participate in his schemes. His mother scoffed at his choice to go to college when he was released. He inspired me at the way he rose above all this - getting a job, enrolling in school, fighting to see his daughter, taking an active role in his niece's and his sister's lives.
A few days ago, he was thrown back into the system - a mere three weeks before his two year anniversary of "getting out." His mother called me, left a message to call her back. I immediately worried about two possibilities: he was dead, or he had been re-incarcerated. It's unsettling that my mind jumped to these worries. Why should those be the potential outcomes for someone? Why is this a cyclical, acknowledged fate for young people living in poverty?
I guess part of me was prepared for this possibility. Sometimes I saw him spiraling. I knew he violated parole from time to time - drinking with his brothers, staying out past nine. But as a mentor, I can only point out his options and act as a guide. I can't steer him or make choices for him. I couldn't find him the healthy relationships he needed to thrive, nor could I snap my fingers and create a safer community for him to live in.
I am cognizant of the statistics: 70% of offenders will end up back in prison within three years of release, and these are largely due to parole violations. But I didn't think my mentee would become part of this stat. The odds were stacked against him, but he was one semester away from earning his Associate's Degree in Counseling. He had held a job down for a straight year, despite a horrendous commute and the fact that it completely bored him. He was gentle, smart, driven, compassionate, and would give the shirt off his back to a stranger on the street.
He was caught for drunk driving - not just a crime but a violation of his parole. He was sentenced to nine months. (He is 100% responsible for his poor choices, but just consider...how many people do you know who have had DUIs and gotten off with a mere fine? More than I can count). This is just before the end of his semester. Just before his summer internship. Just in time to alter his future in a big way. I don't think prison is the right answer for him right now; another spot on his record will make it even more difficult for him to find his way. The systems in place do not rehabilitate, and he will be even less prepared for the world when he gets out. Some say prison is good at creating better criminals, not better citizens. I hope that's not true for my mentee, but I know that the situation is grim.
I don't know what alternatives our society could create to make stories like this have a happy ending. I guess that's why I'm trying to get my Master's in Criminal Justice. For now, though, I just need to share this story so people can get a glimpse into this reality and realize it is the reality of many. If there were some way to change it, why wouldn't we?
Katherine Russell is an author, poet, activist, and freelancer from Buffalo, NY.