Flat Stanley is the luckiest piece of cardboard! Every Wednesday night for eight straight weeks she gets to co-conduct a class on communication and leadership for 10-12 inmates at a medium security prison. This is the third group that FS and Richard, a most excellent training partner, have facilitated since last July: About 35 men total.
FS doesn't get to talk about this experience very often because most people have serious issues on the issue of prison. Most people are content with voting for political candidates who whitewash the dynamics of the US justice system by accusing their opponents of being soft on crime. As if being "tough on crime" is synonymous with improving society.
It's like this: You take a man, raise him in a world of skewed social values, bust his sorry ass for pursuing the American dream (happiness), throw him in prison with a bunch of like-minded fellows for several years, then set him loose, refuse to give him a decent job, and expect him to be far better than you, yes, YOU, ever have a hope of being? We on the outside demand that he take on the patience of Job and build a successful life in the face of odds we don't want to admit are there.
So maybe you're thinking that FS must be one of those freakin clueless do-gooder libbrals.
FS ain't stupid, y'all. These guys did the crime and they know it. Fact is, most of them are glad they're only doing time for what they got caught doing. And yah, it's easy for a man to be repentant when he's in prison. Or when he's got jailhouse religion.
FS and partner only know about the men what they choose to reveal in class. There's premeditated murder. Drug trafficking. Probably some spouse abuse. Drug trafficking. Breaking and entering. Drug trafficking. Drunk driving. Parole violation. Concealed weapon. Third strike. Drug trafficking.
Nobody's innocent, and everybody has a story. But what stories they are.
Boys living on the street at age 12. Or earlier. Boys abused by mothers, fathers, and mothers' boyfriends. Boys raised by good parents but choosing bad anyway. Boys following in their father's footsteps. Boys acting out in rage at themselves, at the world. Men acting like the boys they never were. Men following the code of the street.
Men dealing because they think the flash and the cash is what makes them real men. Men using, abusing, hustling for the next fix, the next hit, the next deal, chasing madly for significance. Men leaving despair in their wake and hopelessness for their future. At some point, if they are lucky, they see this.
This is the gift that FS and Richard provide: Once a week for eight weeks of their four, ten, 20, 40-year sentences, if their behavior is noteworthy, if they are in Chaplain C's domain, if they are selected, if the prison can find a room, if FS and Richard don't have a schedule conflict, a class of 10 to 12 men get to spend an hour or two as students. For that time, they get to be men free of their past and hopeful about their future. They are students, exhilarated that their jailhouse dreams of making the world which formed them a better place for their children and childrens' children is taken seriously.
They themselves, however, are the gift to FS and Richard by paying the highest compliment possible: They pay attention. They learn. They resist. They struggle. They think, consider, weigh. They grow. They improve on their ability to articulate their thoughts. They push each other, hone leadership skills, build upon the incredible inner strengths they will need to be as changed outside prison as they are while inside prison.
Again, FS ain't naive. She knows that not all these guys are gonna make it. She knows that the men in her class are heavily pre-screened -- that's the only way FS would have it. Prison is prison for good reason.
But it's nice. Really, really nice, to have this opportunity to see these men, some of whom who have simply screwed up in big ways, some of whom were bad, as in the bad sense of the word, all of whom, at this particular point in their lives, have regained touch with their innate goodness.
That's the part that's exhilarating, the part that FS wants to share with others but cannot because they do not want to hear: So many of those people behind bars? They are human. Nice, kind, thoughtful, caring, human beings.