Interactions Between Community Members and the Men Inside
Leaders within the prison population strongly believe in the benefits of bringing members of the outside community into the prison to interact with the men inside. such personal interactions can help to break down barriers and stereotypes between individuals on both sides of the prison walls. Club leaders in particular work with their staff advisors to meticulously plan events involving a wide variety of volunteers, speakers, performers, and guests from the community. once they have developed a plan, the leaders write and submit formal proposals in hopes they will get approval from security staff and prison administrators.
Inviting the Outside Community Inside
Hosting Victim Impact and Community Impact Meetings A number of the prisoner-led clubs invite professors from local universities to bring groups of college students into their meetings. The Lifers’ Unlimited Club, Seventh Step, Toastmasters, and the Asian Club all bring in groups at least once each year. The purpose of such meetings vary: some groups come in for debates, some for community impact meetings, some for victim impact meetings, and some simply for students and prisoners to interact in an honest forum where questions can be asked and answered with impunity.
The meetings with college students help to break down stereotypes for all involved, but especially those associated with prisons, prisoners, and people with criminal histories. These interactions can be extremely valuable for all participants because they help show the college students that prisoners are human beings with many positive characteristics even if they made bad decisions at some point in their lives. From the prisoners’ side of things, social interactions with the outside are highly restricted and can be nonexistent for years on end, especially for lifers. Meetings with college students can provide a valuable opportunity for the men inside to think about and talk about what brought them to prison, perhaps offering new perspectives or new ways to articulate their experience. Further, these meetings may also help current prisoners to realize that college students are not that different from the men inside, and college may be an attainable goal for them as well.
James has been involved in many community and victim impact meetings and meetings with college students. He shares his perspective on why they are worthwhile:
I really enjoy taking part in the discussions with college students because it’s an opportunity to show them that prisoners are human. It seems like every new group comes in with a set of preconceived notions as to who they think prisoners are, and it’s just nice when towards the end of the evening students speak up about the different attitudes they’ll be leaving with. Most people see the nightly news, or their local newspapers, and they’re quick to buy in when they describe us as monsters that deserve nothing more than a dark cell and a lifetime confined to our own thoughts. When these students come in and sit with us, when they ask questions about our lives and learn our stories, they’re able to see the humanity inside each of us. We’re human beings who make mistakes just like everyone else, and that’s easy to forget when most people only see the news highlighting who we were during the worst moments of our lives. We’re fathers, husbands, sons, grandparents, and uncles. We’re poets, business owners, artists, and counselors. We’re responsible for the poor choices we’ve made, we’ll never argue against that, but we’re also capable of some very positive things and I oftentimes think it’s too easy to just throw people away for large chunks of time without putting real thought into it.
Victim Impact meetings are done every year and I’ve had a chance to attend a few of them myself. It’s pretty intense. I’ve had to face the fact that my own actions have had a similar impact on an innocent person and their family. So badly I wish I could apologize and take back what I’ve done. When someone’s right there in your face describing in detail how they were harmed and how it made them feel, how it’s affected the rest of their lives as a result, it really humbles you and makes you realize the scope of your poor choices.
A question I always struggle with is: Do I deserve forgiveness? I’ve worked hard over the last two decades to grow into a better man than I was on that day at age 17, but self-forgiveness is something I struggle with mightily because I never wanted to be a criminal in the first place and I’m horrified that I’m the cause of someone’s death. I didn’t wake up that morning thinking that before the day would end an innocent person would be dead. I was just a naive kid trying a drug for the first time, and I couldn’t handle it. The next thing I knew I was on the nightly news as the latest teenage disappointment. It hurts. It’s something I can’t make better. It’s something I can’t go back and fix even though every ounce of my being aches to do just that.