I’m a guest commentator on Vermont Public Radio…and frequently, my commentaries are about the incarcerated women I write-inside with on Thursday nights.
As VPR’s annual commentator luncheon approaches, I had the opportunity to submit a short snippet on the theme, “When Worlds Collide.” I wrote this piece about MG who inspired me one recent writing evening. She’s ‘outside’ now..and I wish her Godspeed. I’ll read this piece at the VPR luncheon on May 19.
This night, my writing circle fans out wider than usual. Twenty-five chairs, arrayed under fluorescent lights, form more of an oval than a circle.
Women of all ages trickle through the steel door. Some are dressed in haphazard sweats and tees; others, put together in cords and clogs. Tonight is “Read-Around Night,” an event for guests ‘outside’ Chittenden Correctional Facility to come ‘inside’ and listen to the writings of these incarcerated women.
The co-mingling of these two diverse worlds often yields something unexpected.
Mimi, as I’ll call her, has been baking in the prison kitchen. Assigned to refreshment duty for the event, this 20-something has prepared mammoth chocolate chip cookies. She enters the room and slips a waxed-paper envelope into my hands. Inside she’s tucked two warm dark chocolate chip cookies, apparently her top-shelf stash. “For your son,” she insists. “Put ‘em away so no one sees ‘em.”
The reading of words begins. Trembling hands clutch bound anthologies as the images and insights contained therein bless listeners’ ears.
Across the circle from Mimi sits her look-alike sister. Earlier in the hallway, I have encouraged ‘Older Sister’ to attend. “Come-on,” I say to her, “be there for your Sis.” Now, Older Sister perches on her seat, her slender frame wracked with anxiety.
Mimi reads in a steady voice: “To be in this world means to suffer,” she begins, “although that suffering is a voyage, and if you learn from it, making yourself stronger and smarter, you become a soldier.” Her words take on new significance. Just that evening, a correctional officer has revealed to me that Mimi’s father got her using drugs as a child.
The Read-Around concludes and dessert is uncovered. Incarcerated women scurry to the spread, groping for cookies. Some stuff their clothes with two, five, too many sweets to count. ..contraband to take back to their units.
Mimi tries to interrupt the madness without success. Her light-blue eyes flash both sadness and rage: “It was a classy night,” she exclaims, “something real and special, but they ruined it acting like typical inmates.” I hear her sense of loss, but am inspired by her yearning for one dignified moment beyond this prison world.