When we choose to pay attention to our heart, our inner sense of self, and our emotions of love, the universe listens and often sends messages of affirmation. Last weekend, I spent 3 days and 3 nights in 3 cities: 2 film screenings, 2 lectures, 3 social dinners, and 2 prison visits. Big events in big cities. But the biggest events in my mind were my prison visits which took place in a tiny prison town 2 hours south of Dallas – Tennessee Colony, Texas (population 300). The town is home to 5 state prison units – Beto, Coffield, Gurney, Michael, and Powledge.
One loved one, like a little brother to me, incarcerated at the Michael Unit, finally got parole approved (after 11 rejections) last month! He’s done 26 years, sentenced at age 18 for a crime he foolishly committed at 16. We are thrilled to have him come home soon, hopefully this June when he completes his reentry courses. While he was incarcerated, he earned 2 associates degrees and is ready to find work to be a productive member of society. I am so excited he will get a new chance at life after receiving a life sentence when he barely turned 18 years of age. He will have challenges, but his determination is evident, and we are here to support him all along the way.
My other loved one, an old flame, my first love, is at the Beto Unit, having served 22 years so far of a 60 year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Wrongful convictions of vulnerable and/or indigent people are common. Heartbreaking, to say the least. When I learned of his sentence, he was 24 and I was 23. I cried for a long time. His family cried then and still cries now. On occasions when I feel melancholy, I still cry. The pain of a wrongful conviction never heals. We just do what we have to do to endure. For a long period of time, we lost touch – he withdrew into his prison life, and I forged on with my own path in life that required me to shed my old life, which meant shedding my old associations. Seven years ago, his sister reached out to me and encouraged me to write him. I was scared. I didn’t know what to write. As a foolish person, I only thought of myself, and not of him. His sister told me, “He would be so happy to hear from you.” But so many years had passed. Even though he crossed my mind now and then, it was always sad thoughts. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to be sad. I let the catchphrase of “the past is the past, leave it there” control my attitude. So I didn’t write him.
In the last several years, I returned to the roots of my past, revisiting memories of the experiences and the kinds of people who are a deep part of who I am – they are what I am grounded in. In the last several years, I had the opportunity to participate in social activism against the injustice of private prisons. I had the opportunity to mentor and support formerly incarcerated students on campus. I had the opportunity to learn from my students and my colleagues that I can revisit my past as a way to heal, rather than a pathway to pain and suffering. When we screened the film, “Life After Life”, I embraced the hopes and wishes for those who have been in for so long. And finally, it was through my memoir writing last year that I decided to write him again. When I was forced to confront my past in order to write about it, the memories and emotions were so powerful that I felt the need to reconnect. And so I wrote him. And he wrote me back. The first line of his first letter, “It is funny how your letters always seem to find me in the darkest places of my life, as I always hoped that you would write me eventually one day.” We have resumed our friendship and our connection, and it is a beautiful thing. One of the most beautiful things I have in my life right now.
It is not often that I get a chance to visit, but when I do, I walk away with the kind of gratitude that is rare. As I hustle and bustle through life, time is something I know is valuable. But the time that you get during a prison visit, believe me, you truly understand that it’s fucking valuable. The first time I visited, I was surprised how scared I was when driving up to the unit. The chain linked fence, the big concrete walls, the barbed wire on top of the walls, the large bright lights, and of course, the tower with the guard and the gun. Very intimidating. After going through the security measures, I sat in the visitation room waiting for him to arrive. As he walked out the door and along the corridor, I saw him through the glass – it was bizarre that I felt so happy and also utterly devastated at the same time. Happy to see him after over two decades had passed, and devastated that he had spent that time locked up for something he didn’t do.
There is no doubt that the time we get to visit is precious. When the guard comes by to tell you there’s 5 minutes left, time becomes even more treasured. It is bittersweet. Saying good bye makes me sad, so I say “Until next time.” And so, last weekend, we said “Until next time,” and I left the Beto Unit feeling happy and devastated.
I had to grab a quick fast food lunch to make it in time for my Sunday evening film screening in Dallas. I decided on Burger King – a nostalgic joint, the choice of my childhood meals when my parents wanted to treat us to something nice. As a small framed kid, I was always proud I could finish a whole Whopper. I ordered a Whopper and onion rings because I never liked their fries. As I savored my rare fast food meal, I thought of the resilience of my loved one who is incarcerated with no parole eligibility for another 8 years.
During our visit, he was cheerful, positive, and philosophical. He seemed lighthearted, asked questions with depth, and responded to my questions with the kind of answers that left me in awe of his worldliness. How could someone who has been trapped inside prison walls for so long have such a broad and deep lens on the world outside of this concrete hell? The answer is that he reads. A lot. I reflected on his circumstance, and I thought to myself, “How he has been able to maintain such a grateful disposition and hopeful heart?” To survive a maximum security unit, he is sometimes forced to embody a hardened persona, being entrenched in the harshest and most violent conditions as an inmate at one of the toughest units in the state. Yet, after all these years, he can still express love, kindness, generosity, and gratitude to his family and loved ones. Rather than choose darkness and hate, he chooses love and hope. I am in awe of his strength and courage. And so, I learn from him and am reminded from him, that I choose love and hope for myself and everyone else. And especially, I choose love and hope for him, too, even though his circumstance is bleak. If he is ever released, he has a detainer for deportation. The current administration is determined to deport him. In one of his writings, he expresses his plight, “I am terrified to think that my family escaped Vietnam only for me to return there almost 50 years later, in handcuffs. I hope the land of my father feels that I am redeemable. But to be honest, anywhere is better than to live without hope and the feel of sunshine on my face.” No matter where he is or will be, I will always love and have hope for him. This small prison town made me sad, but his ability to have perpetual love and hope reminds me to do the same. When I stared at the pile of onion rings I had remaining, I noticed that the universe was listening to my thoughts and expressing the essence of his being. In the pile of mostly circle shaped onion rings were 2 that looked like this… Love, Forever.
2 thoughts on “Love, Forever… In A Tiny Prison Town”
The onion rings is a fitting end to yet another poignant portrayal of life – how we need to treasure it while we are above ground. Five days a week, I walk into prison to work. Often I wondered what these offenders did to be here and how many among them were wrongly convicted. I have often wanted to write about life in prison – from the offenders’ perspective. But I guess I don’t know how. As usual, your piece is amazing doc. You are simply the best.
I am simply in awe every time I read your words!! Thank you for sharing with us on such a deep and personal level! What a gift the universe left for you out of onion rings. ❤