This I Believe

Erin - Galloway, New Jersey
Entered on February 16, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50

This I Believe Essay

I believe we are defined by the things we claim as our own and yet can also be overwhelmed by them.

I discovered this when I began to teach anger management at the local county jail. Each week I would bring box after box of pens because I recognized how coveted they were. Even if I had given a pen to an inmate the week before, they requested another. I soon realized that these small things – pens, envelopes, pads of paper, folders – were important commodities in jail. With the amount of time that is filled with writing in jail, one pen doesn’t last long. Also, these bits and pieces, which often cost less than fifty cents at the local office supply store, could be traded for a slice of bread, an orange, and of course, a particular favorite – a peppermint.

After awhile I began to worry that these small comforts – which were such minor objects to be community property — left on an office counter, given out by most banks –were actually a burden to my students. These desirable items couldn’t be protected and secreted forever – they were often stolen, bullied away from an inmate, or confiscated during a random contraband raid.

The more I considered this, the more I realized that this is a situation most prisoners negotiate regularly. Many claim and cling to their families, desperately needing them and yet are overwhelmed by how little they can impact or share in decision making.

In my local county jail, rent is $50 per month. Since only a very few privileged are in work pods, most have to rely on their families to pay their rent. I once asked, “Why not just let the rent go?” – there are many ways to expend energy when you’re locked up. But the inmates told me that nothing can be bought from the commissary without the rent being paid first. If a girlfriend or mother takes $100 of her income to put on an inmate’s “books,” as their accounts are called, $50 of it automatically goes to the rent for the month. The remaining money can be used to buy items such as coffee, toothpaste, soap, candy, stamps and envelopes, at 30% commission to the county.

When an individual goes to jail, the entire family goes to jail with them – the children who visit the inmates on the weekends, the mother who uses a third of her social security to make sure her son or daughter can write letters and make phone calls, the cousin who can’t get to a doctor’s appointment because there’s only one car in the family and its been impounded in a drug bust.

Family and community connections both define and frustrate prisoners. It is something they cleave to and at the same time resent their lack of influence while they march in place behind bars. And so I never stopped bringing pens, and have started to bring other material comforts that can appropriately attributed to my work there – composition books, pads of paper, folders, colored drawing pencils.

I believe that the things that define us also can overwhelm us, and still I know that the humanizing act of claiming things, people, or communities as our own is a universal response no matter what side of the barbed wire you are on.