A Grip of Time
109 pages

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109 pages

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A Grip of Time (prison slang for a very long sentence behind bars) takes readers into a world most know little about—a maximum-security prison—and into the minds and hearts of the men who live there. These men, who are serving out life sentences for aggravated murder, join a fledgling Lifers' Writing Group started by award-winning author Lauren Kessler. Over the course of three years, meeting twice a month, the men reveal more and more about themselves, their pasts, and the alternating drama and tedium of their incarcerated lives. As they struggle with the weight of their guilt and wonder if they should hope for a future outside prison walls, Kessler struggles with the fiercely competing ideas of rehabilitation and punishment, forgiveness and blame that are at the heart of the American penal system. Gripping, intense, and heartfelt, A Grip of Time: When Prison Is Your Life shows what a lifetime with no hope of release looks like up-close.



Publié par
Date de parution 25 avril 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781684350797
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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A Grip of Time

When prison is your life
This book is a publication of
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
2019 by Lauren Kessler
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
ISBN 978-1-68435-078-0 (hardback)
ISBN 978-0-68435-080-3 (ebook)
1 2 3 4 5 24 23 22 21 20 19
Don, Eric, James, Jann, Jimmie, Kaz, Lee, Michael,
Michael2, Sterling, Wil
and to
The dreams have died within our hearts, Grown cold and hard with time.
And all the words we vowed to speak, When life was young and dear, Died in silence, for they were Words no one wished to hear.
-Jack Catron Oregon State Penitentiary inmate, 1917
Do time.
Don t let time do you.
-Common prison expression
Author s Note
The people in this book are real people. All the men in the writing group wanted their real names to be used. I have not knowingly changed any facts or details about their lives. I have changed the names of two people to ensure privacy. I have chronicled the events, incidents, and conversations in this book as faithfully and honestly as I know how. Most I directly witnessed. Some were written about or told to me by the men in the group.
Any liberties I have taken are liberties not of fact but of interpretation. I saw this place, these people, and these events through my own eyes and filtered them, as all nonfiction writers do, through my own sensibilities. I mean to tell truths both factual and emotional.
Author s Note
A Grip of Time
I obeyed. Obeying is what you do when a prison guard tells you to do something.
I had set off the metal detector. The guard, big, fleshy, bored, hardly looked at me. I wasn t a threat. I was barely an annoyance. Someone holding up the line.
Step out of the way, he said again.
I was moving too slowly, trying to wedge myself between the wall and the guard without touching the guard. I looked at him, thought about saying something. Didn t.
I was shoeless, beltless, and jewelry-free. My pockets were empty. I didn t know why I had set off the alarm. And so I stood to the side, silent, awaiting further instructions, looking over my shoulder at a scene that was becoming familiar to me: the Greyhound bus-style visitors waiting room with its linoleum floors and its plastic chairs; the dozens of weary young women crowding in, jostling for position, carrying their fitfully sleeping babies, holding tight to their squirming toddlers.
Like me, they were waiting to be processed. Like me, they were waiting to begin the trek-simultaneously tedious and frightening-through the metal detector, down a long, blank corridor, through heavy metal gates that clanged behind you, stopping at a checkpoint where you traded your driver s license for a clip-on prison ID card and placed your hand through a slot to be stamped with UV-visible ink, then through another set of clanging gates, down an even longer corridor, past a second checkpoint (state your name, show your ID), through a third gate, and on to the heavily guarded control floor that sat at the heart of this maximum-security prison. Somewhere along the line, the women and children peeled off to the big, featureless visitors room where they could sit and talk with their inmate husbands, baby daddies, brothers, fathers. I would continue, accompanied by an officer, thirty feet across the control floor to another gate and up a flight of concrete stairs to the activities floor to meet with my inmate writers. This afternoon would be the fourth meeting of the writers group I was working hard to get established at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

The state s oldest prison, its only maximum-security facility, and the site of the state s death row, OSP is home to more than two thousand men, although home is not the word that comes to mind to anyone who lives-or visits-here. The prison sits, invisible behind a twenty-five-foot-high concrete perimeter wall, less than a mile and a half from the pretty, golden-domed Oregon State Capitol building in the heart of sleepy Salem. Inside the walls is a twenty-two-acre self-contained city with the state s second-largest commercial laundry, a furniture factory, a metal fabrication shop, a call center, vocational and hobby shops, an infirmary, two recreation yards-and four cell blocks, three of them massive Sing Sing-style cages within cages that look like the setting of every grim prison movie ever made: parallel rows of barred cells, forty cells long, five tiers high, narrow metal walkways, nothing but concrete and steel.
The drive into the prison grounds is as lovely as the prison is not. This is fertile Willamette Valley river bottom land. The penitentiary entrance is landscaped and manicured. There are brilliant-green lawns and towering conifers, graceful weeping willows and stately oaks. There are rose-bushes and hydrangeas. There are birds. And then there aren t. Up the set of concrete steps and into the main building, a late-nineteenth-century edifice that looks like a cross between an asylum and an aged urban high school in a not-great neighborhood, there is the tired waiting room with vending machines and an old ATM and a long counter for processing visitors and a TSA-style conveyor belt and metal detector overseen by guards like the one who had just pulled me aside.

I stood, still waiting. I was not a veteran visitor like most of the worried and weary women queuing up at the counter, but I knew the drill: show picture ID at the counter, sign in, check pockets, stash purse in one of the twenty-five-cent lockers, stand in line, take off shoes, wait your turn to go through. I knew how to dress: Show as little skin as possible. Wear clothing that was loose enough not to be formfitting but not so loose as to look as if you were maybe trying to conceal something. Don t look too feminine. But don t look butch either. No jeans. The inmates wore jeans. Nothing blue. The inmates all dressed in blue. I had learned the rules, and I followed the rules. Months later, when I was steeping myself in research about prisons, I came across this chilling sentence by sociologist Megan Comfort: Correctional officers . . . attempt to transform prison visitors into an obedient corps of unindividuated, nonthreatening entities that can be organized according to prison rules. That pretty much summed up the experience.
The guard ordered me to check my pockets (nothing), remove any jewelry (already done), and go through again. Again, the alarm sounded. I assumed that his next step was to call over a female guard to pat me down. Or he could take me aside and wand me, like the TSA guys do. A hassle, but either way I d be good to go.
I was getting antsy. My writers group was waiting for me upstairs on the activities floor: six guys, all members of the Lifers Club, all convicted murderers. They were decades into their grip of time, serving either life with (the with being a possibility of parole) or life without (meaning they would die in prison). I had started working with them almost six months ago, coming in to run this writers workshop I created. It was more of a struggle to make it happen than I had bargained for, and it was happening in fits and starts. One month I had permission to come in, the next, nothing. I was a volunteer-without-portfolio, so to speak. Unlike most of the nonfamily civilians who gained entrance to the prison, I was not part of a faith group or ministry, a veterans organization, or a twelve-step recovery program. I was not sanctioned by the community college that had a contract to teach GED classes and run a small associate arts degree program or the university that taught a smattering of classes through a national program called Inside Out. I was just a writer looking to work with people who wanted to write. I saw writing as a way to give voice to the voiceless, which those behind bars certainly were. I saw writing as not merely self-expression but as deep, self-administered therapy, a way to process and learn from experience, a way to understand and make sense of a life that needed making sense of. That would be everyone s life, of course, but I was thinking about the kind of lives that got people into prison and the lives, the very long lives, those people lived once they got there.
And I was thinking about not only the people who lived those lives but also the rest of us, the ones who made the laws and paid the taxes to support the criminal justice and corrections systems, the ones who sat on juries that sentenced people to places like the one I was waiting to be processed into. I was thinking about how ignorant I, all of us, were about what happened inside these places. We thought we knew much more than we did. We had maybe read puff pieces about Martha S

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