While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.
Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.
They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.
It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?
Unlike those who are assigned to CLTL programs, the Innocents victims are sent into the world having little understanding of how to change their lives. Legislators in some states (Texas for one) are beginning to realize the need to provide compensation for those unjustly incarcerated. Our writing class wonders whether such compensation could be balanced with a post-prison CLTL experience. Then these innocent victims might experience vicariously their struggles as they are reentering society.
Just as Santiago, the old man in The Old Man and the Sea, returns to his home port with only a skeleton of his catch, the Innocents reenter society after long struggles to reestablish their identity. Who can recognize their struggles? Is there any sense of being a victor, or only a sense of being victims? Santiago’s fellow fishermen recognize his victory. Might former prisoners regain a sense of their worth by experiencing classroom discussions like CLTL’s?
Reading and sharing in discussion groups can give the prisoner and the former prisoner alike a realization of identity. It is possible to see oneself in stories and gain strength to face difficult times. Gaining the whole world without regaining one’s soul brings little satisfaction. Recognizing Santiago’s struggle and victory can bring success and satisfaction.