Before that night, it was hard for me to believe that being incarcerated would be something to be thankful for. A group of incarcerated women surprised me when they expressed positive thoughts about having their freedom taken away.
The first Friday of every month, I teach creative writing to women in the Dallas County Jail. At a recent session, we started with an activity to gauge the mood of participants—a group of 20 or so nonviolent offenders. All shared what word best described how each one felt that night: content, happy, glad. Glad to be there. Glad to have been caught. Happy to be off the dysfunctional track of addiction, bad decisions, self-destruction. More than I would have expected expressed these positive feelings, at least for that night. A few assessed their mood in a way I might have expected—confused, upset, I can’t believe I’m here (in jail).
The curriculum for the class called for a second activity that involved taking words of gratitude and creating slogans, then using those same words to write poems. I heard thoughtful, well written pieces (for first drafts), incorporating repetition as modeled in a Wallace Stegner poem used as an example. One woman wrote a poem about the conflicted feelings she had about the man who accompanied her on that journey that led her to jail, telling him good riddance while still confessing that she would miss him. Or maybe it was her dog that she really missed. She never clarified which.
Who we jail and for how long has recently increased as a topic of debate. Too many people are in jail because they can’t make bail the way someone with more resources can. That’s the case for many of these women. In the last few months, several have told me how committed they are to getting their lives together again—returning to school, getting their children back, keeping out of trouble.
Even as I heard positive assessments of their conditions during the writing activity, I sensed behind those assessments feelings of sadness. The actions that landed the women in that place–a concrete room with the only windows showing the two windowless pods on either side where the women shower, sleep, and watch television–stopped their destructive routine, at least for a time. Unfortunately, nothing up to that moment pulled them off that path before they arrived. No doubt these women bear some responsibility for what landed them there. With unequal sentencing and access to bond money, we as a society should ask what more we can do to create a more just criminal justice system with increased availability of addiction treatment and support after release along with sentencing reform.
Like so many, come Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful to the food on the table, the house I live in, and friends and family. I’ll also be grateful for the ability to look out the window, walk out the door, go where I want. I’ll also think of the women not able to participate in those basic activities of daily life, and hope that their optimism and gratitude lead them quickly to a time where they can while living the healthy fulfilled life we all deserve.