It’s hard to believe that being incarcerated would be a situation to be thankful for. Hearing a group of women recently express positive thoughts about having their freedom taken away from them frankly surprised me.
Every month, I teach creative writing to women in the Dallas County Jail. Last session, at the beginning of November, we started with an activity to gauge the mood of participants—a group of 20 or so nonviolent offenders. All were asked 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 an activity that involved taking words of gratitude and creating slogans, then taking those same words and creating longer pieces. I heard thoughtful, well written pieces (for first draft), using 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 about her dog that she really missed. She never confirmed which.
Who we jail and for how long has recently become a topic of debate. Too many of those women are in jail because they can’t make bail the way someone with more resources can. Still, over 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, I sensed behind them feelings of sadness. Those actions that got them to that place, sitting in a concrete room with the only windows showing the two windowless pods where they showered, slept, and watched television stopped their destructive routine. Unfortunately, nothing pulled them off that path before they arrived at that place. 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.
Like so many, come Thursday, 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. And 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.