Getting to know the men behind prison walls — and their families
A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
It was the legendary singer Dinah Washington who sang, “What a Difference a Day Makes.” When I was asked to reflect on the B.R.I.D.G.E. event that took place at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility, I immediately thought of this song.
The part of the song that kept playing in my head was “What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours…” It’s amazing how often we go through the daily routines of life — day in, day out — and nothing changes; and it’s not necessarily that nothing changes, but that change is not always visible or noticeable. However, every now and then, something happens that makes change visible and noticeable. For me, that “something” was the B.R.I.D.G.E. event.
To be honest, I can’t say exactly how it changed my life or what changed in my life as a result of it. All I know is that it did change my life. I am not the same person I was before I walked through the doors of Lino Lakes. Something is different. Something in me is different.
When I arrived at Lino Lakes, I thought I was going to see an army of police officers. I thought that their presence would be felt. They certainly were there, and some, I’m sure, would argue that their presence was felt; but to me, their presence was rendered invisible by something magical.
Every time one of the men at Lino Lakes came up to me and said, “Thanks for being here,” my response was always, “Thanks for having me.” I don’t know where that came from, but I meant it. I felt honored to be among them and I wanted them to know that.
I guess that was my way of letting them know that. I am so grateful to all of the men at Lino Lakes, including Matthew, one of the three men whose names I learned. A few weeks before the event, I met Matthew’s parents at an event that was held for the families of incarcerated men and women at a church in South Minneapolis. I had not yet met Matthew.
I sat at a table with his parents and we began talking. They told me about Matthew, about how he was raised to work hard and how he came from a hardworking family, and how he made a mistake that landed him in prison. We talked the entire afternoon.
I told Matthew’s father and mother that I would see Matthew at the B.R.I.D.G.E. event in a couple of weeks. They were so excited, yet a little sad too because they would not be able to attend. They kept showing me pictures of Matthew from the time he was a child to the man he is today. Matthew managed to earn degrees in higher education while incarcerated. They were so proud of his achievements.
Fast-forward to the B.R.I.D.G.E. event. Within seconds of walking into Lino Lakes, Matthew walked up to me and asked about my meeting with his parents. During lunch, Matthew and I sat together and talked about education. I could hear his father’s voice as well as his mother’s voice in him — the way he pronounced certain words was similar.
Then he got up on stage and rocked it! He spoke like a professor about the need to have online education programs for the men at Lino Lakes. His argument corroborated an argument put forth by one of the young men at Lino Lakes who sat on a panel and argued for the need to have education programs for the youth.
I kept thinking, “Man, I wish I could hang out with Matthew.” He seemed like a cool cat — a genuine and sincere person. A positive person! But I couldn’t hang out with him –—at least not yet. He still has a little time left.
Before I left, Matthew told me, “Call my father! He’ll take you out for a steak dinner.” I told him I would call him. And I will!
By the time the event was over, I felt weird because I didn’t want to leave. I looked around and it seemed like nobody wanted to leave — not the government officials, not the guests from all of the various organizations, not the men incarcerated, not even the warden. And that is weird, because who wants to stay inside of a correctional facility?
One of the things that stuck with me, however, is that I could leave. Many of the men whom I listened to that day, whom I learned from that day, could not leave. That was real — a profound and sobering reality.
Brett Grant is director of research for Voices for Racial Justice and a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.