(Editor’s note: The Vanguard is proud to announce a new project in partnership with Incarcerated Allied Media. Thanks to Dr. Joan Parkin and D. Razor Babb. These articles are published by Incarcerated Individuals at Mule Creek State Prison and part of the Mule Creek Post publication.)
By Jennifer Bowen Hicks
THE PRISONS ARE locked down, and I can’t go inside to work with my writing students, most of whom I’ve known for a decade. Not only do they no longer have classes; they cannot have visitors either: no moms, no daughters, no brothers, no beloveds. Through word of mouth I hear how my students are faring. Thankfully, they are all still well, but the virus has brought a disruption to their routine, and for some it’s brought terror. One man I’ve worked with, whom I consider a friend, wants his story to be part of the public record. He wants to tell the world what the pandemic is like for him, a caged man who lived through the Cambodian genocide. When the Khmer Rouge came, he says, “I was thirteen and at school. My family fled their home but couldn’t find me. I was lost. But even in this moment, my dad risked his life to return home to unlatch the gate that kept our hogs penned in. He knew the pigs would die if they were locked in the cage and he wasn’t there to feed them, to care for them. I wonder: With covid coming into the prisons like the Khmer Rouge, will we be forgotten in our pens? Who will remember the prisoners in a time like this?”
I can send him a note about a class, but I am not allowed to send him a personal note. If I could, I would say, We will memorialize you if you die. We will tell your loved ones how much we loved you, and we will tell them why. We are thinking of you daily.
I wonder — Are many of us now experiencing some small semblance of what it feels like to live in a cage? The physical
separation from loved ones and the world. The lack of touch. It’s an unfair comparison. Still, the solitude causes (or reveals) a gaping feeling in my chest. Is this the way the body holds isolation? How impossible it is for a person to carry the totality of all that is not present.
What will happen next? It feels like this planet is a car that has screeched to a halt, and we’ve been thrown forward by the sudden braking. By instinct we fling our arms out to stop other people from flying through the windshield, even while their arms are flinging out to stop us. And after the car has stopped, we look around to see who is still here, who is injured and bleeding. My children are safe. The light outside has changed. Is someone missing from the car? Is someone missing from the car?
Some days I cry over everything. I cry over the parade of elementary school teachers in their cars, wearing masks and honking to their students, who are standing on the street corners and also wearing masks. I cry for a friend who has lost a family. I cry over the way my now-home, healthy son dances while he eats cereal. Over the other son’s sketch of a boy staring at a computer while the pandemic rages in his periphery. Over a gray painting of St. Paul trains going nowhere in the snow. And for my students, people in cages who’ve lived disconnected, isolated lives for decades.
Someday the world will spin again. What will we do when the shock wears off and the debris is cleared? A friend who also teaches in a prison says when she returns to class she would like to bring in wildflower seeds for her students to plant in their cages as a symbol of life, and to say, I have not forgotten you. But, of course, she can’t do that; it’s not allowed.
For my part, I plan to pull the car over at every opportunity and say, “Want in?” I will throw the doors open to my people — both those I’ve long known are mine and those who still could be. I am realizing I will need a bigger car, maybe a whole camper, yet somehow I believe this can happen. And maybe, once everyone is inside, we will hug each other and everything will be alright again, because this is my dream, and, besides, we’re not here for long, are we? I will say to the people inside my camper: You are not forgotten.
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