On Monday, June 29, I turned 44. The next day, my friend across the hall had a birthday. Then the day following that, it was my neighbor. We celebrated our collective birthdays as we could... very limited by passing birthday cards to one another. While I don't have a lot of community support, these guys made it happen in here. This started a great conversation about what it is to celebrate outside of prison and with whom. We are all very much closer to the end than we are the start. My neighbor has his folks, my friend has his wife and parents. All the people you would expect to celebrate your life with you. Then I had a heart breaking perspective from another guy in the group discussion...
One of the men, Kyle, has been incarcerated over thirty years. He turned twenty his first year in prison and now, as he's within a year or so from possible release (and an AARP membership), he talks about his remaining birthdays with something I overlooked... loss. To him, everyone he's ever celebrated with and would want at his birthday, everyone who's contributed to his daily life, will be right here in prison when he celebrates his next birthday. Most everyone he knew before prison is gone. For the three of us at the conversation's start, our futures sit out in the free world and we are excited for it. For Kyle, the subject of a system that enforces lengthy incarceration, his life, his memories and environment of growth, all stay behind. He kinda made me emotional when he talked about the power of the loss of his chosen family that, starting next year, he will not have a chance to celebrate with anytime soon.
European correctional systems often showcase the need to resemble the free world so that inmates can better assimilate when the correction (or the punishment for that matter) is complete. They also use time structures that make sense for reintegration. For guys like Kyle, what happens if too much of his sentence further isolates him from society? He did something wrong AND he believes in justice. Worrying about life after prison doesn't seem very just, either though. To have a man express loss over his birthday bash is heartbreaking. Knowing he does it for the victim in his crime also makes it even more so. Here's to celebrating life... remember why we do it.
by Rory Andes
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