An Interview with Open Hearts Open Minds Volunteer
By D. Elizabeth Cohen
Elizabeth: Can you tell me about the Dialogue Sessions and your work at Two Rivers?
Deborah: I got involved with Open Hearts Open Minds, which runs two programs at Two Rivers, around 10 years ago. Johnny Stallings had been working out at Two Rivers for a year or two, and he decided that instead of being a lone person going out, he wanted to have a nonprofit to support the work. So I came on the board with 4 or 5 other people for about five years, and my work was just that: being on the board, helping to solve problems, making decisions. Like when the woman from the Portland Opera finally let us rent costumes we took her candy. We printed some informational pamphlets to hand out, that sort of thing. Then after Johnny had been driving out every week for 9 years he finally cried Uncle – and 6 of those months he was doing the theater, so he was going out more than once a week. It was just too much for him. You can imagine. When he told the men in the group that he could not come out every week and that he was not going to do theater anymore but could come out once a month to do dialogue work, well, I think everyone was pretty crushed. What Johnny finally did was find a group of three new people who ran the theater program for a couple of years: Anna Crandall, Victoria Spencer and Patrick Walsh.
And a number of us who were not involved with theater volunteered to do a dialogue group once a month. So for three years now, once a month I go out from Portland to Umatilla and from 1 until 4 we have a dialogue group. When Johnny first started them they were called “Meaning of Life Dialogues” which sounds a little corny but it’s true. We have anywhere from 8 – 16 or 17 people depending upon who’s working, who’s sick, who has made a mistake and is in Solitary. It varies. Since I am a writer and I’ve been a writing teacher and love poetry, I often bring in a short piece and we’ll read it out together. Maybe one of them will read it and we will talk about it. Then we will write a response or our version of that piece. Or they will come in with different ideas or topics to focus on. Jude Russell is another writer and group facilitator, and she and I are the two people who bring writing into the dialogue group. The other two dialogue groups are pretty much “Meaning of life, forget the writing”.
It has been surprising and amazing. A number of the guys had been with Johnny for a long time. Some of them really wanted to do writing, and some of them weren’t so interested: “I think I’ll stay in my unit that day.” One of the good things about poetry is you can share something shorter than a story or a novel, and often you can bring in poems that are more accessible than a convoluted prose piece. The men often write unbelievable things. That’s all I can say. And the discussions are amazing.
One of my favorite aspects of the work has been sharing the poetry of Wisława Szymborska, a Polish poet that I love. She won the Nobel Prize and lived through World War 1 and World War 2 and the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Finally Independence. So she’s nobody fool. You would not call her naive. But she has this cheerful sweetness, which comes across in her poems. In a way it’s perfect for the inmates at Two Rivers because they’re nobody’s fools either. And they see a lot of not happy things. They loved her.
We did writing and imitation of some of her poems. There’s a great poem called Possibilities. She starts each line with “I prefer” as in, “I prefer civilian clothes to military uniforms.” They did their own versions of “I prefer.” Then there was one poem – I thought, I don’t know what to think of this poem, I’m not sure if it will go over, I don’t know what to say about it. It was already printed up and in my bag, but I decided not to do anything with it. The inmates can order books from vendors including Amazon, and several had gotten a collection of Szymborska’s poems. And two of them said to me, “I really want to read out my favorite poem.” And of course it was the one I had decided not to bring! They read it out loud to the group. We all talked about it. I said, “You need to tell me what you think of this poem.” The title is Conversations with a Stone, and it was a reminder that these are very thoughtful, experienced people. And there’s a depth with them you don’t assume will be there.
One time Todd Oleson, another volunteer and professional actor, came to one of the sessions and he performed Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. When I first read it, I thought it was going to hit the floor dead. But that was one of the most touching theater performances I’ve ever seen – it was brilliant. Todd read it in Welsh accent, and they loved it. People were wiping tears away and laughing at the same time – it was just so fabulous. And then the discussion and writing after that were based on, “What do you remember about Christmas?” It was so revealing, poignant, thoughtful. It was the interaction of their writing with that of another writer.
Elizabeth: What kind of goals do you have for the inmates in your work with them?
Deborah: I think that all of us doing the dialogue work hope that we can create a place where for a few hours the inmates are not actually in prison. Where there is a sense of support, trust and respect, and people listen to each other. Confidentiality is required. One person was asked to leave the group because it was discovered that he was repeating stories he heard in the group outside of the group.
The goal is for them to have a chance to reflect, to be free of rules and expectations. And for them to remember that they’re actually human beings – they’re not just inmates. One of the men who is serving a life sentence said one time, “You know, this is the few hours every week where I am a human being not just an inmate.” So I could say that’s my goal for them. I like to encourage them to be able to access their inner feelings and thoughts and be able to explore them in writing.
Now they will often give me what they’ve written and I’ll bring it home and make a few little remarks. I don’t really correct grammar and punctuation much—even though my Virgo nature wants to I stop myself. It’s a way of sharing – letting them know that someone has read and responded to them. At one point Johnny said, “Let’s do a journal of their writings.” They were doing Hamlet and we had the idea that we would take the men’s writings and insert them into different parts of the play. They would be read out, but they would be anonymous. They were like 100 % “No!” They knew that people would be able to figure out who they were. They wanted a space where they wouldn’t be exposed, not to be sequestered but protected. I haven’t pursued that idea any more of being published or public. If they want to do that, it can rise up from them. But I think right now they want a space of caring and safety. And encouragement. You want them to feel that there’s something valuable in them. One person in there has had a lifetime that you really can’t imagine but has really altered his life; he’s writing, he has a journal, he really ponders what’s happening. He’s made a major change for himself. So we’re like a small drop in the change bucket.
Elizabeth: What are the rewards of working within the prison system?
Deborah: You get to see people treated as human beings and to have a more balanced, loving sense of themselves. There are people who were restrained and antagonistic in the beginning, and that has altered. It’s beautiful to see. You realize you are not changing the correctional system in Oregon let alone in the whole country, but you can let people know it’s not like the TV shows and you are at least making a difference for some people. When I first started going it was quite difficult. You drive up and it’s this monstrous barbed wire and cement structure. You know that people’s lives are lived in there, and lived under enormous regulation. I felt sick each time I came up to the building. But then you accept in and go in relate to other human beings and share your thoughts.
Elizabeth: Is there a way that your work at Two Rivers informs you about our society and the world that we live in?
Deborah: Sadly yes. There’s a beautiful book put out by two women: Deborah Luster who is a photographer and CD Wright, who is a poet who just died last year. They spent time going to prisons in Louisiana and put out a book of photos and poems called One Big Self. One thing Wright said is: “that’s who we are as a society – we are a society that locks up and a society that is locked up.” I think that’s sadly true. Where are we putting our public monies? Into prisons. We should be putting money into schools and other constructive programs. You realize how many of these men (for me it’s men because I’m in a men’s prison) – if they had had different access to education, to treatment programs, what a difference that could have made in their lives.
What I say to myself is, “Who does this benefit to have systems like this?” Does it benefit the prisoners? For some of them, going to prison has been a very helpful thing. It got them off drugs and alcohol, it got them into therapy programs, it made them confront their lives—but the way in which it’s administered is pretty non-humane. It shows me that there is a lot of fear in our culture.
It also shows me that we are not the worst thing we have ever done. These guys are punished and regulated because of the worst thing they did. All of the other things they did are inconsequential. What if all of us had to make public the worst thing we ever did and had to live with those consequences publically? It’s heart breaking. There are people in there who have done horrible things, and they have had to face them.
I’m dealing with a self-selecting population in the prison. I know there are gangs and mentally ill people – obviously, they don’t get to come to Dialogue Group. This is a reward. You have to have so much time of good behavior. The people who are in this milieu are different than some of the other inmates, but I’ll say that most of the people in the group have done some hard thinking about why they’re there and are dealing with that in a way that many, many people on the outside never deal with themselves. One of the ways I’m coming to terms with this experience of being in prison is that I have a series of poems that I’m writing about it. One of the poems is titled A Felon. “What if you were a felon and everything about you was that one bad action?”
Elizabeth: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Deborah: That the writing and the theater are just so transformative for these guys. It’s beautiful to see. And it’s pretty profound. One of the ways I witnessed it in a very affecting way was when Open Hearts put on a Midsummer Night’s Dream. We had these wonderful costumes that were lent to us by Portland Opera, and at the end of the play there’s a question and answer with the audience with donuts and cider and everyone visits and it’s quite loose and open. Well, at the end of that, the audience has to start leaving to go out, and the men who are the actors have to take off their costumes and go back to their cells. Watching them put that moment off for as long as possible – and then knowing they have to take the mask off and take the fur and satin off and put the inmate blue jeans back on. It was very poignant. We the audience went out into a sky with a gorgeous sunset and we knew that they couldn’t see it and we couldn’t share it with them.
I would like to encourage everyone to participate in some way in order to realize that these are human beings. It’s not helpful to anyone to throw people’s lives away. I just saw a statistic that in California it costs $75,000 a year to house an inmate. Really? What you could do with that money! Change the whole culture. My new son-in-law is a runner and volunteers at the Thousand Mile Club at San Quentin. And through running all of these men are really changing their lives. They come out and they run marathons around the yard. People’s lives can be improved. With a few exceptions they don’t need to be warehoused.