How Big Is Your Brave?

prison notes
Actual notes from prisoners piled at entrance to Haverford College Prison Obscura exhibition.

I’ve been thinking a lot about prison lately. Blame it on “Orange is the New Black” binge-watching. Or my recent visit to a Haverford College exposition entitled Prison Obscura, curated by Pete Brook and admirably installed by Matthew Seamus Callinan at the college’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. (Full disclosure: Mr. Callinan is a nephew, godson and friend.)

Via rarely seen surveillance and evidentiary photographs, Prison Obscura exposed the horrendous conditions under which many prisoners are forced to live, including overcrowding, and the inhumane practice of housing inmates in metal cages when cells are in short supply.

Prison Obscura was also a haunting documentary of the prison experience, via Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from prisoners within the San Francisco jail system, as well as a look at their hopes and dreams, shared during various prison workshops.

Perhaps most upsetting of all, both OINB and the Haverford exhibit put forth the discomfiting premise that for many who leave prison without a plan or safety net, incarceration may actually be preferable to life “outside.”

This was the immediate conclusion I drew this morning after reading a local news story about a man whose first act upon release from prison after serving 15 years for the robbery of a New Jersey shoe store was to return to that same shoe store and rob it again, in exactly the same fashion as the first time, only to be apprehended and jailed in short measure.

It might have been revenge, or maybe this individual just needed the fastest way back to three squares and a pillow to lay his head on. Who knows. It’s just scary that in his mind, at least, that was the best option society could offer.

On the other hand, there are enterprising souls like Thomas Mickens, who served 20 years of a 35-year sentence in a federal prison before being paroled and launching The Tommy Experience, a fitness company focused on older adults. The ex-con cum fitness entrepreneur, whose crimes included conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering and tax evasion and who was fined $1 million, said his post-prison business plan is a tribute to his mother, who died while he was in solitary confinement. She was in a nursing home and paralyzed by a stroke, he explained in a recent New York Times article.

Mr. Mickens is relying on the same business savvy that earned him the dubious reputation as one of “the top five drug kingpins in southeastern Queens in the mid-to-late ’80s, with more than 50 people on the streets selling drugs for him,” according to the article. Unfortunately, most inmates lack Mickens’s acumen and creativity, having been sentenced to a street life simply by virtue of being born into poverty.

The closest I’ve ever gotten to a prison is chaperoning a student trip to a kind of “Scared Straight” presentation. But I’ve glimpsed other prisons, like the bars that slam down when we confine ourselves by poor choices. Or the jails our bodies can become when felled by injury or disease.

My mother recently celebrated her eightieth birthday in a rehabilitation center in Florida, where she is recovering from a brain injury that resulted from a fall. She is slowly regaining physical strength but struggles occasionally with putting words in the right order. My heart aches listening to her: she pinpoints the word in her brain, only to lose it somewhere in the translation, resulting in gibberish, like a typist’s hands mislaid on a keyboard. Her frustrated eyes plead with me to understand. I tell her to be patient; it will take a while.

And then the following day, the miracle that is the brain: my mother’s speech is letter-perfect.

Overall, however, her progress is slow, with good days and bad. In the mornings before I visit, I run a few miles along Jupiter’s beach, listening to the five new songs I loaded on my iPod. (This is when I get to hear the song’s actual lyrics instead of the ones I imagined hearing on the radio.) On one morning run in particular, words resonate from Sara Bareilles’ “Brave:”

Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is.

Mr. Mickens’s “brave” is pretty big, but not as big as my mother’s.

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