Editor’s Note: The following is a short story written by attorney Jeffrey Kass. Read about Kass’ writing and how it fits with his legal work here.
By Jeffrey Kass
Jessica really didn’t give me much guidance on what we’d be doing at the prison. All she knew was that I was prone to supporting good causes, so she asked if I’d support her by volunteering at some state prison in the middle of nowhere Colorado. “It’s an entrepreneur training program for prisoners to help prepare them for when they re-enter society,” she explained. I gathered she also asked me to help out because of my experience helping entrepreneurs as part of my law practice. Vince, a successful entrepreneur with similar social justice ideals as me, had planned to volunteer as well, so we carpooled for the two hour drive the next week.
The only other time I had been to a prison was when my friend James brought drugs to a party and a girl overdosed and died after taking them. She had taken drugs all night so the drugs James gave her put her over the top. He wasn’t trying to harm anyone, but you can’t really call it an accident when people regularly die of overdoses of hardcore drugs. He had to serve five years in a federal minimum security prison in Arkansas. My visit to James in prison wasn’t a pleasant experience even as a guest. It didn’t help that James told me about the gangs and violence there. I remember thinking at the time that if this was a minimum security facility, I’d hate to see a maximum one.
“Any clue what we’re going to be doing at the prison, Vince?” I asked in a crap-why-did-I-sign-up-for-this tone.
“No idea. I think it’s a program they’re doing for prisoners and we’re just there to support it.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m driving two hours to sit in an audience and then have someone ask me for a do- nation if I like what I see? I would’ve given them a check without taking a day off work,” I told Vince, increasingly annoyed. Work was super busy and I wasn’t thrilled about taking an entire day off for something I knew almost nothing about. It wasn’t like me to get so bent out of shape, but I kind of felt like I was being taken advantage of because of my liberal bleeding heart. It wouldn’t have been the first time I was suckered into donating or helping out.
After two hours of Vince reluctantly tolerating my uncharacteristic complaining, we arrived at the silver barbed-wire, fenced-in, giant concrete prison. What I hadn’t been told is that the prison was what they call a “Super Max” prison. An über- maximum security to the ’nth degree prison only for the most violent criminals. Many of the prisoners sit in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day. You heard me. Like those
caged-in animals at the small reptile exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo I used to visit with my kids. When I learned of the type of prison we were visiting, it didn’t exactly warm me to this so- called “volunteering.” Weren’t these the worst of the worst, beyond help?
After a brief introduction by the personnel running the day’s program, a set of dos and don’ts, and some vague background on what would be taking place, we headed into the for- tress known as prison.
“What’s that music playing?” I asked one of the other volunteers as I heard “I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night…” by The Black Eyed Peas playing really loud. We just looked at each other confused. She didn’t know either. What kind of high security prison was this? We got off the elevator and the music was now louder. Like a South Beach nightclub where they make people stand in line for an extra hour just to make them think something exclusive and excit- ing was happening inside. The volunteers in front of me picked up speed as we were now jogging into a room with twenty men in beige prisoner jump- suits greeting us by forming a human tunnel with high fives like we were just introduced as the starting lineup of the Golden State Warriors. What the… I had no idea what was about to go down. This didn’t seem like the start of a boring infomercial after all.
Far from sitting through a boring program, we were called upon to be thoroughly engaged with the prisoners throughout the day focused on business, self worth, and value coach- ing. What I didn’t know at the beginning was that my life was about to be changed forever.
The day consisted of many activities. Ice breakers eased us into get- ting to know each other. We checked off boxes on a piece of paper when a volunteer and prisoner had the same answer to a personal question. Where did you grow up? What’s your favorite sports team? How many siblings do you have? What letter does your first name begin with? Those types of meaningless things, but enough to get us all talking. The prisoners each had smiles on their faces, eager to connect. Some had not been visited by anyone in years, so the company of random strangers felt good to them. After the icebreakers, each volunteer paired up with a prisoner for ten to fifteen minutes at a time to go over business and marketing plans for ideas the prisoners developed for when they got out of prison. Mobile car detailing services. Commercial cleaning. Transportation services. Each prisoner had been working extensively on real plans. It was actually quite impressive.
Then the day’s program took a sharp turn. We were no longer discussing improvements to personal statements or business plans. In- stead, the prisoners were all asked to go to one wall, backs against it. The volunteers, facing the prisoners, all went to the opposite wall. The room was nondescript. White walls. Gray carpet. No artwork. No furniture. Just a blank room. Each volunteer and prisoner were asked to look at their assigned partner across the room during this exercise. A purple line of tape was placed the length of the room about ten feet in front of the volunteers. Red tape was placed in parallel to the purple tape, also about ten feet in front of the prisoners. The red and purple lines of tape were a mere two feet from each other.
“Okay,” the facilitator Jen from Nashville started with her charming southern accent. “I’m going to ask some questions. If you answer yes to the question, I want you to step to the line in front of you. Volunteers step to the purple line. EITs step to the red tape.” EITs was short for entrepreneurs in training. “Remember to look at your partner.” Calling the prisoners EITs instead of inmates obviously was a form of encouragement and respect.
“If you’ve lost a parent before the age of eighteen, please step to the line.” A shocking five of the twenty volunteers and thirteen of the prisoners stepped to their respective lines facing each other.
“Next one. If there’s something you’ve been unable to forgive yourself for, step to the line.”
Sixteen volunteers and all twenty prisoners stepped to their lines, again facing each other. The exercise went on for another forty minutes, each time the questions increasing with seriousness and impact. Each time with several volunteers and prisoners simultaneously stepping to the dreaded colored lines. Not even sure why they had to use such nice colors for this exercise. Purple tape? Really?
“Have you ever lost a child?”
One thirty something year old prisoner, Darius, stepped to the red line. Darius was in prison for stab- bing someone during an argument. He had a pleasant demeanor and warm smile. He was African American with tattoos down both arms. Glasses. Caring eyes. An infectious smile. One volunteer, no older than thirty-five, Becca, stepped to the purple line. She was a rising star hedge fund manager. Short, maybe five-foot one. Straight brown hair and compassionate looking green eyes. A soft demeanor. Becca and Darius were about five feet down from each other, but they moved to face each other since they were the only two who answered yes to this harrowing question. We were only allowed to fist pump or
shake hands with the prisoners, but the two stood there, tears in their eyes, holding a tightly squeezed all- hands “handshake” together for a solid three minutes. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Seemed like the no-hugging rule should have been relaxed for this moment.
While it wasn’t lost on me that Darius and the other prisoners had done some awful things, I was taken aback by how most of them got there. Darius was eleven years old when he first entered the American so-called justice system. While witnessing his dad beating his mom with a leather belt, Darius took a knife and put it in the middle of his dad’s back. “Leave mom alone!” he shouted as he pushed the knife in as hard as he could and twisted it. I never took a knife out, but I recall feeling the same way Darius felt when my own dad cheated on my mom with a woman eight houses down from us. Instead of being rescued from an abusive environment, Darius was ar- rested, labeled a criminal, and put into the juvenile justice system. The rest of his criminal life is history.
The next question asked by Jen came hard and fast like a lightning bolt. I wasn’t ready for it.
“Have you ever thought about committing suicide?”
I hesitated as I looked around the room at the other professionals. Nine of the volunteers stepped forward. A CEO, a lawyer, a banker, and a few business owners. Nineteen of the prisoners moved forward. But I froze. Never in my forty-nine years had I ever discussed what I felt like as a twelve- year old when I discovered Dad’s escapades. Now I was being asked to disclose that information publicly? I looked around the room again, embarrassed but certainly not alone. I want- ed to lie and just stay still, but instead I slowly walked to the line and looked at the tears in the eyes of Gomez, the prisoner directly across from me, as he empathetically stared back into the tears now pouring down my own face. Gomez had shot a man during a robbery. He was only forty-two, but had a face that was two decades older. Tired and worn. He was only five-foot six, and about twenty pounds overweight. His eyes were filled to the brim of sorrow, apology, and forgiveness. We gently shook hands and just stayed and stared into each other. Aside from the faint whimpers of the reluctant crying of a few grown men, you could hear a pin drop in the room. So much pain and regret filled our collective hearts.
I don’t really recall the rest of the day, but it dawned on me as Vince and I headed home to Denver that I was a mere twenty-four inches away from making a bad decision and end- ing up in front of the red line instead of the purple one.