By Babz Clough
The Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) at Norfolk was built by the inmates in the 1920s as a community-based prison in what was then rural Massachusetts. The prisoners learned how to lay bricks, how to weld, and how to plumb the buildings. They planted the gardens and enjoyed the harvest, and they lived in the prison they themselves built, surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire. In the building of the prison, the prisoners were also rebuilt and after release, they took with them marketable skills that would help them on the outside.
Eighty years on, lives continue to be rebuilt within the confines of the prison walls. Every month, I drive from the crowded streets of Boston to the idyllic countryside surrounding Norfolk to visit Vanesh. He doesn’t get many visitors as his immigrant family doesn’t have easy access to a car, and as he told me once ‘my cousin used to come but it broke her heart to see me here,’ so she stopped visiting. For an imprisoned man he has a busy schedule, so I never visit unannounced.
‘Your visiting day and time is fine. As for how I’m holding up this winter, the cells are never warm enough,’ Vanesh had written. ‘You can hear the windowpanes rattling in the warped frames. Sometimes I wad up a piece of paper to stop the rattling, and I wear my coat all the time.’
Before being transferred to MCI Norfolk, Vanesh had been incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, after being sentenced to life without parole for a gang murder he’d committed at 17 years of age. After years of good behavior, he had been transferred to Norfolk, a medium-security facility with greater opportunities for rehabilitation and education. One of the benefits of being a lifer and being at Norfolk was his access to the prison education program, entirely funded by the college granting the degree. Vanesh had passed the entry exam and enrolled, and I volunteered as his academic mentor. Visiting the prison was an all-day affair that required patience to endure the tedious routine and seemingly endless waiting around. Every time I visited, it was as if the guards and I were going through the process for the first time.
I arrive fairly early on a Saturday morning, and join the other visitors in the main entry building where we sit on hard plastic chairs that are nailed to the floor in symmetrical rows.
‘122, 123, 125, 127, 129, come to the search room,’ the guard calls to us.
We clutch our yellow visitor forms in our hands and dutifully shuffle behind the guard into the search area. It’s a small room off the main registration area and contains a metal detector and plastic buckets for our shoes, belts, and the yellow paper each group must carry over to the visitor center. This yellow sheet is our calling card that enables us to get into the visitor center.
Vanesh also undergoes a search from his side of the campus that allows him into the visitor center. He tells me that his search consists of a bored guard muttering: ‘Tongue out, turn your pockets out. Arms out to your sides.’
Usually the guards frisk him perfunctorily because he is known as one of the good ones, but the guards must be seen to be diligent in their duties. After the quick frisk is over, Vanesh sits quietly on the prisoner side of the waiting room until I arrive. In many ways I undergo a more difficult body search than he does. The guards assume, probably correctly, that the prisoners would gain more by what might be smuggled in than what I could possibly smuggle out.
‘Belts off, shoes off, in the bucket, first woman, line up. Lift your hair, roll down your waistband, stick out your tongue, lift your foot and show me the bottom of your foot.’
I muse about what could be smuggled in on the bottom of my foot. But I do not ask. I do as I’m told, accustomed to the lack of logic and reasoning in the prison. On this night, as on most nights, it is mostly women who are visiting, sometimes with their children, sometimes alone. When I see the children going through the metal detector, I contemplate which is worse: visiting your father in prison or not seeing him at all. My visits to Vanesh, although not easy, are not familial, and we are not close friends. I am considered a friend on a social visit according to the form, albeit in reality I am an academic mentor come to discuss his class work.
As I enter the trap that moves us from the main entry out onto the walkway, I squeeze closer to the other visitors, this being the part I find most uncomfortable. We are shoulder to shoulder in the confined space between the large yellow arches of tape on the floor. If you aren’t inside the tape, you might get hit by the closing door. Or the guards won’t close the door, and a disembodied voice from above will tell you to step in.
‘Close the trap,’ the guard’s voice filters down. I always look up but I can’t see who is up there. It’s a tower from the inside, but once outside, it looks like another wall of the building.
‘Open the trap,’ the voice echoes down again, and our group spreads out as we straggle out of the cramped space to the walkway that leads to the visitor center. In the summer, each side of the walkway is lined with giant dahlias, yellow marigolds, and a rainbow of zinnias. On this December day, the snow is frozen and gray, and I hurry a bit to get into the warmth of the visitor center. Are the prisoners who are in the landscaping program glad to see the riot of colors that spring brings, or does it only remind them that they have spent yet another season incarcerated behind these high walls?
I glance behind me at the crumbling entry building I had just come through. The bricks need repointing, and what were once sturdy New England slate roofs look like they might soon need replacing with something more modern. MCI Norfolk no longer builds their own buildings, even as the prison population has exploded far beyond its original capacity. In the rehabilitation of prisoners, brick work and roofing have been replaced by more marketable skills, such as landscaping, barbering, and welding.
Vanesh waited nearly a year to be admitted into the barbering program. Barbering is a highly sought-after skill in prison and out. In prison, being in the barber program meant you could be in the barbershop during the day, interacting with other guys and not confined to your building. Having the barber’s license also guaranteed you work on the outside, because having a felony on your record wasn’t a barrier to employment.
Before Vanesh ever knew he might have a chance for parole, he had started to build a new life in prison: he became a practicing Buddhist and meditated daily. He mentored new inmates to help them adjust to the challenges of an overcrowded prison. In the years I’ve been visiting Vanesh, we’ve come to know each other a bit, but not on a deep personal level. I don’t tell him of my past, but he knows I don’t drink at all. And that I don’t smoke. I don’t talk about Cori, the coke dealer I dated who carried automatic weapons in the trunk of his car. I don’t tell him about the blackouts that often lasted for days, with no clear idea of where I’d been or what I’d done. What I do know is that I have done bad things to good people. I was just luckier than Vanesh.
He sees me come in and waits until I hand over the yellow slip to the guard before standing up. His shirt is freshly ironed and the jeans he wears are clean and new looking – even his shoes are polished. After he walks over to meet me, we hug gently but there is no inappropriate touching or lingering embrace. He is unwilling to risk losing my mentorship for the fleeting titillation of a quick feel. I have often wondered what he has done with his sexuality all these years: a young man locked up with 1200 other young men. But however wide ranging our conversations about the immigrant experience, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the psychology of love, we rarely veer off academic topics or discussions of current events. Our conversations only occasionally veer into the personal. He had asked me once why I volunteered as a mentor, and I provided my standard answer.
‘I believe that we, as humans, can change on a fundamental level. That who we were at 18 does not define who we are at 28 or 38 or 68. And that everyone deserves a second chance.’
I come here because I can. That in a different time and a different place, I might just as easily have been in his situation. I am not a do-gooder, and there’s no religious calling, but I know that what I do here makes a difference in another person’s life. There but for the Grace of God go I, even though God and I parted ways many years ago.
Until recently, I never thought Vanesh would have another chance at life. Although he had fundamentally changed, his sentence had been life without parole for a crime committed when he was 17. However, with the increase in scientific study on the adolescent brain, the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), decided that sentencing juvenile offenders who committed non-homicidal crimes to life without parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts took it one step further and reviewed all juveniles sentenced to life without parole, even those who had committed homicide, even those like Vanesh.
This was the first time I’d visited him since his parole hearing, and I was curious about what had happened. Parole hearings are open to the public, but Vanesh had not asked me to attend, so I hadn’t.
‘It was amazing just being in the van that took us there,’ he marveled. ‘There were people just walking around, going wherever they wanted, stopping to cross the street. But they were all looking at their phones. If I ever get out, I’ll never look at my phone.’
I can hear the joy and wonder in his voice from seeing such simple things, even though he’d been shackled and handcuffed in a prison van with a half-dozen other prisoners. I take for granted a freedom he can’t even imagine after being confined for 20 years, every day seeing the same 12-foot walls and the same cold cell with the rattling windows. I say a silent thank you to whatever angels had guarded me.
‘His sister was there, at the hearing, with his parents. But the family didn’t oppose my parole. They just asked the parole board to have me live in another town. “We don’t want to run into him walking down the street.”’ Vanesh chokes up, still unbelieving that they could be so willing to have him go free. ‘I can’t undo what I’ve done.’
None of us can, I think to myself.
After this hearing, it was a year of waiting before he got a decision: a year in which he started a meditation group for other prisoners. He took four more classes towards his bachelor’s degree, and after a long wait, was finally admitted to the barber’s program. When the letter from the parole board finally arrived, it was mixed. Normally when parole is denied, the prisoner can’t reapply for another five years. The parole board instructed him to take additional violence prevention and gang aversion classes and come back in two years.
In the year he waited for the parole decision, Vanesh took every violence prevention class he could find. One of his college classes was an intro to psychology, where he studied up on PTSD and how the adolescent brain worked. He continued to meet with me, with his social workers and with his lawyer on a regular basis. The second year went quickly as he contemplated the possibility that he might have a chance of life outside this prison. His lawyer, who’d been working pro bono on his case for years, had the application ready to file as soon as he could.
This time when he went in front of the parole board, he could list his accomplishments: a weekly meditation group attended by prisoners and sometimes even prison employees, gang aversion, in depth study of PTSD, participation in violence prevention, continued work on his bachelor’s degree, his prison job as an event coordinator. Vanesh did more as a prisoner than I sometimes did as a free person.
But this time he got parole. The victim’s family attended, and all they said was ‘we request no conditions for his parole.’ And I wondered if maybe they thought about their own son, dead now these twenty years. Maybe their son would have encouraged them to give Vanesh another chance. This was not a random crime. The young man Vanesh had killed was in a rival gang, also intent on violence that night. That young man had died. Someone else’s son had lived. Vanesh had lived but gone to prison. What good was served by his remaining there?
It is six months after his release before I see Vanesh again at a fund-raising event. The suit jacket he’s wearing looks brand new and a little snug, as if he he’d just bought it to wear to this event. Seeing me, he comes over and gives me a big hug, but his eyes dart all around, as if he’s still not quite comfortable in new environments.
‘What do you think of the music?’ I ask.
‘It’s one of the themes from Bugs Bunny, right? I remember it from when I was a kid. I’ve never seen music like this before.’ He still has wonder in his voice, as if the newness of life has not yet worn off.
We chat about inconsequential things. He says he can’t afford to finish college yet. Now that he is no longer in prison his tuition isn’t covered by the college. Barbering is slow, but he’s working and getting by while living with his parents. The discipline he developed to survive – and thrive in prison – is holding up on the outside.
Behind the old walls and drafty windows of MCI Norfolk, the rebuilding of men continues. Young men, like Vanesh, continue to attend college in chilly classrooms or trade jokes in the barber shop. Maybe one of the inmates he had mentored will continue to run the meditation class—a brief pause in the chaos of the prison that provided moments of peace to prisoners and guards alike. Would the legacy that Vanesh built in his twenty years of incarceration continue rebuilding lives into the future?
Vanesh and I don’t remain friends on the outside. For some students, prison is their past, and I am only a reminder of that time. For other students, they want to focus on their families and being responsible members of society. But a year later, I find myself walking down the pathway to the visitor’s center, the flowers now in full bloom, as I prepare to meet my new student.
Babz Clough lives in Lowell, MA and is a writer, storyteller, and aspiring poet. She is working on a collection of essays about searching for her ancestors and finding herself. In addition, she regularly participates in StorySLAMs for The Moth, and recently participated in her first Moth GrandSLAM. Her publications have appeared in HerStry blog, Women Under Scrutiny, One Sentence Stories(3 volumes), Ireland of the Welcomes, and Peach Velvet.