Never did I think I'd be sitting in a room staring eye to eye with five murderers, let alone leave a prison feeling a sense of sympathy for them. However, that's exactly what happened. I shook hands with murderers and felt a sense of understanding for a group of men I previously looked at as less than human, incapable of remorse, guilt, or forgiveness.
The morning of the visit to the Shirley prison was a cold one. 6:30am wake up call certainly wasn't easy, but it felt worth it for an opportunity like this. My roommate, a future lawyer, invited me to spend the morning talking to inmates and hearing their stories at the local jail with her class seemed pretty convincing to me.
Upon entering the building, which was ironically surrounded by open land and farm animals, was everything I've ever pictured a prison to be. The barbed wire, thick-barred windows, ancient smelling; it had all the ingredients for your local lockup. We sat in the holding area for a while waiting for our ID's to be processed. From there, in groups of five we were escorted into the visiting area of the prison. Instantly we were greeted by a man named Josh, delightfully dressed in a button down shirt accompanied by freshly gelled hair. He gave us a brief tour of the visiting area, highlighting the importance of staying behind the yellow lines that surrounded the visiting area as well as the necessity of picking up your shoe and gracefully handing it to the guard when he asks you to strip.
We all took our seats and awaited as five men walked through the barred doors. I peered around the room and noticed the guards quietly talking in the distance. A children's play area, which consisted of a couple books and a toy or two, stood still as the room filled with silence. Like I said, I was interestingly surprised when I didn't see the typical orange jumpsuit but rather jeans, button up shirts, even styled hair. The men looked put together, professional almost. I felt intimidated as I looked up and constantly made eye contact with each of them.
One of the men, probably around forty-five, a heavier set, stood up and introduced himself as Mike. His voice echoed through our seats. I could easily have mistaken him for an actor of some sort. His voice and body language gave off this unexpected confidence, like a teacher getting ready to teach a lesson. He cleared his throat and instantly began talking about his childhood. He talked about what it was like to be five years old and his dad telling him he was going to be a big brother and the importance of protecting him. "Family comes first" fell from his mouth over and over as he paced back and forth across the room. His story quickly began to escalate as his mother soon developed multiple sclerosis and his father, a raging and abusive alcoholic, took all of his problems out on his twelve year old son. By eighteen he was a football superstar. However, with a full ride to his school of choice, Mike decided to drop out of college and take care of his dying mother. Quickly after, his father's health rapidly declined putting both of his parents in wheelchairs. He never asked for help. He was dirt poor, worked side jobs for a while but couldn't afford either of his parents medical bills as he spent any of his time doing the cooking, cleaning, and constant protection of his little brother. One of Mike's coworkers mentioned a gambling bid he had been running and asked if Mike wanted to join. Hesitant at first but in need of the money, Mike decided to throw some money in and actually ended up making a steady profit. The problem with gambling, as he stated, was you eventually lose and at that point, Mike lost a lot. So much that his coworker was calling him every day. He began calling his house, his parents, and soon started to threaten them. When Mike told him he didn't have it, his co worker pulled a gun into the picture. For a young senseless kid like Mike, that meant he needed to get one too to protect himself. The story of two hot headed men pointing guns at each other never ends well. In Mike's case, he walked away from the scene alive, but the other man did not. Mike was then charged with 1st degree murder.
This was just one of many similar stories the men told us that day. This one really resonated with me as it felt relatable to many of us in the room. The struggle of asking for help when times get rough. Mike emphasized the importance of asking for help and not allowing the feelings of embarrassment or worthiness get in the way of asking for it. More specifically for him, sacrificing his masculinity by asking for help wasn't worth it. He regrets this every single day. At this point, I was asking myself... "Am I really getting advice from a convict right now?" In reality, his lesson was just as important as my professors was later that day. How could this be? How did I feel relatable to a man who's been in jail for 33+ years for 1st degree murder?
The simple answer is you really don't know anyone. I walked in that room judging every single one of them for the decisions they made as many of us do everyday to people simply walking in our direction. Truthfully, I walked into the building that day as a potential advocate for the death penalty. In my mind, if you murdered someone, you don't deserve anything involving life itself. I left that day feeling the exact opposite. I walked out of the room that day wanting to go back and just chat about our days over a cup of coffee. The experience itself was truly amazing. Unfortunately, they did exaggerate the fact that the majority of the men in the prison are not like them, certainly expected.
Regardless, having this idea that there is potential for change in murderers is something I have not fully grasped yet. If all is true and these men are sincerely out here to tell their stories in hopes for change in the institutions themselves, I believe it's our own duty to share their stories with the people they can't reach as a hope for a chain reaction in educating people not only on the consequences of decisions, but the impact they have on the rest of your life.