Nearly twenty-six years ago I came face-to-face with a new reality: incarceration. For years, I loathed the sight and sound of a cell door bejng slammed shut to lock me into a tiny room. Everytime it happened I thought about what that door represented to me: profound loss.
During the span of my imprisonment I have sustained a lot of loss. The most significant ones being a sense of personal fulfillment, broken relationships, and a meaningful career. I once believed the deprivations could never be restored. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Several years ago, I confided to a fellow inmate how the sight of a cell door made me feel like a total failure. His sage advice? He re- cited a familiar adage: “When one door closes, another one opens”
At first, I felt insulted. The reply seemed to be nothing more than a thoughtless platitude. I told him as much. That’s when he told me to consider all that I’ve achieved while doing time. I did. What I discovered was how writing has been a metaphorical “open door” leading to empowerment and restoration when literal doors confined me.
For instance, in 1998, the IDOC ended its college program for inmates (like me) serving long-term sentences. Immediately, I launched a letter writing campaign seeking financial help to continue my education. It worked. Thanks to the collective benevolence of many I eventually earned a Master’s degree, as well as college level Certifications in Victim Advocacy and Paralegal Studies.
Getting an education was just the start to bigger and better things. By 2008, my sister, some inmates, and a few prison staff encouraged me to utilize my life experience, academic success and knack for writing to help others. During the past thirteen years, I have done this in two main ways.
First, my writing skills have been instrumental when I assist indi- gent inmates draft legal pleadings to protect what few rights they have to medical care, safe living conditions, and religious practice. Second, my passion for restorative justice has inspired me to cre- ate a literary legacy that helps those impacted by crime (victims, offenders, and communities) to restore the web of relationships broken by an offense. Thing is, finding ways to balance my ambi- tions with the reality of how prison life limits my opportunities to do more is a huge challenge
Behind closed doors I still struggle with haunting regrets, fears of enduring more loss, and insecurities about my future. Oddly enou- gh, when I feel trapped, I think about that 16th Century proverb illustrated by the alternating Chinese trigrams K’un (closed door) and Ch’ien (open door). Symbols of the universal rhythem.
Prison is my K’un. Writing is my Ch’ien. With a pen I strike balance between the plight and possibilities I face everyday. This is some- thing I will continue to do until my ink runs dry.