Throughout my 23 years of incarceration, many people have had a positive influence on my life, but none more so than the courageous volunteers who selflessly pour into American prisons each and every day, whether it be for religious purposes, substance abuse purposes, or to offer an education.
The very first volunteer to touch my heart was an elderly African American gentleman by the name of Ernest Fisher. He hailed from the down-but-not-out city of Flint, Michigan, home of lead polluted water, abandoned auto plants, and an iron-like will to survive. And every Saturday night for 27 years straight he drove thirty miles east down I-69 to chair our 6:30 “Thumbs Up” Alcoholics Anonymous meeting here at Thumb Correctional Facility.
Ernie (God rest his soul) was one of the best men I’ve ever known. I had the honor of sharing ten years of my life with him one hour at a time. He taught me how to love myself. How to accept responsibility for my actions. And how to be a good, loving man who cares about not just his family and friends, but about everyone regardless of their defects, religion, sexual orientation, or skin color.
“Do you feel you have a drinking problem, young man?” Ernie asked me that first day as I stepped through a steel reinforced doorway into one of the prison’s few rooms designated for volunteers. He sported gold-rimmed glasses and several different shades of green like he was straight out of some 1970’s black exploitation film, but his eyes bored into mine with determination, almost as if he really cared to hear my answer.
“I guess,” I replied with a shrug.
Those determined eyes of his narrowed. “What do you mean, you guess?”
I shrugged again and his expression softened. He then waved me past. “Okay then. Have a seat. We’ll do our best to figure it out.”
Several chairs formed a haphazard circle inside the antiseptic-scented room. Half the florescent lights were out, lending the place a dungeon-y feel, and the A.C. had been cut off, which meant the room was sweltering.
I wandered over to a chair and flopped down.
Ten or so other convicts also sat in the gloomy room. We could all see one another, but nobody really saw one another. A few guys appeared relaxed, reading their A.A. literature. A few others worked some form of crossword puzzle or sudoku. And the rest of us kind of squirmed from the heat or stared down at our hands and feet.
One convict opened the meeting, but something in me refused to listen. “Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa,” the man’s voice droned on. I kept wondering what the hell I was doing there. Right up until introductions began, that is, and Ernie introduced himself.
“My name is Ernest, and I desire not to drink,” he declared proudly.
What the hell did that mean? I wondered. Don’t misunderstand, I knew what his words meant in the literal sense, but everybody else (me included) had just stated their first name and admitted they were an alcoholic.
I began to pay more attention.
And where I had earlier believed there was nothing this seventy-year-old black man and I could have in common, I quickly realized I was mistaken as I sat there listening to Ernie spin the tale of his life. I won’t go into any details because his words were so personal, but I will gladly tell you how that was the beginning of possibly the best friendship I’ve ever had.
“Hear anything you can relate to, young man?” Ernie asked after he’d finished speaking. “That’s what we do here. We relate. We never compare. Here everyone is equal.”
I did relate. I sat there with my heart in my throat. “Yes, Sir,” I finally answered with a nod and a gulp.
Ernie smiled. He had such a kind, wide smile. The type that draws you in. “I figured you would. Sometimes, like knows like. You just got yourself a good case of the ‘fuckits’ that’s all. That’ll pass though, if you keep coming.”
And it did pass.
When Ernie died I cried like a baby all alone in my 8×10 concrete cell for hours. I wanted so badly to spend some time with him as a free man. We often talked about catching a college football or basketball game together (Ernie was a diehard Michigan State fan, and I love the greatest college to ever exist, University of Michigan), or just hanging out doing ordinary everyday things that most free people take for granted, like fishing, walking in a straight line for more than a hundred yards (in prison we’re forced to walk in circles due to small rec [recreation] yards), or enjoying a home-cooked meal made with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The second group of people to touch my heart was the many religious-based volunteers who visit prisons to run classes, religious services, or hold special events. These courageous men and women taught me that God loves me, no matter what. And knowing God’s love opened me to the idea of accepting love from others. This radical idea (to me at least) transformed me into a better man. A good man.
Many of us in prison, due to the things we’ve done or our rotten childhoods, believe we are unworthy of love. This is so untrue. Love drives the Universe. Caged men need love too. Maybe more so. Starve a free man of love and affection and there’s a good chance he will grow discontent and introverted. Starve a caged man of love and affection, and there’s a good chance he will grow into a monster.
If I attempted to write the names of all the people who have touched me in this manner, then this essay would be way too long, but I would like to share a moment I spent with a volunteer who was teaching a religious class I was attending. The man’s name was Johnny. And this was many years ago, but his words changed my life. So much so that I repeat them as often as I can to anybody willing to listen.
“Jerry, you’re special,” Johnny said to me one day out of the blue. Class was over and I was the last one left in the classroom.
“Me?” I didn’t feel special.
He nodded. “Yes you. God has gifted every human being with a special gift. No matter how ‘dumb’ society says a person is, or how ‘fast’ or ‘slow’. Literate or illiterate. Short, tall. Blind. Deaf. Mute. Crippled. Everybody. God leaves no stone unturned. So, my next question to you is, do you know what your special gift is?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He smiled. “Well, don’t you think it’s about time you found out?”
And so I searched until I came across writing. I’m not sure if it’s my special gift, but it sure does make me happy.
Over the years I’ve taken classes or been involved with events and programs run by the University of Michigan, both from their Ann Arbor campus and their Flint campus. Through the Prisoner Creative Arts Program (PCAP), they do many wonderful things for us convicts. Most recently though, I’ve had the privilege to attend a writing workshop run by Oakland University.
The Oakland University folks: Anne, Marshal, Glen, and their students are such a joy to be around. Anne teaches fiction, Marshal nonfiction, and Glen poetry. To me the knowledge locked away inside their skulls is invaluable. As a self-taught writer in prison I’ve never had anyone to ask questions of. I’ve been forced to puzzle out everything through trial and error. And let me tell you, it has been one long, rocky, uphill road. Back in the beginning I barely knew the difference between a noun and a verb. Hell, I still run into grammar problems.
It felt good to finally meet people who had more answers than questions; to talk with people who love writing as much as I do. Just today I held a conversation with one of the students Anne brought in, a beautiful young lady named Emily. And as we sat there talking, it hit me that years had passed since I’d last spoken with a woman other than my mother or my sister-in-law. Isn’t that strange? How many of you in the free world can claim you’ve went years without speaking to a member of the opposite sex?
Not many, I’d wager.
For a brief moment, my eyes welled up and I fought back the urge to weep. There I was, happily discussing something dear to me, when I was suddenly smacked with the realization of how twisted and demented my existence truly is. Prisons in America are so messed up. But thank god for volunteers, because as I peered around through my tear-filled eyes and spotted the many smiles decorating the other convicts’ faces as they studied and learned about writing, I too smiled.
Emily briefly touched the top of my hand with hers. Just a slight brush. “It’s okay, I understand,” she said. And looking into her compassion filled eyes I believed her. At that moment she did understand. And that’s all I needed to hear.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
That blink in time was probably nothing to her. A fleeting moment. But to me it was a reminder that the world had not forgotten us. That kindness still existed in the land of mass shootings, mass incarceration, and mass destruction you “free” people call home.
Last, but not least, let me mention the Paws With a Cause people I work for here at the prison: Connie, Linda, Mike, and Ellen. These brave and highly skilled dog trainers have given me and many other convicts a purpose. Training dogs for those in need allows me to feel like an asset to society, rather than a drain on it. Paws has given me not only a skill, but a productive future. I urge you to check out their website. (Pawswithacause.com)
“So,” Connie said to me one morning during our weekly dog training class. She wore a huge smile so I knew whatever she had to say was going to be good news. “We just placed Maui with a young autistic boy. She’s doing a great job. You should be proud.”
Maui was the first dog I ever trained, and I was proud of her. I will love that dog until the day I die. But Connie’s words also awoken a different kind of pride in me. A pride I hadn’t felt in many years. A pride in myself for doing something good with my life.
“Thanks,” I said, a joy deeper than any I’ve known it quite a while bubbling in my heart. “It feels good.”
“What does?” she asked, eyebrow raised.
She laughed. “Why do you think I do it? Surely not for the money.”
Yes, we convicts brought ourselves to prison by committing crimes, but thanks to volunteers like the ones I’ve mentioned and many others, those crimes do not have to define us a men.
My name is Jerry Metcalf, and I am not a Convict. Not a Prisoner. Not an Inmate. Not a Number.
I am a Writer.
You can contact Jerry directly at:
Jerry Metcalf 251141
3225 John Conley Dr.
Lapeer, MI 48446
email @ jpay.com or firstname.lastname@example.org