Thursday, September 25, 2014

“Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying”: Witnessing Redemption at a Modern Day Shawshank - Dispatches from Maine

Tim Robbins, in The Shawshank Redemption

For several summer we have driven US Route One up the coast of Maine from Kittery to the Canadian border.  This is a heavily traveled corridor, and although it has its moments of breathtaking beauty, for the most part it is a series of small and larger towns with their traffic lights, strip malls, auto dealerships, tourist clap-trap and the like.  In other words, mostly forgettable.  It is a shame, but that is the truth of the matter.  It is way to get where you need to go and not much more.

One notable exception was always the town of Thomaston near where the St. George River flows into the Gulf of Maine.  It has a pleasant little downtown with red brick buildings, stately Victorian homes and lots of trees.  What caught your attention, however, or at least until 2002, was a large and imposing stone edifice standing along US Route 1 on the edge of downtown - the Maine State Prison.  It was in 2002 when it  was closed and demolished after the prison population had been transferred a few miles away to a modern larger facility in Warren.  In a day and age when so many would be happy not to have a maximum security correctional facility in their backyard, the state prison had long been synonymous with Thomaston and many of the townspeople were sorry to see it leave.    

The prison was originally constructed in Thomaston in 1824, just four years after Maine separated from Massachusetts to become a state of its own.  Built on what was then called Limestone Hill, many of the inmates worked in the adjacent quarries and on area farms.  The original prison burned in 1923 and was replaced by that imposing structure I came to recognize on frequent trips through Thomaston.  But now it too is gone; an ever distant memory.  Today the site of the old prison is a large, grassy field, but a corner of the original outer wall has been preserved to remind people what once stood there in the heart of Thomaston . . . that and the Maine Prison Store and Showroom on Main Street adjacent to the site of the old prison. 

Our visits to Thomaston over the years have usually included a stop at the Prison Store where we marvel at a large selection of wooden boxes of all sizes and shapes, cutting boards and other kitchen items, cribbage boards, toys and various wooden products, including tables, chairs, and other furniture items crafted by the inmates in the prison workshops.  Simple in design, most everything evidences quality workmanship . . . at very reasonable prices.  The store is run by Department of Corrections officers assisted by inmate trustees who carefully wrap and bag each purchase.  I am always struck by how friendly, polite and personable each of the CO’s and inmates are.  When my son was much younger he was fascinated by the inmates working in the store, often admiring their evocative tattoos.  These men are clearly proud of the workmanship of the items for sale and their opportunities to interact with the customers.  I have always come away with a good feeling that those who find themselves incarcerated, for whatever reason, are being trained with marketable skills and able to feel that, when the time comes, they will be able to enjoy useful and productive lives and careers on the outside.

I freely admit that these frequent yet brief visits to the Prison Store in Thomaston have been my only exposure to the Maine State Prison system.  Well, that is not completely true.  I have also seen the 1994 Frank Darabont film, The Shawshank Redemption, based of Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (1982).
The film tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker from Maine played by Tim Robbins, who is convicted of a double murder in 1947 and sentenced to life in the fictional Shawshank Prison (references to this prison are found in several of King's fictional works).  There he meets Red, another lifer played by Morgan Freeman, and they form an odd yet interesting alliance as they both try to cope with their incarceration in different ways.  There is, however, a major difference between them besides the color of their skin.  Andy believes he is innocent and falsely imprisoned.  Red knows he is guilty of the crime for which he was convicted yet continues to tell the parole board to no avail that he has been rehabilitated knowing full well it is probably not true.  Red paints for Andy a rather hopeless future for the inmates of Shawshank; “when they put you in that cell . . . and those bars slam home . . . that’s when you know it’s for real.  A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye.  Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”  But Andy, despite his pleas of innocence, refuses to give up hope (the subtitle of the novella is “Hope Springs Eternal”).  “Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”  If you are able to keep hope alive, even while incarcerated with little chance of parole, there is a small piece of freedom no one can ever take away from you.  Andy establishes a prison library and helps other inmates get their high school diplomas.  This is Andy’s redemption; he is able to preserve his integrity and self-worth when confronted by what almost anyone would believe to be a hopeless situation.  Perhaps in his own way Red see the wisdom in this.  “Like I said, a man will do anything to keep his mind occupied.” 

A couple days ago I had my own personal Shawshank moment, a chance to see beyond the walls of the new Maine State Prison in Warren.  A good friend of mine and fellow historian who teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta, and who for the past three years has taught classes in the Maine State Prison College Program administered by the University College of Rockland, invited me to speak to his class in Holocaust studies.  Over the years I have spoken to other classes he has taught elsewhere and I was more than happy to oblige a good friend.  A two-hour drive from our summer place on the lake, I was up at the crack of dawn for that very familiar drive up US Route One.  I was able to enjoy a palette of autumn colors once the sun rose above the Gulf of Maine before I arrived at the new prison facility in Warren.

There was no doubt I was in a maximum security prison.  I was limited as far as what I could take in with me, I was issued a visitor’s identity card and a “man down device,” a personal safety alarm I could use if I ever felt my safety had been compromised.  We were escorted through a series of secure doors having to sign in each time.  Once in the interior courtyard ringed with high fences topped with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire, we were escorted to the nearby education building.  Inside it looked like many schools I have walked through in my time . . . offices, classrooms, a gymnasium.   Still, there was no forgetting where I was.  All one had to do was look through any window at the high fences and concertina wire.

Soon the inmates/students arrived in the classroom, most of them with smiles on their faces.  They seemed to be very happy to be there.  Many of them walked right up to me and shook my hand and told me how glad they were that I had come to speak to their class.  They took their seats, opened up their notebooks, and waited for me to say something.  They had come to learn.  They all had read a couple of my articles given to them earlier in the course, and after I spoke off the cuff for an hour or so I open the floor to questions.  Unlike many classrooms I have sat in front of where the students looked at their feet, or out the window, or worse yet, at me with vacant stares, these men came loaded for bear.  I was peppered with intelligent, well-formulated questions for the next hour or so . . . and it could have easily gone on for another hour or more.  As they filed out of classroom at the end of our session just about every one of them came up to me again to shake my hand and to thank me for coming.  I could honestly tell them that the pleasure was entirely mine.

My return to the outside world followed my entry in reverse.  Once again the fences and the concertina wire reminded me where I was.  I would be returning to my car and my trip back down US Route One to the lake.  The men with whom I had shared a fascinating and educating morning (for me as much as for them) would be returning to their cells.  At the end of the day there is no escaping the reality of their situation.

After we left the prison my friend and I shared lunch nearby and he told me a little more about the education program at the prison which offers a high school completion program and various vocational options, as well as a college program leading to Associates and Bachelors degrees in Liberal Studies granted by the University of Maine at Augusta.  The latter program is fully funded  through the Sunshine Lady Foundation established in 1996 by Doris Buffett, the sister of billionaire Warren Buffett, who is a strong believer in education as a means of reducing and eliminating recidivism.  The Maine State Prison is one of four maximum security prisons in the nation with full-tuition college programs funded by the Foundation; it does not cost the Maine taxpayer a single cent.  My friend also told me that those who have completed the college program in Warren and who were finally released have stayed on the outside.  It appears the program is working just fine.  The inmates chosen for the program undergo a rigorous selection process.  They learn because they want to learn.  Not to my surprise, my friend added that his students in the program are perhaps the finest and most motivated he has ever taught.  High praise indeed. 

Many of these men will remain incarcerated for a long time as they repay a debt to society whose laws they chose to violate.  And there is no doubt that many of them will face a rough road once they do get out.  There will always be those on the outside who will think these men are no better now than they were when they went in.  But they will know better.  Unlike Red in the film, they will realize their entire lives have not been blown away in the wink of an eye.  They will respect their self-worth and will know they have the education and the tools to make a go of it on the outside.  Better yet, they will do whatever it takes to make certain they never go back to the dead end that prison has meant for so many like Red who came before them who did not have the opportunities offered to them.

Perhaps it is too easy for those incarcerated to think they are lost.  Many remain angry men believing they have been locked away and forgotten, that there is no chance for any sort of redemption.  The men I met and talked with have made another choice, and probably the more difficult one.  They have taken a negative and are turning it into a positive.  Prison is not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new one.  In The Shawshank Redemption, Red tells Andy he doesn’t think he can ever make it on the outside.  But Andy knows better when faced with prison or freedom: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”  I had the honor of sharing a morning with a few men who have made that choice.  I wish each and every one of them all the success in the world when they rejoin it.

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1 comment:

  1. Great post Steve! It is amazing to see the workings insode of a correctional center school, which is where my own life's work has taken me. In my case, some of the students don't want to be there, but just as many come to class equipped and ready to learn. One of my aides may be one of the best teachers I know, and he reprises the Dufresne role every class, as he talks of using his time "inside" to make a difference, while working on his next degree. Fortunately, he only has a year left in the custody of the state, and I have encouraged him to open a tutoring business or something along that line. Good read!