Is it “overfamiliarity” to grieve when a prison writer departs?
Overfamiliarity is a corrections buzz word that signals you’ve crossed the line. You, or the prisoner, have shared too much, gotten too close. Forbidding overfamiliarity is a way to ensure that boundaries are maintained, that behavior stays appropriate.
But it’s subjective. People connect. They can connect appropriately, but they still connect, and care. People, at least emotionally healthy ones, care about people they are in relationship with.
Like Dorothy says in “The Wizard of Oz,” “People come and go so quickly here.” The men in a correctional facility can be there one day, find out they’re “riding out” to another facility the morning of the next, pack up and be gone by the afternoon. This was the case with one of my writers, L.
I learned Saturday morning when I met with the prison writers group that L. rode out on Tuesday. Unlike when they’re paroled, when the men ride out like this their leaving is unexpected. They have little chance to say good-bye, to bring closure to any relationships they’ve formed. Once they’re gone, they aren’t allowed contact with anyone at their former facility, and this includes volunteers.
When someone leaves on parole, it’s bittersweet. I’m sad, but I’m also happy for them. But when they are suddenly moved, I’m just plain sad. There’s no bidding farewell nor any closure for me either. It’s an abrupt end to a connection L. and I have had around writing for several years.
From L.’s time in the writing group, he knows I believe in him. He knows I think he is intelligent, creative and talented. His writing is phenomenal. And he knows that I believe he has worth, that he is not his crime. He — and every one of these men — deserve the opportunity to turn their lives around if they chose to.
No one is disposable.
I volunteer because I want to walk alongside these men, and provide support, encouragement and resources on their road to rehabilitation. It’s not overfamiliarity that drives this. It’s compassion for another human being. It’s empathy.
And right now, it’s sadness at L.’s unanticipated departure and the loss of our connection.
Whether L. and I will cross paths ever again, who knows. My life is richer for knowing him and working with him. I hope he feels the same.
[Added 2/15/19: Here’s one prison writer’s insight about what this destabilization feels like. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/02/14/the-surprisingly-nomadic-lives-of-prisoners]