What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?
What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?
-Bob Dylan/What Good am I
To say the least, I was never interested in PRISON. In the family I grew up in, we didn’t know ANYONE who had been in prison and my attitude was well, if they’re in there that’s where they belong and what they deserve. I felt no compassion and no interest whatsoever; it was a world that didn’t exist for me.
That was when I lived in Texas.
Then I moved to New Mexico and things changed. They changed because I met Jody Armijo.
He came over once the first summer after I moved. I saw him coming and I shut the gate. I live in a small community where there are no secrets and everything is known about everyone and I had been told that he had been in prison. I was afraid of him so I shut my gate and he left.
I based my opinion of him solely on the prison thing [I didn’t know what he had been in for]. And also that he was from a very different culture, was kind of rough looking [I had grown up in an upper middle class all white world] and had several tattoos.
I didn’t see him for a while after that and then he came to do some work at my place-he was part of a small construction crew.I no longer felt afraid of him. He was very quiet and shy but he began showing me some of his artwork and I saw that he had a lot of talent. I wanted to help him with his art and I bought him some colored pens, pencils and paints.
He made some things for me.. and he talked more but it was a long time before he told me that he had been in prison. Slowly, a little at a time, he talked about it. He had been a drug dealer -mostly cocaine [never heroin] and he had been in a lot of fights. After being out of prison for a while, he had gotten stabbed, nearly losing his life. He told me that he had spent about 7 years total in prison and about 5 years in jail. He came from a different world, one I could not begin to imagine….But I started to notice things about him that didn’t fit my image of a convicted felon: For one thing, he was extremely devoted to his 90 year old grandma… taking her on walks, making sure her oxygen was hooked up, carefully putting the drops in her eyes that she needed and watching her ‘stories’ with her on TV.
And he loved baking cakes. Always for his grandma’s birthday at the end of May, he made her a cake. He told me that when he was about 10, he had baked her a cake and while it was cooling outside, the dog ate it. He had cried so hard but together he and his grandma had baked another.
And he made beautiful drawings on handkerchiefs, something he had learned how to do in prison.* In Spanish these handkerchiefs are called Paños and they often very detailed and beautiful.
He didn’t look like someone who would do any of these things. I couldn’t fit them together-his extraordinary sensitivity, the cakes and the handkerchiefs- with the image I had of him.As time went on, I learned more and more about the prison system. I watched The Green Mile and Shashank Redemption with Jody and he told me “Yeah that’s right..that’s how it is” * Jody has been diagnosed with PTSD due to the ‘horrific violence’ he witnessed in prison.
These are great movies but it’s a very different experience when you’re watching them with someone who has been there, when you understand this is not just a movie, this is real, this is what it’s like inside a prison- the rapes, murders, the violence, the horrendous conditions. Is it any wonder then that many inmates come out much worse than when they went in..more angry, more violent, ready to commit more crimes.
As my life seems to be filled with synchronicity, I was put in touch with more people who in some way or another, had been involved with the prison system. These included three artists from Taos-a woman who fell in love with and lived with a convicted felon, another who had spent a year in prison for shooting a man in a bar and a legendary painter who teaches art to the lifers at San Quentin.
I filmed interviews with these people and a few others, and my son and I began a documentary on the prison system titled, The Light in the Shadow. The preview is below. *We would very much like to complete this film- we need about $40, 000 to do so. All the interviews have been filmed and what remains is the editing and obtaining licensing for the music. If you have suggestions, please contact me through this blog.
In this life I’ve lived, I have, after being raised in an all Anglo, upper middle class world, been fortunate to have experienced different cultures- primarily Native American and Hispanic and to live with people from very different walks of life. When I founded Rites of Passage to provide care for people with AIDS, it was not something I wanted to do but rather something I knew I would do and what I learned from the patients we took care of, people who at that time were thought of almost like lepers…. what I learned from these patients about life and death was invaluable. If I were raising a child again or teaching children, I would make sure that these types of experiences were made available ..it’s the way to learning compassion, understanding.. it’s the way to unite the human race…
Below is a song written by Bob Dylan and rerecorded by THE PINES. It’s for all of us living in these times of judgement, hatred, racism and separation. It’s a reminder that there is another choice, a higher choice…
Please check out THE PINES and their haunting and beautiful music. In these times of extreme materialism and selfishness, they allowed us to use some of their music for the preview of THE LIGHT IN THE SHADOW as did Chet O’Keefe and Woody Russell. These bands/singer songwriters are original, unique and powerful. THANK YOU GUYS, ALL OF YOU
THE LIGHT IN THE SHADOW PREVIEW
*Feature image on this post: “Jesus in Prison” Santa Fe Penitentiary photo credit: Michelle Line