The first five or so times I walked into ACJ, I was overwhelmed. It’s a maze of identically nondescript hallways connected by elevators and staircases. During in-facility training, I followed a C.O. down corridors and into elevators, was shepherded through intake, taken into a different elevator to go up to the medical pods, and then traveled back down I don’t know how many levels so I could be shown the Adult Intermediate Unit—home of the classrooms and library. Because I am privileged enough to be in a position to teach in jail as fulfillment for a course requirement in a graduate creative writing program; because I passed clearances; because, while doing the few illegal things I’ve done, I was never caught; by the end of that day, I had an I.D. badge and magnetic key. I was free to leave.
The game we know as Chutes and Ladders was originally developed in India as a way to teach children about karma and kama—destiny and desire. The ladders symbolize the good deeds and virtues that lead one towards Moksha through positive reincarnation. The chutes, originally snakes, represent the vices and bad deeds which lead to negative reincarnation. The snakes always outnumber the ladders.
Three weeks ago now, in the Thursday Men’s Class, we ended up talking about how hard it is to write happy poems. Some of the guys were concerned that they could only write “depressing shit.” Others quipped, “We’re in here. What happy shit have we got?” Another student said, “I try to write happy things so I can find some peace.” The class got meditatively silent after that, in the way that it often does, until someone makes a joke to break the tension. I don’t remember the joke that broke this silence. But I do remember that silence, remember realizing yet again that I’ll never teach these guys as much as they teach me. The next week, without even realizing I had done so until afterward, I turned in a distinctly happy poem for Thesis Seminar.
Every Thursday, after class is over, Cedric and I shut the computers off, un-circle the desks, erase the whiteboard, return the library cart, slide the attendance sheet under Jack’s door, walk down hallways, are buzzed into stairways, swipe our mag-keys over the EXIT receivers, are buzzed into an elevator. Down in the employees’ lobby, I let the guards check my teaching bag for contraband, and then we leave. Once we reach the parking lot, I always turn towards the building and look up at the grid of square, barred windows pocking the jail’s bricked façade. Without helping it, I think about Snakes and Ladders. Then, I think about the dice, how chance is the slipperiest, most unfairly important thing.
-Hannah Cloninger, Words Without Walls Teacher