At 12:20pm, on December 4, 2013, Wednesday, I had absolutely no idea where I was. A group of women trudged past me. I looked around wonderingly, walking past a Dunkin Donuts stand and a row of subway fare machines. I stared at signs reading “Ashmont”, “Braintree”, “Red Line”.
Are they here? I wondered to myself. I don’t know. Doesn’t seem like it.
Of course, I went against my instincts and proceeded toward the signs. I would later find out I had headed in the wrong direction. An hour later, I would be in prison.
At 12:25pm, Madison ’17 called me.
“Where are you?” she asked.
I mumbled something probably nonsensical about underground trains and missing signs. I was at the Alewife T-Station, which comprised a towering building, stacks of parking lots, and an extensive underground subway system, translating to a rife chance to get lost. And lost I was.
It took a few extra minutes of talking to Madison on the phone, and backtracking out of the vicinity of the trains toward the parking lots, for salvation to arrive in form of Tally ’17, who spotted me from two floors above and waved.
“I just saw Tally!” I told Madison excitedly. “I’m saved.”
I ran up to Tally, and a short while later, I was standing by a timeworn car with my Ancient Greek Philosophy professor, Lee Perlman, and two of my classmates from concourse, Tally and Madison.
“Well, that was traumatizing,” I said in relief.
“Just glad we found you,” Lee replied as we all got into his car. He set his GPS for Framingham, MA, slightly over thirty minutes away from Alewife, and the little journey began. All four of us began talking, and as you’d imagine with MIT students sitting alongside their professor, a good deal of the discussion revolved around things we’d recently talked about in class—Descartes’ ontological argument for the existence of God, the evolution of ideas as time bypassed the era of the Ancient Greeks and approached that of “the Moderns”. When we got to Framingham, we noticed a sign reading, “Beaver Street”.
“This is where MIT should have been!” said Tally, amused. I agreed.
A short while later, Lee parked his car in between two others. We all got out; the cold air lashed out, biting. We stared at barbed-wire fences and grim-looking towers. We headed towards the visitors entrance of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) Framingham, an all-female prison.
One extensive security check later, Lee, Tally, Madison and I trailed after two women, past the first building we’d entered, into a courtyard of sorts. More barbed-wire fences spread around grassy slopes and brick structures. One of the women pointed at different buildings, explaining what they were. We passed through one that had originally been a female reformatory in the 1800s, usually punishing minor “offenses”, ranging from husband disrespect to scandalous dressing. We walked past a room in which several large and incredibly beautiful American Flags were being sown by inmates. Finally, we ended up in a small classroom, a rectangle of tables and chairs framing an expansive space. One of the walls, deeply red, bore the letters: Boston University.
Turns out BU funds an educational program at MCI in which inmates get to take classes and ultimately earn a Boston University Bachelor of Arts degree for free. However, the purpose of the visit today wasn’t for a class—although I ended up learning a lot, a valuable lot. It was for interaction, a chance for us to talk to some of the inmates, and for them to talk to us.
We eventually got seated and about six inmates joined us. They were varied, in age, height, race and length of prison sentences. They were incredibly friendly. They were very willing to talk.
Lee spoke for a little bit about the Greek Philosophy class, about tracing ideas through time, about how long he’d been teaching it. He also shared some amazing details about his high-school days, which I won’t mention for obvious reasons, except to say, MIT Professors absolutely rock! Then Tally, Madison and I also shared rather intimate details of our lives. By itself, that was a great bonding experience.
Finally, we got the chance to hear the inmates speak.
One of them spoke about how the BU program had helped her adapt to MCI. Paraphrasing her, “I got in here and everything was focused on me. There was absolutely no privacy, and it was a shock, moving from having a relatively quiet life, where my business was my business, to MCI, where the scrutiny is intense, 24-7. I was glad at the opportunity to take classes. I’d just pile on knowledge from the lectures; they’d keep me busy. They’d let me focus on other things. They’d help me move on. I completed the BU program two years ago, so I actually have a college degree. When I get out of here, I actually have a chance to restructure my life. It’s something I’m grateful for, something I try to pass on to the other inmates. I try to get them interested in the program.”
The others had similar stories. The BU program was optional, but the alternative was an endless stretch of months filled in with nothing but the assigned institutional jobs and some interaction with others. One of them spoke about a woman who had expected to be in MCI for life. She’d taken about four BU classes through the program, but had ultimately decided to stop. Suddenly, something in her case had changed, a successful appeal perhaps, a granted parole. Either way, she was free, but regretted having not seized the chance to have obtained the degree. It would have made a world of difference for her upon release if she had.
The prospect of education filled them up; it was dignifying and personally rewarding. That chance also gave them a strength to go on every day.
From one of them: “I was a mess when I got here; I remember just bawling my eyes out during the trial. And then I got into this program and I felt more confident. Now, I just live in the moment. I don’t try to count down on anything; I just push through every day, knowing that when the next day comes, I’ll have the strength to do push through again.”
Some of them spoke more extensively about their lives prior to incarceration, painting a very strong picture of the chances one got in life. Dealt cards that were rotten. An ideal line of path that was suddenly upturned by a mistake. They had taken responsibility for their actions, but they hadn’t let the fact that they were in a medium/maximum security facility bring them down. They had taken to learning, excitedly, progressively. They had taken to staying optimistic, thinking of the mistakes that had gotten them in, and of the ways they could make the best out of a difficult situation.
“You can either let this place break you, or you can make a good life out of it.”
We left a few hours later, after getting the chance to see an extensive collection of paintings by one of the inmates. I remember staring at those pictures, the intense blends of varying colors, their shades and shadows forming potent images that remained etched in my mind. The artistic talent was amazing. It was just amazing.
“This is really powerful,” said Madison. We all agreed.
As we headed out, towards Lee’s car, we talked about what we’d seen. Tally was struck by their positive will, their optimism. “Despite everything, something keeps them going,” she said. If there was ever any reflection of the adage that human spirits can stay strong in the face of darkness, that people can make personally uplifting opportunities out of absolutely anywhere and anything, it was reflected in those inspiring women.
“But one thing…” Tally observed. “According to the women, there are about twenty inmates in the BU program, but the prison has about six hundred and fifty inmates.”
Lee started his car. “Yeah, we actually met the most strong-willed, most positive ones,” he said.
I wondered aloud what made the difference between them and the others.
And of course, it was in the difference of the choices they had made.
“This was amazing,” said Madison.
I looked back at the buildings as we left, inspired.
“Wow,” was all I could say.
By the time I arrived at MIT, the sun had long set.
I was still thinking of them.