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The Glass and The Stone

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

24 hours before I stepped foot in prison, I had just driven away from a members-only club with velvet-lined seats, a rotating collection of contemporary art, and a glass elevator. A talk had just been given by one of the creators behind Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black as part of a social impact speaker series focused on incarceration. The room was filled with smartly dressed millennials and Gen Xers wearing clean sneakers and dainty but expensive-looking jewelry. While the event closed out, listeners laughed and talked quietly in small groups, stirring their gin and tonics elbow-to-elbow. I sat at the kid’s table, a full glass of water in front of me.

When I arrived at the stone-walled California State Prison site in Solano, I was told to look straight ahead and avoid eye contact for my own safety. I walked in a line with 30 other people, all my senior, past one of the yards where men in blue shirts turned and waved to greet the new faces who appeared quite lost. No one waved back. We entered the gym, which at one point operated as temporary extreme overflow housing, to meet the participants of Defy Venture’s Entrepreneurs in Training program. Men of all ages, straight-backed and smiling warmly, welcomed us to join the presentations they had created about business endeavors which they hoped to start upon release.

Each carried optimism on his tongue like a flicker sheltered from the gentlest breeze. Finishing up their thoughts, the men in blue suddenly turned with rapt attention toward a tall woman, dressed head to toe in a black blouse and pencil skirt, who began to explain the transition into the next part of the visit.

All the visitors were told to get shoulder-to-shoulder with one another, each facing someone wearing blue, for an activity called “step up to the line.” I stood eye to chest with a slim Black man offering a soft smile. He looked like he may have been in his 70s, but the stresses of the environment seemed to have worn the lines around his forehead deeper than those around his smile. The questions flowed smoothly and easily at first, as we wordlessly shared from the surfaces of our hearts by stepping forward or remaining in place. The lines on my partner’s forehead grew deeper as the questions took on a different weight. I gazed down the line painted on the floor in front of me after a question was asked about receiving a college education to find that nearly every person I once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with had taken a step forward. I stood in place, still too young to attend college and acutely aware of the certainty I felt about my future. A few men on the other side of the line stepped forward. Most stood still.

Questions about watching family members pass away were met with tears from people on both sides of the line. Partners offered each other the gift of witness through a furtive handshake made clandestine by the punishing gaze of the prison guards. Strangers standing shoulder-to-shoulder embraced and cried like brothers. Questions about refusing to give oneself forgiveness prompted the gazes of many men in blue to slip to the floor. Questions about witnessing violence at home, questions about witnessing violence at school, questions about witnessing violence between friends and strangers. So much loss wore blue. In that room, for a few moments, no one carried the weight of all they had experienced alone. No one was reduced to the worst thing they had ever done.

When I turned my back to the line, I knew the walls of our two rooms would suddenly change. I would turn back to my world of bay windows and unscuffed shoes and the line behind me would fold itself neatly into a novel experience. The man across from me would turn away from the line and join another line of 30 people, all his junior, all dressed in blue, and summon the energy to thank me in the same moment he would be yanked away by a voice cold as stone informing him he was out of time.

He was one among many who had served decades-long sentences in state prisons for harms he participated in as a child. Many of those standing beside him had also begun to gray. Disposed of, forgotten, and never forgiven. I wondered how long it took the lines on his forehead to run from one side to the other. I sat quietly in the car on my way home. I imagined the kids table from the day before. I imagined him sitting next to me.

I watched my glass overflow onto a white marble counter this morning. I thought of him.


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