Stay Free


Monday was Robert’s last class. A big bear of a man, whose gentle demeanor is at odds with his appearance (and probably his record), Robert is being released on Monday, November 24th. This is a rare occurrence, since so many have the guys in our class are serving life sentences. These days, in Minnesota anyway, most life sentences are really life sentences.

Robert undoubtedly committed a less serious crime than most of his classmates. In order to know why Robert is getting released, I’d have to know what he was in for and I am adamant about not trying to find that out, for any of them.

Robert’s imminent release is bittersweet. What has been perhaps the hardest aspect of this experience has been the deep despair we feel when we think of the men we work with, incarcerated before they were 20, often for crimes the committed or were convicted of, before they were 18.  Some are serving multiple life sentences, consecutively, and have ridiculous sounding release dates like 2099. Last week, after Jason asked me if I could request that he be in the next class I taught, for no apparent reason, he said, “I’m 99 plus 17. 17. That’s how old I was when they sent me to the maximum security prison.”

So we respond to Robert’s news with a strange mixture of optimism and wistfulness. His release underscores the impossibility of the eventual release of others. Our understanding that they have committed very serious crimes does not ameliorate this wistfulness, even if one might think it should.

Of course, the other element that renders Robert’s release bittersweet is the ominous threat of recidivism. Nationwide, the average rate of inmates re-offending within 3 years of release is more than two-thirds. To be sure, education in general and higher education in particular has, in multiple studies and metanalyses, been found to the single most effective tool against recidivism. Yet despite these statistics, it is hard to fund higher education and the program in Minnesota has very little money.

 Higher education programs for the incarcerated are a tough sell, but it might be the only thing that works.


During our class break, I ask Robert if he would mind if I announce that tonight is his last class as well as explain the reason why. Robert says it’s fine. “I’m gonna miss you all. I mean it,” he says.

Right before class ends, I make the announcement. The class applauds, some looking at Robert, others looking down. Robert stands, and bows.

 The guard comes to the door to signal the end of class. As the men straggle out, Mike, a quiet guy who keeps to himself and doesn’t say much either to us or his fellow inmates, walks over to Robert.

“Hey, man, I know I didn’t get to know you very well, but I admired how you represented yourself in this class. I wish I’d gotten to know you better, and I wanna wish you the best of luck.”

“Thanks,” says Robert. They shake hands.

“I mean it, man. Go out there, represent, do your thing. But, mostly, for all of us, stay free, man. You gotta stay free.”

EXCERPT , Words No Bars Can Hold  , by Deborah Appleman



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