When I walked through the door and sat beside them in a metal chair at the metal table in the room with bars, I became their hope. I wasn't always what they wanted, but I was what they had. What they wanted was to be out. Or, sometimes, just a cigarette or something other than the donuts that they got every morning for breakfast.
They didn't have money and they rarely had family that stood by their side. Even some of the juveniles had families that didn't show up until ordered by a judge to be present. They all shared a common thread of having been charged with a crime, and most shared a tendency to profess innocence and unfairness and claims of being railroaded in the face of hard evidence. But the common thread that was most noticeable was a loss of hope. By the time I sat down, their ability to look at what could be had been overshadowed, and then rubbed out, in the face of what was.
What was was nearly always a past touched or dominated by poverty, or abuse, or neglect, or addiction. Or all of the above, which might have been the answer on the SAT that they didn't take because no one around them saw the value of education.
In the tight space of that small barred room, hope had already fled. It is hard to hold onto at 15, when your mother goes into court and asks that her parental rights be terminated. Or when the kitchen table for family dinners holds the makings of a meth lab instead of a pot roast . When your grandfather is also the father of your child and no one in the family thinks he should be in jail. When police are never seen as friends.
It is not hard to see in that room how the loss of hope can turn into anger, or into a life where repercussions are seldom considered because repurcussions happen in the future and there's little reason to think about the future when it holds no hope. The popular "live for the day" adage takes on an ominous character when it arises from a loss of hope. Rather than seeking out sunsets, it finds people taking things that aren't theirs, hurting people without thought, and getting involved in a drug culture that feels good right now.
It's not an excuse, but it is defining, and in all too many cases it's almost inevitable. It's easy for people on the outside to look at the person next to me and to think that they don't deserve a second chance. But sitting next to them, it's just as easy to see that they didn't have the first one.
I always came into the room too late. By the time I entered hope had already turned into anger, or a self-hatred hidden by bravado, or an unpenetrable numbness.
The only hope in the room was usually my own. The hope that I could make a difference. The hope that the person next to me might find a way to turn their life around. The hope that those who went to prison and returned would return reformed. The hope that those who walked out would find something to walk to that was vested in a future rather than the next five minutes or the next high. The hope that they could rediscover some hope in their own future.
Sometimes my hope was in the big picture--the hope that our justice system works, that all people receive fair and equal treatment. But how it can be fair and equal when we start from such different places was a question I could never answer to my satisfaction.
Even when I was able give the person next to me what they wanted, I couldn't give them what they needed. In far too many cases I would find myself sitting next to them again. And as years passed, next to their sons and their daughters. The same room, the same chairs, the same loss of hope.
I think it was the passing of the generations that finally made me get up and walk out--that saw the edges of my own hope start fraying and become too often entangled in the loss of theirs. That made me realize I also wanted out. While I still had hope.
I sell books now. I donate some each year to the jail and hope they're read.