'A Christmas Carol' prompts inmates to consider their own holiday ghosts(Read article summary)
A group of inmates read and watch versions of Charles Dickens' holiday classic, prompting them to chronicle their own ghosts of past, present, and future.
After reading âA Christmas Carolâ and watching three movie versions (two in black-and-white) of the Charles Dickens classic, a group of inmates who took college classes from me (as part of a community-college outreach program) were moved to chronicle their own ghosts of the past, present, and future.
Are their stories what you would call "Dickensian"? Yes, I think so. Admittedly, guns didn't play a large role in any Dickens novel but street crime ("Oliver"), selfish neglect ("The Old Curiosity Shop"), regret ("Great Expectations"), and family disappointments ("David Copperfield") certainly did.
Here are some of the tales as told by my inmate-student.
An Urban Tale:Â A 28-year-old inmate was prompted to recall his own story of âwrong paths, regret, and pain.â He wrote of âdisturbing memoriesâ that were âlife-altering to myself and those close to me, and even to some people I never met.â
âWhen I was 17 years old, my grandfather â my best friend â died of a stroke in the back of a cab, because the cab driver didnât think straight. Then I didnât think straight.
âI was getting a shape-up on 152nd Street, when a homie burst in telling me I had to get right over to Lincoln Hospital. No oxygen was going to my grandfatherâs brain. He was brain dead. I saw them pull the plug. Thatâs when something in me died.
âI blamed the cab driver for not going straight to the ER.
âFor some reason he kept circling, while my grandfather met his lonely death in the back of a dirty cab.
âI remember changing clips as I dumped round after round into the cab base: two clips and an empty 357 later, I made my escape. That was the night everything changed. I had hit the dispatcher.
âMohawk, Oneida, Auburn, Elmira, Coxsackie, and Comstock â prisons, I remember them all vividly. Scrooge had his ghosts, I have mine.
âItâs pitch black, itâs raining, but Iâm not getting wet.Â Iâm shooting and shooting into the cab base. Theyâre hitting â theyâre hitting my grandfather, but not piercing.Â The bullets come back and hit me, and theyâre piercing.
âI shot away my teenage years, and my twenties. But Iâm in a good place now â not âcause Iâm in prison but because of what I see for myself coming out.Â Iâm distancing myself from old dreams."
Dreams that donât die:Â An inmate who lost a brother to gunfire wrote of a Scrooge-like specter: the threat of a lonely death. Networking for him is a delicate process: âI am too paranoid to befriend a new face and too cautious to trust a familiar one."
âI catch myself imagining heâs with me, walking and talking in a peaceful place. Happy. Nothing can harm us. Nothing to worry about. Then I realize that itâs not my brother, âcause my brotherâs shot dead. So this person is a demon playing tricks on me....
âIf I hadnât been away, doinâ my bid, I might have been able to talk him out of tryinâ that robbery; talk him out of carryinâ a gun. But I was in prison â on gun charges.
âI wish I could just close my eyes on that dream. Donât have a good one to replace it.âÂ
Dreams open eyes:Â Another inmate who lost his brother to gunfire is dubbed âpreacherâ â mockingly by some in âthe general populationâ (of the prison) and respectfully by his classmates. He lost his wife to cancer and yearns to prevent the preventable.
âCancer is a stray bullet. I couldn't do anything about it. But I have seen friends and neighbors âoffedâ â some by stray bullets and some not stray. I got to take aim on those....
âLike Nicodemus, I am born again mentally. I close my eyes so dreams can open them.â
The Present as a Gift:Â A seemingly shy soft-spoken inmate (who wears a prayer cap and shawl) wrote and spoke about his abilities as a hustler â his blessing and his curse.Â He explained that he was always able to get what he or his family needed â for example, money to fix up his grandmotherâs house. She lived there for 30 years and then it burned because of old wiring and fuel lines. But âneeds" werenât his downfall: He freely admitted that he was always able to get what he wanted and that his âwantsâ got him prison time â which, he admits, is what he needed. Heâs come to think of an âejection buttonâ â which, in his visions, becomes a rejection button, of a sort:
âWhich ghost would haunt me the most?Â I have to say my present: Iâm not 100 % out of the woods yet. I know I should be done with the streets, but I still have thoughts of making fast money. So to keep from going down, I have this ejection button â itâs my mental picture of my little girl.
âThen I âseeâ somebodyâs daughter as a pregnant teen, an HIV mom, in an abusive relationship....
âI know I blame my father for me being in trouble. I donât want my daughter (sheâs ten) to feel about me the way I feel about him..... I have to be out there, steady, for my daughter.... They call the âhere-and-nowâ the Present, because it is a gift. Like most kids, I thought the bigger the gift, the better the present. The best present I can give to my daughter is my presence. I have to do everything I can to keep my present as short as possible, even just to be outside just a day sooner.â
As the reader of these essays I can only hope that, like Scrooge, my inmate-students will find that it's not too late to learn from their ghosts.Â
Joseph H. Cooper teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.Â His âPauses and Momentsâ stories appear at PsychologyToday.com as âRumblings from the lane next to the off ramp.â