J: Did you have qualms before you went into prison for your first day of work?

P: No, I didn't. I was so excited from the word go because it was unknown, totally unknown. It reeked of adventure and unpredictability and even a Hollywood feel.

J: Were your expectations met? Or surpassed?

P: They were met, and they continue to be met twenty-four years later. It's still unpredictable. What I didn't realize then, but what I saw very quickly, was that there was a vitality that I found in the people that I worked with that I didn't see on the outside. There was a kind of courage and vivacity and authenticity in there. That's still what's keeping me excited every time I go in. I continue to go to four institutions every week—a couple of medium-security penitentiaries in Connecticut and a couple of county jails in Massachusetts, but my heart is in the higher security prisons.

J: Do you still teach outside at all?

P: No, I don't. I'm really not that interested in teaching any other population, unless they are people who are on the fringe or in the margins or are somehow either disabled or deprived.

 

Photo by Ronnie White

J: What is it in the prison setting that you're finding so rewarding and that the population you're working with finds rewarding?

P: What I find rewarding is a kind of innocence. People always raise their eyebrows or at least raise one eyebrow when I say this, because we're talking about people who were found guilty of whatever it was. But many of the people in prison that I've met, particularly in the higher-security circumstances, are people who have, for whatever reason, a very thin layer of defense or protection covering their real selves. In a way they've faced the worst in themselves—what's bad, or what they've done wrong, or feeling worthless, however they might put it—so they're not trying to hide it from themselves or anyone else. As a result there's a very tenuous little veil that's very easy to move out of the way.

Suddenly there's an authentic person who's able to access something very, very deep. All the layers that exist in me and many of my friends aren't there. So the work is coming from a very pure place. That's what I saw on that first day, but I didn't exactly know what I was looking at. Now I know what it is, and I know how to access it. I know how to move whatever's in the way out of the way pretty quickly and with great excitement. Then these explosions happen one after the other.