Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

A Group of High School Students Gave Me a Gift: My Humanity

Aug 11, 2023

By Rob Barton

I just had the most transformative experience, and it could not have come at a better time. It’s been said that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. And this time, I know it was for a reason: I needed it!

For the past month, it seemed like life was going from bad to worse for me. First, the entire prison was locked down and it quickly became clear it would be for a long while. (We’ve been locked down since July 10.) Then, I became sick as a dog with COVID. And finally – because, as they say, trouble always seems to come in threes – I was hit with an incident report for using someone else’s phone minutes. (It’s against the rules, but very common. People like me with lots of family members, friends and – in my case – volunteer work quickly burn through the allowed 500 minutes per month. Meanwhile, other prisoners who don’t have those connections don’t need their allotment.) 

As a result, I was “teamed” by the staff assigned to the Challenge program in which I participate. (Challenge is one of the flagship rehabilitation programs offered in Bureau of Prisons penitentiaries.) Three staff members from the program met with me to discuss the problem thinking behind my rule-breaking, and then decided separately if I should be expelled. Because I owned the fact that I had wrongfully broken prison rules, I was allowed to stay in the program. 

However, three weeks later, I challenged the incident report in the official disciplinary hearing because one of the reported dates was wrong. And because I chose to fight the charge, I have lost all my privileges (phone, ability to shop at the prison store and visits), and the Challenge team reversed its decision, removing me from the program. Meanwhile, we’re still on lockdown: behind our doors 24 hours a day, except for 10 minutes to shower Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 

An unexpected encounter

I have been feeling very down on myself, uncertain about my future and whether I’d ever be free. (I have a parole hearing coming up, and being kicked out of Challenge will likely count against me.) Then, unexpectedly, I was summoned to a legal call, and my lawyer connected me to a group of high school students who were spending the week with her as part of Leadership Initiatives, a summer internship at Georgetown University. They were already well-versed on the mission of More Than Our Crimes, which I co-founded; had read many of my blog posts; and were eager to interview me. 

I doubt you can imagine what conversing with these young people, hearing their empathy for my plight, and answering their questions did for me. They let me know that my work/writings are meaningful. They lifted me out of my funk. They revived my confidence that all will be well in the end. And most importantly, they restored the humanity I had begun to think was fading away. I thank them from the depths of my being!

What particularly revived me was the thought-provoking questions they asked, moving me to deep introspection. The questions ran the gamut from, “How does a long lockdown like this affect you?” to “Why do guys use other people’s phone time?” to “When was the first time you encountered violence in prison?” But the question that really got to me was the one asked by a student named Luke: “Rob, I just wanted to know, how are you doing?” I literally felt tears well up in my eyes.

Normally, when I’m asked this question, my default answer is, “I’m all right.” I have to be all right to live this struggle day after day. But honestly, I’m not all right. I have been caged in my cell and haven’t been able to talk to my loved ones for more than a month. To try to steal a modicum of privacy when I use the toilet or give myself a “bird bath” in the sink, I string up a sheet. But even with that, I’m subjected 24/7 to another man’s body odor and farts. I had started to get used to it, until those students asked me how I was and restored my sense of self. No, I am not all right! To feel otherwise is to normalize what is highly abnormal. 

The power of trust

One of the students asked what I do during lockdowns, and my answer was “read.” And I proceeded to tell them about my current book, “Papillon” — the 1970 memoir by Henri Charriere about his 14 years in a French penal colony and his eventual escape to Venezuela. Although it was written long ago, there is so much about prison that is the same today. Papillon, as he was called, became obsessed with one goal: escape. During one of his attempts, he and his two accomplices were offered refuge in a stranger’s house. And Charriere wrote this: “The fact that this man could go away, leaving three escaped convicts in his home, was priceless to us. He seemed to be saying, ‘I consider you perfectly normal men. I have known you only 12 hours, but I have enough confidence in you to leave you in my home alone with my wife and daughter. After talking to you, I cannot believe you are capable of behaving badly in my home, and so I’m leaving you here just as if you are old friends.’ This demonstration of faith moved us a great deal.”

Charriere goes on to observe, “I am not a good enough writer to convey the intense emotion I felt due to my newfound self-respect. It was rehabilitation, if not a new life. This imaginary baptism, the immersion in purity, the elevation of my being above the filth in which I was mired, made me a different man. The convict’s complex makes him hear his chains and suspect he’s being watched even after he’s freed. Yet everything that made me feel tarnished, rotten and dangerous dissipated as if by a miracle.”

This is what the students’ compassion, concern, understanding and empathy did for me. It was like a hug, letting me know I’m human. It was like a ray of sunshine in a cold, dark dungeon. As with Papillon, it renewed and rejuvenated me, pulling me out of the filthy morass of the prison life that I had allowed to debase me and harden my heart.

Thank you, students. I appreciate you more than you can ever know. 

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