I’ve Been Incarcerated for More than a Decade. Music and Literature Set Me Free

As part of our June/July Freedom issue, BAZAAR partnered with PEN America to commission a five-part essay series on the theme written by women who were formerly or are currently incarcerated. Titled Essays on Freedom, the collection was curated with the help of Caits Meissner, PEN America’s director of Prison and Justice Writing.

“Writer-as-witness Elizabeth Hawes confronts the common, albeit misguided notion that incarcerated people cease to evolve once locked behind prison walls,” Meissner says. “On the contrary, Elizabeth reminds us incarcerated people often purposefully construct their days around the pursuit of connection, contribution, and creativity within a rigid and punishing environment—using the imagination as an engine.”

Elizabeth Hawes is a multiyear PEN Prison Writing Contest award winner.

Content warning: this series deals with topics including suicide and sexual assault.

The window in my cell, where two fat robins hop upon sparse, faces north; mid-May patches of newly seeded grass line the sidewalk along my living unit. The birds are oblivious that they set up shop in a prison. They are free to fly over the fence.

This past year, the world learned about freedom because COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns stripped people of their own. Everyone’s ability to do what they wanted was curbed. I was stunned that so many people on TV were talking about how isolated they felt, and how this isolation was damaging their mental and physical health. They often talked about how bored they were. Most people were with their families in their homes and had 24-hour access to phones, computers, cars, food delivery, Netflix, books, games, their pets, and nature. Most people could walk barefoot around the house or on their freshly mowed grass, listen to music without wearing headphones, drink a cold soda, and use metal flatware. Most people could make a snow or sand angel, eat guacamole, light a candle, and take a bath. Most people could wear their wedding rings, if they had them, and clothes in colors other than gray. They could walk their dogs and sleep on a mattress. When they could find it, they could use two-ply toilet paper. They could ride a bike, go for a drive, shop online, smell some lilacs, bake a pumpkin pie, pour a glass of wine, or spend time with their children.

The hardest thing for me and the people I live among is our inability to care for those we love.

Prison is sterile isolation 24/7. Friends have freaked out when they’ve learned I do not have access to the Internet. I’ve often been asked what the most difficult part of being here is. I can’t speak for men in lockup—although I’m guessing it’s the same—but the hardest thing for me and the people I live among is our inability to care for those we love. We are not free to hug our children after they’ve had a rough day. We can’t walk a son to a bus stop or help a daughter purchase her first bra. We are not free to drive a mother to her chemo appointment or rake leaves for a blind neighbor. We can’t support our families financially. We can’t attend a funeral or a graduation, or be present on any special occasion.

Like breathing, the need for freedom is innate; our bodies are made to move, our minds are programmed to learn, and our hearts are constantly contracting and expanding. Freedom is expansion and joy.

When our environment is, for whatever reason, compressed and dictated by others, we dig in and find freedom wherever we can. Words and music save us. I am transported listening to Christine and the Queens, The xx, The Raconteurs, Patti Smith, and Car Seat Headrest. The poems of Su Hwang, Layli Long Soldier, Wisława Szymborska, and Ilya Kaminsky bring out the fighter in me, while the works of short story writers Lucia Berlin and Bette Howland, journalist Masha Gessen, and novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg humor, inform, and inspire me. PBS and NPR are invitations to a bigger conversation. They allow me to still have a relevant voice.

Like other writers, I write to bear witness, to advocate, to entertain. Writing gives me purpose. Nothing gives me more joy than helping another write an effective letter to a judge or an attorney who will help them with a custody issue, or to help someone write a solid paper for a college class. Writing forces me to be vigilant. I consider it an act of bravery to be present for a decade in this unnatural, insane environment. The payoff is, the more I listen to people, the more humanity I see. I see survivors.

Writing forces me to be vigilant. I consider it an act of bravery to be present for a decade in this unnatural, insane environment.

I used to equate prison with bad people, as the criminal cases we see in the news are most often sensational and violent. I used to have a long-held why-would-ya theory, as in: Why would you choose to do the wrong thing? Turns out, there are lots of reasons. Sometimes, people just make bad choices, but more often, they act out of desperation or addiction, or to protect those they love. Prison is full of people who suffer from addiction or mental illness, or are victims of abuse or violence. Most people who enter prisons and jails lived below the poverty line before their arrest. Our common denominator is trauma and loss.

I’ve met women who broke their parole in order to have a warm place to sleep in winter and eat three square meals a day. I’ve heard some people say that in here is the safest they’ve ever felt. When they came back to their cell after working for a quarter to $1.50 an hour at the prison, they told me, “Prison was better than coming home to a violent rage,” like they did on the outside.

My friend Melissa is here on a meth-related charge. She is 38, and prior to prison had been to chemical dependency treatment three times. She is currently in the same treatment program here. Melissa was first exposed to meth on her 11th birthday. It was a present from her dad.

Whether we are moving toward a dream or fleeing a nightmare, we are all hoping for something better.

At first, these conversations shocked me. I never lived under a bridge. I never came home to a fist. But the more women I engaged with, I came to realize that there is obviously more to freedom than physical space. There is a freedom to go after one’s desires. There is a freedom from what one fears or despises. Whether we are moving toward a dream or fleeing a nightmare, we are all hoping for something better. We hope for options beyond fear. While prison is a continuation of diminished choices, we attempt to put ourselves on a more fulfilling trajectory.

The truth is, there are few differences between most people in prison and most people living outside the fence. As our culture grapples with some hard truths—such as the fact that 2.7 million American children have an incarcerated parent, with racial disparities revealing that one for every nine of those children is African-American—we can focus on connection. All people love their families. All people want to feel safe. All people want to find purpose and dignity, and contribute to the world. It is my hope that Americans remember how isolated they felt during the pandemic. When looking at prison reform, people can no longer pretend that locking in large portions of people is humane or constructive to society.

Our imagination can dominate carceral spaces. My freedom lives beyond walls, beyond flag, beyond expectation. I’ve learned real freedom is in the mind and heart. It is there I focus my attention.

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