Just one day before the end of Hanukah and a week before Christmas I volunteered to spend time behind bars so I could sit in front of inmates as they shared intimate stories about their lives. Visiting Lancaster State Prison (stop two of our day) required security clearance you may never have access to unless you are sentenced there. So if you have ever wondered what life is like inside prison, here is your chance.
By Ashley Coffey
It is not often one gets to bare witness to the barebones existence of the people many call convicts. So I welcomed the opportunity when it was presented to me. During my time in California State Prison and a juvenile detention center, I met many people with conviction who have been convicted of crimes our judicial system deems unredeemable. But as a civilian I treaded without trepidation. With an open-heart and mind I made my way into uncharted territory thanks to our charted bus.
Inside our vehicle sat an executive from Apple, the founder of Instagram, Common, YG and many others. Every one of them decided to dedicate their time to learning more about people sent to live behind barbed wire. Wired from caffeine, sugar and anticipation-induced adrenaline we made it to our first destination. I knew we were destined for an unconventional experience when one of our rear wheels popped upon entering the juvenile detention center's parking lot. It was as if some external source attempted to stop us from sharing holiday cheer, but we were collectively unbothered and carried on with our mission.
As we left our flattened tire, our inflated hearts were full once we sat in a room of roughly 15 young women. Their strength brought us to tears as one girl shared her story of rape and another rapped her feelings in the form of spoken word. Her words leapt from the pages of her composition book titled, "Redemption" and made their way into our hearts. To my right, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave guidance to future voters like a soon-to-be Governor. Even though they were governed by the rules inside the detention center, these young minds still possessed their freedom of expression. These girls had an energy that failed to fade unlike the oversized clothes gifted to them by the government.
Then our full hearts were paired with full stomachs thanks to sandwiches provided by Mendocino Farms. Irony began to sink in as I imagined inmates traveling to the same prison we were, but under contrasting circumstances. We were visiting voluntarily; they were staying indefinitely and arrived in a bus imprinted with the words "COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT."
Once inside the dining hall reserved for our visit, YG reconnected with his brother for the first time in seven years. I captured this moment on three Polaroids I later gifted to the Compton rapper. I also witnessed dogs sitting attentively on leashes held by inmates who talked passionately about changing their lives. As they spoke, they opened our eyes to the creative spirit inside of them all.
They not only shared poems, but also gifted us with stories and smile or two. When I left, the experiences from that day stayed with me because their desire to change their own lives inspired me to do the same.