My cousin, Mark Unger, finds himself unexpectedly in prison, and has turned to writing as a sanity outlet. This essay was one of this year’s winners in a creative writing competition sponsored annually by the Prison Creative Arts Program based at the University of Michigan. The winning writers will be honored at a ceremony in Ann Arbor next month, and the winning works will be published in an anthology later this year.
I salute Mark, not only for his writing talent, but for the strength and grace with which he’s coped with setbacks that would plunge most of us into an abyss of despair. I’ll write more about the criminal justice system next month.
Location, Location, Location
by Mark S. Unger
It was Friday and I had just been fired from my job: teaching real estate to youthful offenders at a Michigan prison.
Youthful offenders (I can’t decide if it is a euphemism or oxymoron) are prisoners aged 14 to 21. Most are serving less than two years and will have their records expunged when they discharge. Others have lengthier sentences and will be transferred to an adult prison for the remainder of their sentences. For a few, that means life.
As a prisoner myself, I was wrongfully convicted (a subject for another time) and have served four years of a life sentence. One day, a fellow inmate approached me about becoming a “facilitator” to teach various curricula to the “kids” (they hate that term), who are housed separately from the adult prisoners on the other side of the prison.
Initially, I was hesitant. The program was brand new, had no funding, and was only implemented because the Y.O.’s were so out of control that the institution’s federal funding was in jeopardy. Besides, what did a 49-year-old, white, Jewish, “old head” (I hate that term) with barely any prison experience have to offer these street-smart, mostly inner-city, gangsta-rapping thugs, other than easy pickings? I could see myself getting threatened by some gangbanging kid for my store bag or protection or who knows what else.
After some deliberation, I decided to try it. I was assigned to teach three different courses to three separate groups, three times a day. One was Man 2 Man, one was Real Talk, and one was Real Estate Investing. My primary subject would be real estate. Why real estate? I’m not sure. Based on a book called How to Buy Real Estate When You’re Broke and Bankrupt, perhaps administration felt it fit the Y.O.s’ circumstances. Since I had spent ten years as a mortgage loan banker, it certainly fit my qualifications.
With sweaty palms and a pounding heart, I entered my first classroom—not really a classroom, but an officers’ break room—now occupied with fifteen pairs of young eyes focused squarely on me. To my relief, another facilitator walked in. Apparently we would be teaching together. His nickname was K-X, and I watched as he took control. He talked about coming from the streets, his life of crime, and his nineteen years in prison. They respected him instantly. He had street cred. Me, not so much.
Two days later, K-X missed class because of a scheduling conflict, and I was on my own. After watching him for those first couple days, I was relatively confident of my ability to maintain order. The morning group went well (sleepy teenagers at eight in the morning). The afternoon group was a disaster. When I tried to figure out why, it occurred to me that unlike the adult inmates, who were out of our cells all day, these young men were kept cooped up in their cells. They only got out for meals, one or two short rec periods, and these classes.
Most of them were okay, but the two or three who weren’t took over the small space. They were talking over me, over each other, flashing gang signs and being disrespectful. At one point, one Y.O. in particular was walking around in this small space, shouting about guns and bitches and ho’s and God knows what else, while pretending to shoot a gun. I didn’t know how to react, but drawing on K-X’s lesson, I asked them if they wanted to skip the real estate lesson for today and hear my story. They did.
Over the next hour, I told them of my idyllic childhood, my not-so-great tweens, and the pain of my parents’ divorce when I was fifteen. I talked about my drug-infused young adulthood, marriage, kids, my own divorce, and the horror of my wife’s death. I told them how suspicion followed and led to my arrest, termination of my parental rights, betrayal by people I considered good friends, conviction, prison, and a near-death experience at the hands of a razor-wielding inmate who snuck up behind me and slashed me across the neck and throat. By the time I tilted my head back to show them the scar that runs from the top of my collarbone to the tip of my chin, you could have heard a pin drop.
Now that I had their attention, I explained to them that I might not know what life had been like for them: growing up in the hood, on the streets, homeless, parentless, in the dope game, on the wrong side of the tracks and the law. But if they wanted to learn something new, if they wanted to know about business and income property and how to make legal money and change their old lives so they never had to come back to this God-awful place, then I was their guy.
Immediately, they wanted to know more. About my case, not real estate. Did I have a paid attorney? (Most of them did not.) Did they offer me a plea? (They did not.) And how did I deal with the life sentence? (By staying focused on my appeal.)
Class ended shortly after the questions began, but as they left that day, I got two things—hugs and respect. They taught me that day that talking about my pain opened the door for them to trust me with theirs. The real estate became secondary to the other two subjects, which dealt more with the struggles many of them encountered in their personal lives. They also started to embrace the real estate. They really responded the day I introduced the concept of interest over time, and they saw how much money they could make from something other than selling drugs.
As the weeks went by, we shared lots of hugs, a few tears, and more love than any of us could have imagined. By the end of the course, these young men not only knew how to buy real estate, but each of them stood in front of the class and delivered a property presentation detailing how they intended to select, finance, purchase, and manage the rental properties they now knew how to buy. I couldn’t have been prouder if they were my own children.
When I got fired, it was a shock. Supposedly, I interfered with an officer who tried to remove a Y.O. from the classroom. Of course, this never happened. Although I never had a hearing, I found out later why I was really fired. I was told it was because I was advocating too strongly for the Y.O.’s. Damn, I shouldn’t have pushed for that fan in our classroom! One staff member told me that some of the officers didn’t want the program to succeed, because prison reform and rehabilitation could actually decrease their job security.
In prison, you learn that the small minds of a few often impose their will on the captive minds of many, regardless of the long-term impact on both—or is that because of it? I also learned that the Deputy Warden, who initially implemented the program, took a job at another facility the same day I got fired. Firing me was the officers’ way of reminding everybody who was back in charge.
Could I have fought it? Yes. Would I have won? No. The one person who could have worked behind closed doors on my behalf had just left for another prison, and had I pursued it, I probably wouldn’t have been far behind him. And I need to stay at this facility. It’s close to home, it’s laid back, and it has ramifications for my appeal that I cannot afford to jeopardize.
But more importantly, this experience changed me. I made a positive impression on those young men, and they on me. When I run into them on grounds, they always tell me they miss me and I should hang in there. Whenever they are being corralled from one location to another, I always look to see if there is anyone I know. Will they turn their lives around when they leave here? The odds are against it. But if a couple of them think twice about whether to pick up a gun or the real estate section, it will have been worth it. I know that when (not if) I get out, I plan to work in some fashion with at-risk youth to try to help prevent them from ever coming to prison in the first place. That’s the least I can do for some “kids” who taught an “old head” about more than real estate.
Copyright © 2011, Mark S. Unger. All rights reserved.