By Eli Goodrich
December 7, 2019
I am sitting in a crowded room where everyone is talking, but no one is talking to me. I know a few guys there, but they are all in the middle of conversations with other men I don’t know. Or at least other men I don’t know yet. Normally I’d be nervous and self-conscious. I’d feel awkward. I might leave, or stay for one meeting and never go back. However, this time is different. I am calm, happy and surprisingly confident. I know these men are only strangers temporarily. In a few weeks they will transform from a mass of unidentifiable strangers into unique people, into friends, into brothers and sisters. And those weeks will absolutely fly by. This is the orientation for the advanced Restorative Justice Workshop. My experience at the introductory workshop and months of alumni gatherings has built up a mountain of good will and trust. This program is different. We meet, we share, we grow, and once it’s over the bonds remain. This is rare in prison. Most programming is mandatory and so the men themselves become mandatory. There is no trust, no vulnerability, no sharing of any depth, and certainly no community. You see men on the walkways, passing within inches of each other, totally unacknowledged. We start as strangers, complete a 6-month, 2-day-a-week course, spending a hundred hours together, and strangers we remain. RJ is different. We pass on the walkway and we wave, say hi, use each other’s names, hug, and ask, really ask, how we’re all holding up. We care about each other. And as I sit alone at orientation, I know I will care about each and every one of these men. And so, instead of running from this moment, I savor it. The room isn’t special. It’s a standard group room with a white tile floor, concrete walls, a couple of windows that struggle to complement the artificial fluorescent ceiling lights. The room itself is empty, sterile and cold. And that’s how it was designed to be. All we have to compete with this is a whiteboard and a handful of red plastic chairs arranged in a circle. And ourselves, of course, and that’s more than enough. This room will be forgotten. It will fade into nothingness as we pull more and more of ourselves into this space until all that’s left is us. We are here because we want to be, not because anyone is telling us to. We want something better. For a little while, at least, we’ll be free. So I notice the last few fleeting moments of strangeness, alone in the crowded room, and I cherish them, because I know they won’t last.
--I am Eli. Accomplishments: Eli is a Saint Joe’s alum and graduate of Neshaminy High School. He works as a CPS on the housing unit for men living with mental illness. He hates the phrase “mentally ill,” but hasn’t come up with a better replacement for it yet. He is an active member of AVP, RJ, and Just Listening. He is a certified Yoga Instructor and teaches classes to a wide range of practitioners. Authentic Self: He is passionate about the arts and finds himself acting as “Marcus Brutus” in his second production of Shakespeare at Phoenix, playing the guitar and singing (finally in front of people), learning to draw, writing with some consistency, and spending any spare time he has under a pile of books. What do I wish for? Eli tries to leave his cell and make the world a kinder place each day, even though he’d rather grab his guitar and hide under a pile of books.