And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

On Tuesday, I returned for a visit to the female inmates in the Waukesha County Jail. I think it’s been a year since I was there – the last time it was scheduled, there was a “substitute captain” and he decided that I wasn’t vetted enough, even though I’d been there a lot by then. Talk about feeling ineffective; there was no one I could complain to, no one I could yell at. I just had to accept that I wasn’t going in that day, and the women who were expecting me would just have to talk about the book to each other and their instructor.

That not being allowed to do something I so wanted to do – pretty much the epitome of jail and prison life.

I started doing this a couple of years ago, beginning with a visit to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute in Pendleton, Oregon, a maximum security men’s prison. I was invited in, because this prison is also the home of the last clock-making and repair school in the United States, and, of course, I wrote The Home For Wayward Clocks. The experience was life-changing in a way that I still can’t articulate. When I wrote about it, a reader here saw it and invited me in to the Waukesha County Jail. I know many writers lead writing classes for inmates, but I didn’t want to. Not everyone is a writer, believe it or not. But everyone can benefit from reading, and I wanted to connect through my words, not my teaching. It’s been amazing. I’ve learned something every time I’ve gone in.

This time was no different.

While the women were told to focus on In Grace’s Time (Today’s Moment was not allowed in because the captain decided the cover was “too graphic”), they were also encouraged to grab anything I wrote. All of my books (except one) are in the jail library. This resulted in the most comprehensive discussion of my own work that I’ve ever been party to.

For a writer, this is just a mind-blowing experience. You always wonder if your work has any impact, if you’ve made any difference. All around the table that afternoon, surrounded by the plain white walls of the jail, I saw the difference. I saw the impact my words and sentences and stories were having. Each of my books (but one) was held tightly in eager hands.

I made a difference. Holy cow.

Though I suppose you could say I had a captive audience too (someone had to say it…it might as well be me).

But then there was this. My liaison said, “Oh, did I tell you what happened after you left last time?” No, she didn’t.

The Correctional Education Association of Wisconsin sponsors a yearly creative writing contest, open to people currently incarcerated in the prison system. They publish the winners every year in a book that is also filled with artwork created by the inmates.

When I left last time, four of the inmates could not wait to get to the computers they only have access to when they’re in class. They wanted to write.

They wanted to write.

And they made it into the collection.

I was given the little magazine. The pages were marked so I could find the works by the inmates I’d met. My liaison told me of one woman who sat at the computer and wept the entire time she wrote.

Oh, the words!

Where do I go when I can’t see them anymore? Did they notice I left at all?


The most beautiful smile is marked in/the heart/like a tattoo made in the soul

In the prison system, healing is as hard to find as natural light. But there are ways.

One of them is reading. And another…is writing.

I made a difference.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

They’ve made a difference.

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