Andrew C. Miller
When Jeffrey asked if the club could have a pizza party, I said sure—the last volunteer had donated 80 dollars to their account. What kind? I asked. Cheese, he said, get seven medium-sized ones. And what about drinks? Water, he said, would be fine.
Alcohol isn’t permitted inside a prison, and I couldn’t bring in a multi-gallon drink dispenser filled with lemonade or Kool-Aid, and it was against the rules for the men to leave the Chapel, traipse en masse across the compound to purchase sodas at the canteen. Most of them would not have the money to do so, even if they could.
Pizza and water it would be.
Jeffery’s request came during my third week as a volunteer sponsor for Out of the Blue Gavel Club, a version of Toastmasters for incarcerated people. In prison, people join Gavel Clubs for the same reason men and women in the free world join Toastmasters: they want to become better speakers. They realize that poor communication skills might have contributed to their long sentences, or even brought about their confinement.
Jeffery was a lifer. Slim, dark-haired, quick to smile, not more than five-five or five-six tall. What first caught my attention was his penetrating gaze. Whether from a few feet away or across the Chapel, it pierced me like a knife. And his tattoos. Swirling down his arms and legs, across his forehead, around his neck. He looked and acted like the sort of guy who’d wade into a fight without hesitation—arms and legs swinging, pressing close to his opponent. Although he scared me a little, I liked him from the start.
Jeffery was half my age, probably in his early thirties. Why did he have a life sentence? It would be easy for me to check his records. But I won’t. All I want to know about Jeffery is what I’ve learned since we first met. One thing I know for sure: he likes pizza and wanted to enjoy a piece with other club members. That got me thinking about the many times I’ve eaten pizza with friends and family.
More than fifty years ago, I sat with friends in a bar in northern Michigan. It was winter break, that quiet time between Christmas and New Years. We ate pizza, drank beer, talked about the college classes we’d be taking next year, the jobs we’d apply for after graduation. A bowling alley and rec area were in the adjoining room. When the flimsy connecting doors swung open, our conversation was drowned out by the sounds of pins clattering, the hard smack of a ball hitting the hardwood floor, and the monotonous bing-bing-bing of the pinball machines. Outside, icy snow pelted the windows; cars crunched slowly past.
We talked about the future as though we knew what lay ahead.
A week after Jeffery’s request, I purchased seven pizzas, wrapped them in a blanket, and drove to Jefferson Correctional Institution, located nine miles southeast of Monticello, Florida. I signed in at the control room, passed through two remotely operated gates in the Sally Port, and entered the frisk room. After being wanded and patted down, I watched the stack of pizza boxes creep down the belt toward the X-Ray machine. Not the sort of thing I’d seen before, but like security checks at airports, I knew not to make light of the matter. Several months earlier, another volunteer was banned from a Florida prison when a guard discovered an Allen wrench in his guitar case.
Since no one had baked contraband into our pizzas, I grabbed them and headed to the Chapel. Someone must have spotted me on the walkway because two men met me pushing a cart. I expected a cheerful hello and some casual banter about pizza, but they were silent. I followed them into the Chapel and took my customary seat in front of the lectern. The doors opened, and men flowed in. I was surprised to see many new faces—more than usual. Visitors to the club can’t just drop in; they must register in advance. These men signed up before our party was scheduled.
Jeffery counted the men. He looked at me, drummed his fingers on the table, and counted again. Thirty-nine, he said. Since there were eight slices to a pizza, we had slightly more than one piece per person. I expected him to glare at me and ask why I didn’t buy more. I could have; there was enough money in their account. Even if there weren’t, I would have paid for them myself. Why didn’t I? Perhaps it was the prison environment. Jeffery said to buy seven, and I bought seven. Also, I was new to volunteering at Gavel Clubs. I didn’t anticipate so many visitors. Still, it bothered me that we wouldn’t have enough pizza.
Years earlier, my wife and I often visited a combination movie theater/pizza restaurant with our son and daughter. We’d watch old movies—usually Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, or the Marx Brothers—while we ate. Our children would run around, drop pizza on the floor, and generally have a good time. My wife and I drank beer and watched the movie.
Or we’d make our pizzas at home. Spread the dough on a cookie sheet, spoon on the sauce, and let the kids add whatever they wanted on their half. Sometimes we’d order a pizza and have it delivered. Sit in anticipation, just us as a family. Or, we might have friends over. Drink beer, chat, listen to music, the sounds of the children playing in the other room.
For most of my life, all I knew about prison came from watching movies like The Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke, Papillon, and The Shawshank Redemption. But that all changed in 1993 when my son was arrested. I still remember the call.
Mr. Miller, this is the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Office in Starkville. We have your son. He’s been arrested.
I rested one hand on the wall and pressed the receiver tight against my ear. Manufacture of marijuana, the Deputy said, with intent to sell. The analytical portion of my brain overran my emotions. Manufacture of marijuana—seemed like an odd way to describe it. People do the cultivating; plants do the manufacturing. From carbon dioxide, water, and micronutrients, they synthesize sugars, carbohydrates, oils, and many other compounds. I pondered this for several seconds, then felt foolish. Not a time for my mind to wander.
This was a felony offense with profound implications. It was one thing to possess a small amount of marijuana and another to tend a crop. My son pleaded guilty; it would have been foolish not to. He was a student at Mississippi State University in Starkville, with a population of about 19,000. We had lived in Vicksburg since 1980. All of us were born in Michigan. As northerners, we couldn’t expect leniency in a small southern town where the sheriff, judge, and jurors had known each other since childhood.
After sentencing, my son was taken to the Starkville County jail. The cells were on the second floor, lined up like freight cars on either side of a short hallway. Most housed two or three men, although a couple of women were in one. No outside yard for exercise. In the evening, deputies opened the doors for an hour or two so everyone could mingle.
My wife and I visited our son once a week. Starkville was 160 miles from Vicksburg. Those trips were particularly bleak since my wife had moved out several months earlier and taken an apartment in Jackson, some 45 miles away. Each time we made the trip, I had to pick her up and drop her off. We brought him magazines, personal items, and discussed local goings-on. Once, I carried in a large bag of apples, figuring they’d last a long time. He thanked me then explained he would leave the bag out so the others could help themselves. When only a few apples remained, no one would touch them. Those were his.
I understood in seconds, although my wife didn’t get it. Whatever the gift, the intended recipient could expect a few, but not all. It didn’t bother me that my son wouldn’t get every apple. He had learned how to survive.
My son stayed at the County Jail for three months. Then he was transferred to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, a maximum-security prison in Sunflower County. He was held there for several weeks and then transferred to a work camp in south-central Mississippi. He stayed there for a year and a half, then returned to Mississippi State University and graduated. Now he is a software engineer in Washington, D. C.
Did that experience motivate me to volunteer in prisons? It certainly did not dissuade me, but my son’s incarceration was not the sole reason. My parents volunteered, although not in prisons, so I was used to the idea. I frequently ask others what motivates them to sponsor gavel clubs. Usually, I get various responses; there is rarely one overarching reason. Some will say that they belong to Toastmasters and gavel clubs are a logical extension of that interest. Or they’ll say they’re impressed and inspired by the prison clubs, or they just want to help people less fortunate than themselves.
Those are all motivating factors for me, but I could add two more. I very much appreciate getting this in-depth look at America’s carceral system. Walking in and out of a prison once or twice a week to attend a meeting has taught me much more about this subject than watching a few prison movies. It’s been much more of an education than weekly visits to my son; I was blinkered then by our emotional connections. Perhaps more important than that, I strongly believe that my presence is important. Inmates and staff understand that I am not there to visit a friend or family member but to help and support everyone. And I get to observe the inner workings of America’s prison system.
With minor variations, the story of the Loaves and Fishes appears in all four Gospels. It tells how Jesus fed 5,000 followers with only a few fishes and loaves of bread. Taken literally, the message is clear: although there was not much food, everyone ate, all were satisfied, and plenty was left over—more than what they started with. John (6:14) expressly referred to it as a Miracle: “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”
Did this incident fit the definition of a Miracle: a surprising event not explained by scientific laws and therefore the work of a divine agency? Or was it a case of some people refusing to eat so others could? Then during later retelling, the story was greatly embellished.
My wife and I brought pizza to our son when he was in the work camp south of Jackson. We told the correctional officer in the frisk room that it was for him and a friend. She shrugged as though to suggest we had wasted our time and money. We carried the pizza to the rec area, a yard behind the building, surrounded by a chain link fence looped with razor wire. At the rear of the yard, near the fence, were swings and slides for visiting children. Our son’s friend came out, nodded, smiled, took his pizza, and went back inside. I had looked forward to sharing food and conversation with him and was disappointed.
Jeffrey said each man could have one slice of pizza. They lined up, a stream of blue jumpsuits, white stripes running down both legs. Each man picked up his portion and one paper cup of water. When everyone was served, Jeffrey sent the remaining pieces to the Chapel library.
Out of the Blue Gavel Club members did what Jeffrey told them to do; took one slice. Nobody grumbled, complained, or surreptitiously grabbed more. Why? Perhaps prison protocol kicked in, what my son learned in the Starkville Jail. Or the men realized supply was limited and acted accordingly. Regardless, the genes for prosocial actions must be forged in our DNA, selected for, and passed on. For many of us, they operate whether we are inside or outside prison. Miracles, to be sure, but with a small “m.” They shouldn’t be rationalized by superstition.
Jeffery stepped up on the podium. He gripped the lectern with both hands and leaned forward as though to touch us. His eyes swept the room and stopped when they met mine. He nodded, a hint of a smile on his face. For a few seconds, I thought he was about to restart the meeting and lead us again in the Club Pledge. If so, he would do it like he always did, shout the words like an evangelical preacher. Or like he’s leading us into battle. But today, his voice was low. I strained to hear.
It’s not pizza, he said, but the memories it triggers. He paused, glanced at the clock on the far wall, then continued. Where were you when you last ate pizza? With your parents? With buddies in a bar? With a girl? He stood quietly for nearly a minute, waiting for a reply. But there was none. He shrugged, left the podium, and sat by himself in the first pew.
Before retiring, Andrew Miller worked as a research biologist for the US Army Engineer R&D Center, then taught biology at Thomas University in Thomasville, GA. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Front Porch Review, Blue Lake Review, The Meadow, The River, Northern New England Review, Maine Homes, Toastmasters Magazine, and Fatherly. He lives in north-central Florida, volunteers in prisons, restores antique stained-glass windows, and writes. He is the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Mud Season Review. His website is http://www.andrewcmiller.com/.