The men in our writing class, PHOENIX graduates, PHOENIX volunteers, and OHSU nursing students wrote these pieces. The first was from a PHOENIX graduate reflecting on his experience of COVID-19 in prison. Other were created for PHOENIX posts for #GivingTuesday. All are from the heart. We hope you enjoy them!
COVID on the Inside
We have asked some of our folks who were in prison when the pandemic began to tell us what it was like. Logan Winborn, released in September 2020, shares his story here.
Although I would rather burn these memories to the ether, I also see the importance of expressing what happened in prison to me, to everyone. Living within a society driven by capitalism, the prison system is no exception. I’d even say that capitalism is in its purest form within the gates. So when the pandemic hit, the heartless beast was able to snort with vehemence into the cold air and show yet another form of itself.
It seemed to all happen at once. The news. The chaos of everyone’s mind. The terror that began with the eyes of every spirit locked inside. Was it possible that this was the end? There isn’t much to do to distract one’s mind on the inside of a prison dorm and definitely not a way to create six feet from your neighbors who rest above you and to either side, an arm’s length away. I have spent nights awake waiting for my neighbor to stop snoring so I can get some rest. Opening a loud bag of chips just in the hope of waking him so I can catch that brief window into escaping. Not to mention the orchestra of farts thickening the air or the loud fans that blow those around.
So when the news started on their “propaganda of fear” the prison system became a heightened victim. We only heard stories from corrections officers about how the world was in chaos. A CO told me a story about going out to get cough medicine for his son who was sick only to find one bottle left on the shelf. He went to grab it and another lady got in front of him and took it. He threatened her with her life. On the way out of the store a man almost crashed into him speeding away and he got out of his car and ripped the guy out of his seat belt and threatened him as well. The world was painted in chaos What was all the hype about? Why was everyone so scared? Should we be scared? Are they going to let us all die in here?
We were all caught in a frightening lucid dream where there was no means to an end. The only heart capitalism had for us was the dollar signs behind occupying the beds we slept in. We needed compassion. We needed someone to ensure our safety. At this time the news was claiming that 10% of the people who fell ill, perished. Those were not good odds of survival. Or more like . . . a gamble that we should be forced to interact with. Italy was in the midst of figuring out where to stack their bodies as they ran out of room in their morgues. We were glued to the tv as the virus kept on with persistence and spread across Europe.
As per order of the CDC we were to obtain six feet of distance from other human beings. But we weren’t human beings in there though, we were numbers. 16394442. WINBORN. Also, we were supposed to be wearing masks, N95. It took months for them to sew together a bunch of headband-looking things out of a roll of fabric from Joanne’s to wrap around our nose and mouths that everyone used at night to put over their eyes to block out the fluorescent light that is always on. And yet they took another two months to make surgical masks out of the same fabric our button-down shirts are made with. Capitalism at its finest. We all knew it was bullshit, but we also all rallied for it. Begged them for masks. It seems that as a sick joke they forced us to wear poorly made, uncomfortable “surgical” masks which were the equivalent to grasping sand.
If they were to allow us six feet of distance, they would have to release one third of its inmates. Most of those people are in there on theft or drug charges. With close supervision and zoom calls daily, one third of the population could have been safely released into the community allowing the space to be safe on the inside as well. That would also mean that taxpayer dollars would end on those beds that were once filled. Nobody was released. Capitalism at its finest. Instead, we kept on rallying for six-foot boundaries and received yet another low blow from the system. They cut our yard time down to an hour a day and only let two dorms outside at a time.
The yard is a place when we can finally escape the stuffy windowless air that’s been circulating for years and years. It’s where we can exercise the steel beds off our aching bodies. Where we can talk to other people outside of our dorm. Where we can see grass and a few trees. The sky. Our next few months were spent inside for 23 hours a day. Glued to the news. Other prisons were rioting. Do we need to riot to have a voice? This marks the moment of the murmurs. Dorms collaborating with each other to do a potential peaceful sit. Refuse to go to sleep at night. The cattle have had enough. This also marks the moment when they formed an inmate/staff group to discuss what could be done, of which I was a part of.
“We need to have six feet of distance to minimize infection.”
“How do we do that?” they would say.
Writings for #Giving Tuesday
To me, PHOENIX Rising isn’t just two words shoved together to sound cool. I’ve found PHOENIX Rising to be a place where volunteers from the outside free world and guys on this side of the fence are able to come together twice a week and conversate and share opinions as equals, not by last name and SID numbers.
PHOENIX Rising and everyone involved have helped me to realize that I have a voice, willing to be heard and not judged and criticized. We laugh, we giggle, we get serious. When I’m in class, I feel free. I feel welcome. I feel appreciated. I feel understood.
To all the volunteers, Harry and Karen, Emily, Jeff, Peter, Dave, Cecil and Jean, as well as the rest of the fellas from this side of the fence, I say Thank You.
A gathering of poets A gathering of friends When sharing our feelings we bleed from a pen. In Phoenix we see no color In Phoenix we teach one another In Phoenix we read with each other And always believe in each other. Together we meet Together we write Together we are a phoenix on the rise. Brendan Lord
The empowerment of the role of a leader is a unique thing, something that can be abused, or something that, if harnessed and applied appropriately, can bring about great feats and invite necessary change. Phoenix Rising helps solidify your foundation for the latter, creating a platform that it continues to build upon: teaching skills for community organizing through trainings; intentional conversations and plenaries; and tackling current issues while being aware of looming problems. It has awakened in me a desire to play my part, embarking on my role as a leader.
Today [November 6th] marks my one-year anniversary of being released from imprisonment. A lot happened in a year.
- I got out with two jobs that I helped create for myself while I was in, All Rise Magazine and Liberation Literacy.
- I became a yoga instructor and volunteer with Living Yoga through a scholarship.
- I was invited to be on the strategy team of the Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good.
- I was made president of the board of Phoenix Rising Transitions.
- I got in three car accidents-one sliding on ice attempting to turn; one where I was stopped at a red light and a person ran into my car from behind going 35 miles per hour where I had to go to the emergency room for whiplash; and the third where I hit debris stuck in the middle lane of the freeway that ripped off the front right side of my bumper.
- I spoke at Reed College with my close friend and co-worker Jarell.
- I was featured in Lewis and Clark Law School’s Week of Mass Incarceration and held a class on the differences of prison reform versus abolition and told my story.
- I was allowed to hold a workshop at Lewis and Clark’s 38th Annual Gender Symposium regarding the masking of self in captive spaces. It was one of the most well received events during that week and is the thing I’ve done that I’m most proud of since release. My own Sermon on the Mount, I would say.
- I was homeless on two occasions and had to live in my car at a rest stop when not working.
- I was denied lifesaving medications that came out while I was in prison for my Cystic Fibrosis because I wasn’t sick enough, according to my insurance.
- I was hospitalized for two weeks and had at least one visitor every single day I was there, which meant the world to me.
- I was diagnosed with PTSD and kicked out of a re-entry program due to not being criminal enough, and not having a problem with addiction.
- I was one of two featured storytellers at Living Yoga’s annual gala, that was one of their most successful in recent time.
- I was interviewed live on KBOO’s Prison Pipeline radio show and got warm feedback on all fronts.
I’ve made wonderful networking connections, ascended professionally while being on a roller coaster personally, and found that I can strongly impact people and make spaces for those that others try to silence or ostracize, simply by sharing my experience and doing my best to behave as Christ of Nazareth once did on this earth.
Thank you all for your help, welcome, guidance, patience, care, concern, love and ability to hold me accountable when necessary.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
Cast aside by society PHOENIX still has a place for me. I’ve grown exponentially PHOENIX has a place for me. The peace that reigns within shines PHOENIX has a place for me. When all else has failed When life is derailed, PHOENIX sets aside a place for me. Do they even care? In a deep affair? About helping me out of damnation? Despair? In the crystal of their eyes The warm embrace of their soul PHOENIX has a place for me. They’ve shown me how to renew my goals With yoga, Qi Gong, politics and even the stars. PHOENIX has helped me become a better me. This renewed version of my self Appreciates and is able to shine love on the world before me. I’m not afraid anymore . . . PHOENIX gave a place to me to rest. They’ve truly shown me that I am deserving of my best. Logan Winborn
I had the incredible opportunity to work with PHOENIX Rising last winter while I was a nursing student at OHSU. PHOENIX is a community partner of the OHSU School of Nursing, so each quarter, a couple students are placed with them as part of our community health rotation. I was very excited about my placement, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I don’t think I could have predicted the profound effect that getting to know the remarkable men of PHOENIX would have on me. I didn’t just learn what it means to be a community health nurse; I gained a deeper understanding of my own community.
The criminal justice system is designed to put a literal and figurative wall between its prisoners and the rest of us; those of us on the outside are not encouraged to see incarcerated individuals as a part of our community. Of course, this is to the detriment of the men and women who are caught up in the system. Research shows that incarceration has a dramatic effect on the health outcomes of those who do time. Unfortunately, these negative outcomes don’t receive near enough attention from the rest of society, including the medical community.
As a nurse, I am taught that advocacy and empowerment are an important component of the care that I provide, and we are taught to treat all of our patients with unconditional positive regard. These concepts took on a whole new meaning as a result of my work with PHOENIX. Hearing the men speak honestly and passionately about their lives and their barriers, but also their own goals and vision for their health, I came to see how vitally important it is to advocate for and empower those caught up in a system that is so often working against them. My own practice as a nurse is now informed by the truth that our community includes the men of PHOENIX and all those who are incarcerated, and that using whatever power we have to advocate for them has the potential to radically transform the health of our entire community. This is the gift that PHOENIX gave to me, and I am ever so grateful.
Kendra Birnley, OHSU Nursing Student
The human capacity for transformation astounds me. As a midwife’s apprentice, I have witnessed people transform into parents through the birth process; as a naturopath, I have walked with folks through healing that has extended far beyond their physical bodies; and as a volunteer with Phoenix, I have had the profound honor of sharing space with some incredible human beings committed to the deep work of excavating their truest selves. The people in our class show up week after week and learn through a variety of lenses how to see themselves more clearly, how to hold themselves accountable with gentleness and integrity, how to shed the labels that have been applied to them by a broken system that has blamed them for their wounds, and ultimately how to reclaim the unique gifts that are their birthright. Inside and outside folks are equally engaged in this endeavor because trauma, which so many of us have experienced, operates the same way prison does; it locks people up, dehumanizes us and robs us of a sense of self and agency. In our class at CRCI, we find freedom together by consistently mirroring for each other the progress that we’ve made, strengthening ourselves as individuals while building a beautiful community rooted in relationality. It has been such a gift for me to participate in creating this sacred space with my fellow journeyers on the path of transformation, a blessing that has changed my life as much as I have witnessed change in others.
Emily Steele, volunteer
This seen, but unseen fire deep within, nearly ignited or sparked by cold moist hands of a capitalistic world Clammy with lust, desperation, and fear Holding onto its fuse of strength and educational purpose. The fire is a passionate hope, radical but a poetic justice free to be observed As if the phoenix rose from the depths of its dark, ashy grave reborn Soaring high above the clouds, radiant as a blossoming flower in the Oregon spring. With flames so warm it thaws frozen hearts of lost souls Marching to the cadence of foretold economic status and wealth. The flames are called revolution taught by our ancestors, Supressed by colonialism, slavery, and treacherous policies we have not yet learned to overcome. But do not be discouraged and don’t be dismayed. Allow this fiery consciousness to awaken the giant within That roars loud as a lion, tamed to speak as a prophet, born to carry its people. Calculate its Morse code, combusting into tidal waves of actions Large as the ocean seas of the hidden Pacific. Causing landslides of the mass erupting revelations. So tend to this hidden fire and kindle it. For one day it will ignite revolution. Christopher Briggs