05 April 2007

25 Forms

People laugh at the piles of paper on my desk: kites, religious preference forms, postcards, callouts, time sheets, to do lists. It all seems endless. Or bottomless. The top lefthand drawer is permanently open, holding the stack of stuff that won’t fit on the desktop. And there’s always a box nearby with the slush file. Some days I’m tricked into thinking that if I could just clear a space, life would get back to less-than-hectic.

I’m very aware today that each piece of paper represents a life, a person struggling to make sense of things. One stack of paper labeled “Transitioning Offenders Program” is at least 25 pages thick, 25 men looking to do something differently this time when they get out of prison. The forms are filled out 25 different ways: carefully, precisely, illegibly, in pen, with pencil, with all the questions answered, with some blanks left wide open. Some have extended explanations or pleas for assistance on the margins and on the back page. I read through them and try to picture the man who labored over one more form that asked for his name and number and other too important information.

Clearly many of them struggle with the basic skills, finding it difficult to spell or communicate clearly. How have they gotten this far in life without being able to read or write? Or does that explain how they’ve ended up in prison, at least give a partial explanation?

The lines for past employment are hauntingly empty for many. Some of them reflect the kinds of jobs that can be paid under the table, that don’t offer a living wage, and forget about any kind of health insurance.

Some request help for moving far away from where they have found trouble before. Some note that their families do live in the town they’ll release to, but the family has cut them off and will not be supporting them in any way whatsoever. There is so much desperation.

But what I have found is that things begin to change with a little information. The team of men who provide a list of resources and some guidance for writing letters have a gift of inspiring new confidence. They have a knack for knowing their stuff and for finding just the right thing for a man who is not willing to admit that release from prison is a terrifying thought. Somehow, worry is smoothed out and another man begins to think about going home in a whole new way.

So there’s a mess on my desk. Big deal. There are lives being changed and that’s worth the mess.

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