On Saturday mornings, I park a car outside the Cheshire County Correctional Facility, and then walk through a metal detector carrying nothing but a book, perhaps a Bible, some pencils and my Yale ID. Since my freshman year I have been involved with the Yale Prison Initiative, mentoring post-GED incarcerated youth in an effort to smooth their reintegration process upon release. The prison schooling system is geared towards GED completion, and established post-GED programs are targeted at inmates with imminent release dates, marginalizing those serving longer sentences. With this in mind, I devised a four-person group that has been meeting in the prison for over a year now — myself, and three inmates, ages between 17 and 20. They have all been convicted of multiple charges ranging from armed robberies, drug possession and second-degree murder.

One of the young inmates is a Hispanic from New Brighton, Lionel (whose name has been changed for anonymity). Lionel has the liveliest presence for someone in his situation: Every Saturday, he greets me with a warm chuckle and sincere handshake. He hangs on every word of our conversations, though at times jittering and shaking his head, explaining to me that “Ma’am, we are sheltered from the way you think.” Trying to better understand him, I asked him to write a piece that was representative of his past. The next week, Lionel showed up with his unfailing smile and this poem, asking me when he would become a published author. Well, here it is, Lionel.


The Mighty Dollar

By Lionel

Cold blood spills for the warmth of a green piece of paper.

Faces many of us never take time to admire are printed on them.

The things these national heroes have done — it’s earned them this currency spotlight,

but their deeds and efforts can’t compare to

the sacrifice,

the pain

the torture

some endure to have a pocket filled with their portraits.

Most of us are careless:

their faces go unnoticed

and instead get crumpled into the pockets,

pockets of individuals who crave this power,

crave the liberty, freedom and honor of these portraited men.

And most of us, holders of these images, have no freedom.

We are enslaved by the vice,

The corrupted need for one more dollar bill

A twisted obsession with the collections of images,

Intrinsically valueless but socially invaluable.

What an overwhelming power does this piece of paper have —

to pull the world together into buildings and stores and capitalism,

or crush it into pieces — behind prison bars.

That’s the strength of the mighty dollar.

Only god is stronger.