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Connecting to the outside



Last modified: Monday, December 13, 2010
Jonathan Martinelli read aloud to his classmates, seven other inmates looking to make a stronger connection to their chil- dren on the outside.

He could have been a thousand students in a thousand classrooms, a 22-year-old dad who looked better suited for a fraternity than for fatherhood. The passage from Owl Moon told the story of a father and his child looking for owls on a cold winter night, and suddenly Martinelli's feet were crunching over snow. Suddenly, Martinelli's hand held his daughter's hand, and those thick woods stood behind their home.

Suddenly, it was as if Martinelli's daughter, born six months into his two- to four-year prison sentence for burglary and assault, was narrating her thoughts while walking with her father and searching the treetops. "Again he called out. And then again. After each call he was silent and for a moment we both listened. But there

was no answer. Pa shrugged and I shrugged. I was not disappointed."

The inmates read once a week in a narrow room deep in the state prison, behind a series of doors and bars that buzz before unlocking. The program sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council is called Connections, and it's intended to close a gap wider than the Grand Canyon.

Inmates - and later, their kids - read the same material. The younger children listen to tapes. Parent and child then discuss the writing, on the phone or during visits. It's about forming bonds and parenting skills and, hopefully, an appreciation for what the men are missing on the outside. Sara Backer of Nashua, the Connections facilitator, leads the class, drawing her students out, injecting them with ideas, paving the way for interaction.

She reminds them that poetry is interpretive, that their impressions are never wrong, that the material always contains turning points and surprises. And, surprising to an outsider observing them on this day, the prisoners are thoughtful in their responses, layered, measured and articulate. They don't seem like criminals at all.

"I'm a new father; she's 6 months in a week and six days," Martinelli said. "I couldn't even imagine the things that me and my daughter are going to do. Even the littlest thing, going out into the yard and looking at the little squirrel and footprints in the snow. I picture all kinds of things I'm going to do with my daughter. It lights me up."

They sit in a rectangle around five tables pushed together. They read poetry and fiction, reciting the "whoo-whoo" sound of the owl with the innocence and laughter of grade-school kids.

They tap into their intellectual potential, and they forget the past, the days of drug dealing, robbery, even murder.

Chad Evans of Keene is serving 43 years to life for second-degree murder; he's eight years in. Evans is 39; his son 13.

"It's all about nature and doing things with your kids," said Evans, commenting on Owl Moon. "It's about absorbing everything with all your senses."

That's a central theme in these sessions, a byproduct of being locked up while the world spins by. Appreciation for the little things. Appreciation for the big things, too.

That was never clearer to the inmates than after reading "At Least" by Raymond Carver, a poem that lists life's mundane joys, like waking before sunrise and seeing waves break on a rocky beach.

Backer asked her class to make their own lists. Manchester's Kevin Marquis, 42, has served seven years of a 12- to 36-year sentence for a sexual offense. His son is 9 now.

"I want to walk down an unknown path and getting lost is okay," Marquis said, reading from his list. "I want my son to wake me up; time doesn't matter."

Rhode Island's Michael Ciresi, 43, has served three of his 20 years for robbery. He has 7-year-old twin boys. "What I want most is to have my two sons, who have just risen from their slumber with matted hair and sleepy eyes and bad breath, tell me they love me and ask me what's for breakfast."

Marquis Anderson of Manchester, 2 years old when his own father was murdered, has four kids, ages 4 to 14. He was sentenced to four to eight years for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He's served two.

"I want to smell the new baby smell again," Anderson wrote. "I want to show them how to dribble, throw, shoot a ball."

A poem called "The Life of a Day" by Tom Hennen, about taking nothing for granted, came next. "We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn't one I've been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next."

Jeff Gelinas of Manchester, in prison for six years of his eight-year sentence for attempted burglary, can't wait to see his 8-year-old daughter again. His time inside, he said, has changed him, and the poem spoke to his feelings.

"Slow down, cherish every day," Gelinas said. "There's no race to the finish line. But while in here, it's a little harder to do."

Time is a complex matter for these students. For all fathers in prison who have young children, in fact. They want to slow things down, watch their kids grow. They want to speed things up, get out, go home.

"It's been six months since my daughter was born, and I want to rush my sentence," Martinelli said. "But the last six months of my daughter's life has gone by so fast."

Maybe Martinelli will one day look for owls with his daughter. Maybe his time in prison will change him, make him a better dad. For now, he spends one day a week reading, reflecting and dreaming of what's ahead.

"Then the owl pumped its great wings and lifted off the branch like a shadow without sound. It flew back into the forest. 'Time to go home,' Pa said to me. I knew then I could talk, I could even laugh out loud."

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)