I have to thank AL.com columnist John Archibald for inviting me to the prison for a story he was working on. After visiting the prison, I reached out to Bob Horton, a public information manager at the Alabama Department of Corrections. He introduced me to a number of people who were incarcerated. Ultimately, I chose to film Demetrius Leslie and Frederick George at Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery, and Patricia Marshall and Tammy Cooper, at the Montgomery Women's Facility.
The wardens gave us quite a bit of time and space to do our work, but being in a space where we had more restrictions gave me an appreciation for very simple things we take for granted. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech.
Ultimately, everything turned out well. In general, I wish we had had more time there. I wanted to get to know Demetrius, Fred, Patricia and Tammy better.
But I guess I always say that about everyone ...
Many prisoners have jobs in prison and Demetrius's job is being the barber. After he finished reading for us he immediately shared some thoughts on Walt Whitman.
"My first instinct that it was some famous slave that had written a poem," Demetrius said. "It was talking about slaves and prisoners. The way he had written it, it was just as if someone black had written it. I was dumbfounded to know that it was a white guy that had written this poem, what, in the 1800s? I'm not a big poem analyst, so I don't read a lot of poems, but I'll look further into reading more poems of guys that are uh ... of Caucasian persuasion, so to speak. Because man, it was amazing, it was amazing."
To Demetrius: Your read was amazing too. Thanks for saying 'yes' to this.
There was something light about Patricia that I found intriguing. When I'm filming, I'm seeing you for what appears to be obvious about you, and I'm trying to not look at you for those things too. With Patricia, I was really struck by a lightness she gave off, juxtaposed with being where she is.
Right when we said we were finished filming, Patricia joked, "I’m famous?! Are we going to see it? Are we going to be on TV?"
And she also offered her thoughts about Whitman.
"He's deep. He's really deep," Patricia said. "He must have went through something to write this. Treated some kind of way or something because it just strictly lets you know that he feel like everyone is equal. Everyone is on the same base. We all serve the same God, Jesus, whoever, he's all in one."
Patricia had never read Whitman before. Not that she could remember at least. When I asked if she planned on reading more, she immediately said yes.
"I would read the whole thing! And there would probably be just certain parts that I would like and would catch my attention. I want to read more. Tammy and I had to look in the dictionary to look up some words, to pretty much give us a clue of what was going on, and once we found some of the words, and it was like 'age,' uh, 'the universe,' and all this, then we realized what was going on with the poem."
Before we left, Patricia told us, "We appreciate y'all picking us. We thought y'all had forgot, it's been so long ago."
To Patricia: We didn't forget you. And we appreciate you too.
I like to observe people and I liked watching Fred watch things. He seemed really perceptive. I could see him observing, taking a lot in, and I realized, he's seeing different things than I am. I get the sense he can read people. He read me. Called me out during a moment of discomfort that I hadn't thought I had shown.
We didn't have as much time with Fred as the other three. We were somewhat rushed, and I just walked away feeling like I wanted to give Fred more—more space and more time to give of himself what we were asking of him. The others had more time to find themselves in the moment.
A couple things made Fred's shoot more challenging. He was reading with a lot of his peers and the warden milling around. And we were somewhat rushed.
"I'm alright with it," he assured me. "If they weren't back there, it'd be a lot easier."
Doing this in front of your peers makes it more difficult. I'd be shy trying to step in to the moment, read and "perform" somewhat for the camera while others look on. Or maybe Fred just meant it'd be easier to read if they weren't all there because they were noisy. I'm not actually sure, come to think of it.
Because Fred's job requires him to fix things, we had him on his knees for the entire reading with one of his tools by his side. That couldn't have been too comfortable either. He had watched Demetrius during his reading and joked, "This still ain't as good as the barber gig."
The warden told us that we had to wrap up not long after we started filming Fred. It was coming on dinner time, if I remember right, and we couldn't get in the way of that. We couldn't spend any more time with Fred but we thanked him for what he was able to give us.
"No problem!" he said. "Any day of the week!"
To Fred: Thanks for the good attitude. We're sorry we didn't have more time with you.
I found myself wanting to defend Tammy from Tammy. She was very hard on herself. I was drawn to her because she was giving us so much with her read, but she kept apologizing for mistakes she thought she was making and saying she could do better.
Tammy had read some Walt Whitman before. Leaves of Grass and a couple other shorter poems.
She gave me her interpretation of Verse 24.
"It was basically about: everything works together," she said. "It starts out with the word 'cosmos' and that kinda brings everything into harmony. To me he showed that everything is the same. That nothing's better or greater or smaller than the next thing."
She said she enjoyed the reading, but she noticed Walt Whitman isn't exactly the easiest poet to read aloud.
"I actually enjoyed it," she said. "But it did show me I can get tongue-tied in the middle of stuff, because I'm an excellent reader. And that just made no sense. I wasn’t nervous until I sat down either!"
For Tammy: We respectfully disagree. You did perfect and we wouldn't change a thing.
by filmmaker Jenn Crandall, as told to writer Liz Hildreth