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Mess hall at Clinton Prison, Dannemora, N.Y., ca. 1912
Mess hall at Clinton Prison, Dannemora, N.Y., ca. 1912 (Photo: Library of Congress)

I recently watched a TV show about families in the 1950s through the ’70s that would make time for each other. Often these gatherings would take place at the dinner table. 

Time spent around the table was the most important part of their day. Problems were hashed out, deals were made, information was passed along and politics were discussed. 

Those days seem long gone now. Today, when families sit at the table, conversations are replaced by eyes staring down at cellphones for text messages, emails, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. Time at the table is impersonal and device-driven. 

That atmosphere is different from what we experience in prison. Whenever I enter the dining hall in my prison, I notice the tradition of the table alive and well. Six men sit at each table, segregated by their own choice. The elders mix with the young, who unknowingly take part in an old tradition.

There are tables reserved for the gangs, where conflicts are hashed out, fines are imposed, future assignments are communicated, messages are relayed and issues of commerce are settled. 

Reality TV fans discuss programs like “Big Brother” and “Love & Hip Hop.” They live vicariously through the shows as if they know these reality stars personally. 

At the news table, people chat about local and national current events. There are soap opera and cooking show tables too. There are tables where men simply eat and then return to their cells.

Then there is the table my son and I often sit at, along with four other men. Conversations are usually about the law, the effects of mass incarceration and our faith. We also discuss how current events will affect our own prison sentences. 

There are no discussions about reality TV. We discuss our redemptive struggles, strategies for dealing with the courts, how we’ve navigated around the gang element of prison and what can be done to help better ourselves and others while serving time. 

At our tables, we share and pool resources, such as books. Each day, for those 20 minutes, we chat about whatever we want. 

Each time we are at the table, we try to share something meaningful with others. That might mean talking about issues surrounding our children, most of whom are growing up without fathers. Sometimes we discuss relationship issues. We help each other stay balanced. 

We discuss the reason for unity and brotherhood, why service is so important, and who the real enemy is — ourselves, our ego and the institutions of racism and oppression. 

Some of our discussions are continued on the yard, and even at the gym. 

The most enjoyable times are when someone shares a bit of good news about family  or reflects on their past. The table is a beautiful gesture of humanity, empathy and compassion. The table is the medicine for everything that ails you.

The table has helped me through many situations over my more than 30 years of incarceration. 

So here’s to the table, to all the families, friends and relatives that have gathered  around the table and continue to do so. You should give this a try yourself. Invite some friends over, share a meal, put the devices away and have a conversation at your table.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Kenneth M. Key is a writer, artist and occasional poet incarcerated in Illinois.