Boarding School Inheritance

Text reading "Prisons Have a Long Memory"

Bridgeworks Oregon

In May 2019, Daniel J. Wilson and Tracy D. Schlapp assembled the storytelling group Ground Beneath Us at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem. For three years, the men in that group have been writing together about life and honing their voices. The stories they tell are based on questions posed by middle and high school students. Over seventy thousand children in the state are impacted by incarceration, and these kids have questions they may be afraid to pose to the members of their families and communities who serve time. The kids are stigmatized by their association with prison, and more critically, they are at greater risk of being ensnared in the criminal justice system themselves. More broadly, the community at large has a sensationalized picture of prison life, which is largely informed by news and entertainment media. The men in this group wrote to widen that picture and to express their humanity.

Ground Beneath Us provided mentorship, editorial support, and guidance to the group. Prison life requires a person to do difficult personal work, and to come to redefine oneself. The men’s writing is testimony to that work. The result is a rich anthology titled Prisons Have a Long Memory: Life Inside Oregon’s Oldest Prison, filled with poetry, essays, and memoirs that together present a picture of life at OSP and the internal struggle to atone, find peace, and create community.

The following is a piece by Ground Beneath Us member Nolan James Briden. 

Growing up, all my heroes did time, from my dad, cousins, uncles, to family friends. I grew up hearing “war stories” of being in the joint—my dad told me how he, his dad, and three of my uncles were all jailed together. 

I am a human being. I’m a singer, drummer, dancer, a son, brother, nephew, an uncle, cousin, and a friend. I am a perpetrator who has inflicted detrimental harms on people. I am a victim of detrimental harms inflicted on me. I’m still figuring out who I am. I’m loving, kind, considerate, and spiritual, yet I get misled by ideologies filled with toxicity, hypermasculinity, and hurt. I am a human being who has the capacity to grow, heal, and help others. I am a person who understands I cannot take back the harms I’ve done. Moving forward, I can work on the issues that led to them. I am a spiritual being who can transcend even through the darkest and coldest of times. I am a person lost in the confusion of the world, inside and out.

I was around twelve or so when we lived in the duplex at SE 24th and Hawthorne. The phone was black and cordless in the living room next to the kitchen. It was the first cordless thing our family owned. I was home alone. Dad was at work, little brothers were in Utah with their mother, and the phone was ringing. I answered and remember the short pause of the recording: “Do you accept charges . . .” without a thought, I did. Uncle Jimmy (my favorite) with his cool rasp, deep slang of vocals, asked, “Where’s your dad?” It was a brief call, yet it stands out today. When my dad got home, he asked me if I accepted the charges, and I said yes. He was positive. I did good. It was a blessing that Dad never went back to prison during my lifetime. He paroled from OSP in 1982 and he was able to stay out. And yet the tendrils of the iron house stayed in his glorified story line—and they attached to me.

Intergenerational trauma and forced assimilation wreaked havoc among the Native American communities—my family was no exception. My grandma Rose Owlchild was the first of our family to go to boarding school. She was kidnapped from her mom and dad and taken to Chemawa Indian School in Oregon from her home in Montana. She spoke no English and was forced to learn the King’s Tongue. I can look at her and her children (my dad, my uncles, and my aunties) and I understand that this caused so much more hurt. Stuck in a world with forced disconnection from all she knew—imprisoned for being Indigenous. This trauma shows in her grandkids who suffer the effects, including her great-grandkid who is doing life in a Washington prison. I look around me and I see different tribal people at OSP—and I see the same effect that has become almost normalized in Indigenous people. Hopelessness induced from being born into a world where people hurt people.

It is 2008. A phone call from inside county jail to my family home; a different setting, a new character. I had been sentenced to seven and a half years. My mother was heartbroken. Dad hid his feelings with discussions about sports. My little nephew Malique, who was six years old, got on the phone. “Uncle, Uncle, when are you coming over so we can play catch?” I felt like crying. I didn’t know how to explain that I wouldn’t be playing with him. How could he understand ninety months?

Once upon a time, I used violence as a means of expression. I thought that it was the only way to get my point across or gain any respect. I conveyed an image that spoke fear. I wanted people to fear me. When really it was my own fear speaking: fear of not being accepted, fear of being hurt physically. 

Fast-forward to a year ago, and I am talking to my mom on the phone. “Your nephew said to me after you got locked up, ‘Grandma, I’m gonna be just like Uncle Nolan when I get older.’” This time, I cried for the example I set. I cried for being that very same nephew wanting to be just like my big uncles and cousins—for wanting to be like my dad. I cried because I packed on so much hurt. It is my story, which in part captured my nephew. I idolized the prison pictures of my loved one in the “big yard.” And now my nephew idolizes me. He sits serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence at MacLaren, the youth correctional facility. I feel disquieted in the face of my nephew’s incarceration.

I see the generational repeat of prison doors closing on my family. I like to think that having an incarcerated loved one would work in opposition to this cycle of dysfunction in families (even though I have yet to see it done). I now have a great-nephew, and I can’t imagine him being swallowed by the system. And I think of my very own future. I want a family, kids, maybe grandkids. So today, I have become a Toastmaster, a certified personal trainer, and a restorative justice facilitator. I want to stop the glorified prison story line; I want to break the cycle for the next generation.

I have aged and see the impact of my choices. This shift in my thought makes me who I am inside the prison system. Me—not my homeboys, friends, the authority figurehead. Me, and the direction I’m choosing to travel in life. I can trust in myself to take “the road less traveled” and challenge myself to step out; to foster growth in my community behind these walls; and to practice for when I get released to foster growth outside the walls.


Family, Justice, mass incarceration, Native American, Heritage


1 comments have been posted.

Mr. Briden, Thank you for sharing your courage, inspiration, intentions, and path to success. The hard work you are engaged in must make it difference. I believe actual change can start with one person joined by another and another and another.....

jks | February 2023 | Portland

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