“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Most Tuesday night spaghetti dinners were loud, sticky, and unremarkable. This one was life-defining. The "let's learn about the world, kids" topic de jour was the state of America’s prisons.  At age 12, I was completely captivated. I remember the stories of men packed into auditoriums of bunks, of those same men dropped at remote bus stations with $20 and nowhere to go. Isn’t this America, land of opportunity?

Unable to stand the sedentary academic discourse, I leapt from my barstool, grabbed a scrap of white paper and a blue marker, and began to write the Congressman.

Despite my feeble attempt at action and the patronizing eye rolls, I knew I had found my life’s mission:  to fix the prisons, to create chances for change.

To remember the forgotten.

In years following, I made new friends and learned new stories:  Wanda, who learned her multiplication tables at 45 but would need 19 years of in-prison education to earn her GED; James, who begged for mental health services while serving his sentence, only to be told that he would have to act out to be given proper medical attention.

The prison system is failing:  recidivism is high, costs are astronomical, and fatherless communities are paying the price.  The solution isn’t sexy or flashy.  It’s gritty, it’s complicated, and it takes heart.  In my own pursuit of progress, I will remember the people, the families, and the communities that are so often overlooked.

And, one day, I will teach my own family that lesson at a Tuesday night topic de jour.  Over spaghetti, of course.

— Jen Porter