At first glance, Jackie Briggs is an intimidating presence: tall, heavy-shouldered, and a face that seems to regard friendship and violence with equal indifference.
Briggs is 37. He’s a convicted felon, and seems to carry the weight of his prison terms around his broad neck. But he’s also a father, grandfather, and now uses his experience and street credentials as an assistant instructor for the Madison Apprenticeship Program.
When I first met him, Briggs was quick to tell me about his childhood in Arkansas, his struggle with drugs and alcohol, and the robbery that earned him his first stint in prison. That night he was helping lead the class; he said he felt a sense of purpose and that he was doing better than ever. But there was also something quietly unsettling in the way he told his story. He spoke, if only briefly, about depression and his inability to communicate the struggles that he still faces.
“Where I’m from, you don’t talk about depression,” said Briggs. “People are gonna see that as weakness, and throw that stuff in your face.”
A month passed before Briggs and I sat down for our longer interview. One night, during a MAP class, I talked to the group about the power of telling your personal story. It’s redemptive, I said, a way for you to realize that as a person, you’re separate from the mistakes you’ve made. It’s a way for you to walk away from your past.
The class politely and quietly listened, but I doubted I had inspired anyone. Yet when I finished my spiel, Briggs was first to raise his hand and volunteer to take part in my project.
We sat down, and Briggs opened up. He told me about the pain he felt for not being able to provide for his family. As a convicted felon, he’s had trouble finding regular, paid employment. I sensed that Briggs was struggling with the concept of masculinity and the idea that, as men, financial stability and mobility can be directly connected to our self-esteem and perception. And I think the fact that he is now an instructor and looked to as a class leader affirms his belief that he should act strong even when he doesn’t feel that way.
Yet, in the very act of speaking about powerlessness, Briggs was taking control, allowing himself a sense of agency. I can’t know if he felt empowered by telling his story, or if he saw it as any sort of victory. But as an outside observer, I can say that I did.
Below you’ll find a slideshow which includes audio from that interview as well as pictures I took of him and his family at home, church, and around the MAP office.