Like Afghanistan, the Maine State Prison (the original facility was built in 1824) has a history. And mark my words, Craig Grossi and Fred have left colorful imprints on both.
You may have met Fred in Grossi’s earlier absorbing book, “Craig & Fred,” in which the author, a Marine Corps intelligence collector, rescues a friendly yet filthy dog searching for scraps of food in the remote and dangerous Sangin district of Helmond province as Grossi’s unit was under fire from the Taliban.
Quickly, a bonding agent leaves the pair inseparable and Grossi is left to find a means of getting Fred stateside as his tour comes to a close. Mission accomplished, with a little help from his friends, although the military forbids interacting, much less rescuing, stray dogs in war zones.
In “Second Chances,” the nimble Grossi and Fred strike up a special rapport with the inmates, first with the dog-training program and next in a writing class, thanks to the progressive guidance of warden Randy Liberty (yes, that’s his real name).
But likely Grossi never sets a foot inside the facility without his goofy buddy Fred, his conduit and compass in life for almost a decade.
Craig & Fred: An Unmatched Bond
Grossi, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Sangin from a 107-millimeter rocket blast, acknowledges that despite his first book’s success, he still was battling nightmares of the past, “demons that didn’t care how many books I sold or what TV shows I appeared on. On my first visit to the Maine State Prison, those demons were waiting for me.” Yet, he acknowledges, that first visit “was an unforgettable experience, one that triggered a whole bunch of feelings – about my past, about the chances I’d been given and about what the future might hold.”
Conversely, Fred was unfazed by the prison surroundings and interactions about to unfold. “That’s the amazing thing about like Fred,” Grossi writes. “He finds joy everywhere he goes, treating every moment as a gift, even in unfamiliar or hostile environments.”
In a sense, Fred and Grossi represent a union of soul mates, Fred serving up an emotional buoyance and sense of purpose for his owner. Grossi writes, “I was still looking for ways to play my part, to contribute, as I had been ever since leaving the Marines. Sharing my story with the guys at Maine State, I had a strong sense that rather than stumbling here by accident, I was being called to a kind of duty. I knew I wanted to take advantage of my connection with Randy (Liberty) and his staff to help out however I could.”
Grossi’s early visits to Maine State were focused on a book reading to those involved in America’s VetDogs program, designed to teach inmates who are former members of the military, to train Labrador Retrievers over 18 months into service dogs for needy veterans outside the prison.
Quickly, Grossi and Fred establish emotional foundations with the inmates. “Listening to them talk about their shared pain reminded me of the camaraderie I’d felt with my fellow Marines. There’s something special about relationships forged in adverse conditions. When you share misery, you become closer, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see the virtues of the people around you.”
But a poignant letter from one of the inmates, Michael Kidd, to Grossi hatched a new idea – a writing class – for the inmates. Would it work? Would anyone sign up? Well, the answers come quickly with eight takers.
Suddenly, with Liberty’s blessing, Purposeful Tails Writing Group becomes a reality in the Veterans’ Pod.
“The purpose of this group is to enhance our ability to communicate our experiences with the world,” Grossi notes. “We will do this by reading, writing, studying, and sharing stories from our lives or from our minds. At the end of our time together, you’ll have a better understanding of the importance of storytelling and the importance of your own life story. Because so much of what happens in our lives, either to us or around us, is lost in our mind until we take the time to reflect and share.”
With the weekly gathering, Grossi seeks to strike a balance between a formal class and casual meeting, emphasizing “I stayed away from words that killed fun like ‘work’ and ‘assignment.’ I didn’t like the weight they carried with them. My idea was to offer five sessions to the group with the promise of more if they wished. I didn’t want to have an end date or a specific arc of the class, because I didn’t know how the men would respond. If they wanted to continue meeting beyond five weeks, they could come up with topics and readings based on what they wanted to share.”
In the following weeks, the writing assignments include Dogs, Traditions, Accomplishments, Acts of Kindness, Alcohol, and Write a Letter to Your Younger Self.
Giving Second Chances
This emotional travelogue is packed with tender reminiscence, powerful insight, and deep-rooted emotion. For most, prison was a powder keg for bottling up their emotions. Now they have a chance to let them rip on paper in a salad mix of color and content with clear-eyed honesty.
While Fred was the liaison for Grossi being invited to the prison, it’s the prisoners’ transparency that is front and center throughout. As the author’s visits to the dog and writing programs are anticipated, he experiences a 180-degree different perspective from his days as a prison guard at Guantanamo Bay years earlier.
He emphasizes, “Before long my experience in the Marines helped me realize through firsthand experience that the world of crime and punishment isn’t clear-cut and transparent. It’s muddy and inconsistent. Now Randy’s approach to prison and prisoners had shown me a way to help offenders find a sense of purpose and self-worth, to give them a second chance and opportunities for redemption. . . . By coming up to the prison and volunteering my time, I felt that I was doing something to positively affect the guys. I was spending three hours every week sitting with the group, telling stories, sharing fears and feelings, and bearing witness to the heartbreak that comes with every prison sentence. What I didn’t realize yet was the profound level on which the guys were beginning to affect me.”
Time, trust, and truth transcend this narrative of emotional heft and character shaping. The refreshing honesty is around every corner, from inmates to author, where floodlights are turned on dark pasts and hope springs eternal for brighter futures, yet Nate, an inmate and writing-class member laments, “I think it’s important for us to realize that we’re evolving as individuals faster than the system we’re living in.”
While this volume is a wrap, that doesn’t imply the final chapter has been written for Grossi and his interactions with his dog-and writing-group “friends.”
“The men of Maine State Prison are tattooed on my heart,” he writes. “Their pain, triumphs, concerns and ambitions are mine, too. I’m connected to the men in my group. They are my friends. I am proud to have them in my life. Just because we lock people up, that doesn’t mean they’re not our problem anymore. They’re still Americans, they’re still humans and they’re not going anywhere. . . . Just as my journey with Fred, I have gotten more than I could have imagined by opening myself up to them. It may be over but it was worth it.”