Posts Tagged ‘prisoner writing’

I am an advocate for my students’ truth. I accept any story they want to tell–whether about fantastical worlds with fantastical characters, poetry about their memories and longings for the outside world or personal essays about their crime, their past, their family. It is typical to receive more of the former than the latter. Not surprisingly, men who have years, if not decades, to think on where they came from and how it is they came to be in prison aren’t always eager to spend their writing time on the same subject. Writing to many of them is escape, not a tool for therapy. They want to look out, forward, beyond. Not back, inward and to what is real. Real is concrete, barbed wire, custody officers, family who doesn’t visit, friends who no longer write. Real is not just a tough childhood, but a childhood most of us (and the movies) can’t imagine. So, I don’t push for the real, for the personal. But when there is an opportunity to encourage an exploration into the real, I do. Gently. With no expectation. And more often, with a warning to myself. Be careful what you ask for, Erika.

These men, when they decide to tell the real, tell the truth. They have stories locked inside hurt, locked inside pain, buried under trauma, wrapped with neglect, abuse and abandonment. When you ask for those stories you have to prepare yourself. What they give you will be real. What they give you has been waiting to be told. It is raw, but it is also polished from years of their own turning it over and over in their minds and their hearts. What they give you will surprise you even if you think you know what to expect.

I have gotten better at not being surprised, and better at protecting myself from these stories. Better at not seeing a student as solely a victim when he gives me a part of his story I did not know before. Even he knows where he comes from and what he has been through does not excuse what he did to be where he is now–behind bars. But it does shed some light, and it does evoke empathy. It does remind me, every time, we are not a moment of shitty decision making. We are a lifetime of circumstances. Some we chose. Many we do not. Some of our own doing. Many we had no control over. I read these stories and I simply breathe them in. Allow them to exist. Share them in creative space and time, which many of us know can also be healing space and time. Words to the page do not undo a past. Nor do they right it. They do however give it a place in the world. A rightful place.

The following piece is from one of our younger students. He might be twenty-one. He is hilarious, with a wicked sarcastic sense of humor. He talks fast, but he is thoughtful. He is writing a story–mostly true, but he calls it fiction–about his drug experiences and many attempts at sobriety. Out of that story, came the following piece, which is all true. He gave me permission to share it here.

***

Father of Mine
by J.W.

Father of mine, tell me where have you been… [Everclear]

Well, Dad, I know where you have been. I don’t know all the details, but I know some. I met Johnny. He married Mom a couple years ago. He explained why he killed you. He said when he met you he thought you were an intense guy. You had a look about you, like you were always on edge. Johnny told me you had a big heart, that you cared deeply for your friends and that was part of the reason you were so dangerous. Your heart got broken and you started beating up Johnny’s friends. He thought you had a knife (he said you usually did) and he shot you when you attacked him. He was afraid you would kill him, so he took your life.

Mom says I look like you–tall, blonde, blue eyes and lanky. My hair is shorter than yours. Yours went down to your butt. I don’t have your crooked teeth (except my bottom teeth). Mom is thankful I don’t have your beak of a nose. Since you died five months before I was born, we never got to meet. So let me fill you in…

At age two I went into foster care with my half sister, Jordan. Mom had/has a drug problem and she couldn’t take care of us. Your father doesn’t believe I’m yours, so I didn’t have much contact with your side of the family.

Foster care was rough. A lot of horrible things happened to me then. Like you, I found refuge in drugs. It was a pastime and a hobby. Something to numb the pain, and generate profit through middle and high school.

I pissed off some people through my drug deals and ended up in adult jail at sixteen. It got worse. I got out and got my parole revoked because of drugs. I went to prison. Dad, I hurt people, but I didn’t usually mean to. I just made dumb decisions. But enough about me.

Is it true you knew you would die young? Only a couple of months after your twenty-first birthday didn’t you predict before you turned twenty-one you would die? You were only a couple of months off. You were born in late February. A Pisces. I am a Scorpio. I’m sure we would’ve gotten along great.

Dad, there are those who say I should hate Johnny. That I should’ve killed him to avenge you, but there’s already so much hate in this world. I forgave him. Before he ever gave me his side of the story. I forgave him. I was nineteen, and he contacted Mom and she gave me the number. I cried because I never got to know you. My life could’ve been different if I had.

I figured that it had been nearly twenty years that it ate at him. If I were him I would hope for forgiveness. So I gave him what I could to ease the burden. I hope you don’t mind, but I felt it was the right thing to do. He’s a nice guy. I have love for him.

Dad, I want you to know I don’t hold anything against you. Not your lifestyle, not wanting an abortion. None of that. Being around the age all of that happened to you, I can understand how you felt. Even though we never met, I love you Dad.

Love always, your son.

P.S. Hey, Dad, you may have noticed I was named after you. I’ll make you proud.

 

One of my students struggles to be inspired by most of the class exercises we give. He’s a self-proclaimed free form free thinker and prefers inspired free writes that allow him to compose more spontaneous, less directed poems, prose poems, short essays, etc. Our theory as teachers (as much as we want all our students to follow along with the class and do their assigned homework) is: whatever keeps you writing. So, I’ve started providing E- with first lines from poems. He takes those back to his cell, writes and brings them back to me the next class. This first line comes from Tracy K. Smiths poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from her collection Life on Mars. I found what E- wrote intriguing. If any reader wants to leave a comment for me to take back to him, please do. He loves spirited debate, differing opinions and smart conversation around the complexity of being human.

***

“Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone.”

Or is it?

Everyone has secrets that they can’t stand the thought of being exposed. Protecting those secrets can isolate someone, and regardless if another can be trusted, the secret will never feel safe. Trust has a lot to do with not feeling secure with being vulnerable. Personally, I don’t want to play with the idea of “giving away” because I’m afraid. I’ve offered intimate parts of my mind and spirit and when the recipient sprinted from their promises I felt stolen. The best company I can find are the teachings of being alone.

Alone is something that should be embraced. It is the process of discovering and relying on oneself. Getting space away from the rest of the world and gaining perspective on what is running across your mind. It’s like driving on an ocean breeze and the sky is turning the most relaxing colors, the seconds are a hour long.

I understand that strong connections can be comforting and supportive, but in my experience it still feels external. You can be open as a timeless river, but who is willing to swim in the naked truth without knowing how far they have to go to share in your aloneness running down the middle?

I know there are people who share or disagree with my point of view. My opinion is free for you to do with what you will. I’m not intimidated by honesty. In fact, I encourage you to examine and challenge your own opinion. My opinion is real to me because I live my life in my mind. Privacy is valuable and I feel crowded and intruded on when my layers are peeled back.

“Perhaps the great error is believing we are alone.”

My response is we are never not alone, and that to me is the greatest asset.

A second question offered to this blog’s readers from some of our students is now posted under the heading “Q&A with our students” at the top of this page. This time they are curious to know how readers define freedom.

I offer: How do you know you are free? What defines your sense of freedom?

You can respond on the question page itself or here. Feel free to ask them questions in response. As a reminder, I’ll remove all identifying information from your comments before taking them into the guys to read.

Terry has gone to the hole. From there he’ll be shipped to another prison. Out of state.

Terry has gone to the hole, and I have been thinking lately about exits. The two events are a coincidence, but right now the coincidences in my life keep begging to be noticed—that seems to be the way it goes with big life transitions. Everything has to mean something, otherwise I risk believing everything means a whole lot of nothing.

So, Terry has gone to the hole and I am thinking of exits. The subtitle of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book Exit is: the endings that set us free. I agree in spirit. I recently exited a relationship and I’ve certainly experienced the freedom the leaving granted me (though freedom can also feel painfully constrictive as times). Terry, however, would disagree with the subtitle, I’m sure. This particular ending—his departure from our group to the hole—is anything but an elevation in his freedom. A trip to the hole for conspiracy to commit assault (so I hear) not only exits him from our group (of which he’s been a student for at least two of our three years), but also from his cell, from his tier, from his friend D– who he introduced to our program (our first transgender student) and from the prison. He will be transferred to a new prison, under new security restrictions and will most likely face additional years on his sentence. If he has been “set free” it is only in a metaphor I can not yet write.

I suppose on a spiritual level, psychological level, any other level than physical freedom, he might achieve a new understanding of why he does what he does when it only produces the same confining results. With this new understanding he might search for different ways to spend his time behind bars. Non-violent ways. Ways which might bring a freedom from the behaviors currently defining him, controlling him, ruining him. I doubt it, but I’m willing to hope because, again, I need things to have meaning right now.

Terry’s subtitle is more like, Exit: the ending that makes worse my confinement.

What I can tell you about Terry is two months ago he gave me an assignment to read The Princess Bride, a book and movie he already knows I love. I was raised on the movie (it, and Labyrinth featuring David Bowie in those distracting pants). I can quote the movie. Terry can quote the movie. We’d sometimes share an inside joke about it during class. I promised him I would read it and put the book on hold at the library. It had been a long time since I’d read it anyway, so why not humor him? Then life became…well, life…and the book arrived at the library and I didn’t get there in time and lost my hold. I put it back on hold. I went to New York City for work. Missed a class. The class Terry did not come to because he’d gone to the hole (but I did not know this while I was in NYC). While in NYC I got the notice in my inbox the book was again waiting for me. I was relieved to know the next time I saw Terry I could tell him I was on my way to completing my assignment.

What I can also tell you about Terry is he and I made an agreement at the beginning of the year. He would not get into trouble for at least one quarter. He’d disappeared on us to the hole before and I was trying to do my part to keep him out of that sort of trouble (I’ve always sensed Terry was one who has to choose daily, if not several times a day, to “walk away” as some say. I’ve also always had a feeling it is to the benefit of the other party he does choose to walk away so often). He agreed and did stay out of trouble through March. I tried to renew our agreement in April, but he wouldn’t. “I have some things I might have to take care of,” he said with an expression that was defiant, but also sad (because he was letting me down? or knew he’d soon be letting himself down?). I stated for the hundredth time (at least) how much we enjoy having him in the group and how good of a writer I think he is (he’s my Neil Gaiman-Terry Pratchett-esque writer). But he only said, “I’ll try, but I can’t promise. Things I have to take care of.”

Terry is a murderer. He’s also afraid of public speaking—to the point that another student in class would read his work because he was too embarrassed by how his hands shook when he tried. He was writing a story about a teddy bear who could travel between worlds to save children from their nightmares. He would often simply pass when it came to reading in class and give me his work to bring home, read and comment on. He made lists of movies he thought we (the volunteers) should see. He befriended D– when she first came to the prison and brought her to our group because, I hope, he knew she’d be welcomed and we’d think no differently of him. Terry keeps (kept) a McDonald’s paper bag in his cell. I don’t remember now the story about how he got it. I do know he brought it one day to show us and said it was his prized possession.

Terry has gone to the hole and I have been thinking about exits. Mostly about my less than graceful exits from relationships over the years—how I’m always suddenly packing my things in one day trying to get out, get out, get out because I simply cannot stand another minute of it. I’ve been remembering exits from jobs and from friendships. When I exit I am desperately seeking freedom in one form or another. I do choose endings (perhaps not always at the most opportune times, but still…) to set myself free from whatever has become restrictive and suffocating. Maybe I underestimate Terry. Perhaps whatever he did or is accused of doing was an attempt, in his own way and within the system where he exists, to exit toward some kind of freedom. Freedom from oppression—by the system? by another inmate? Freedom from his own nightmares? Freedom from a wrong he couldn’t let go? Freedom from four cell walls he’d gotten tired of staring at?

The last time I saw Terry in class I was facilitating for the night. I didn’t have time to talk to him one-on-one, and it wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized he hadn’t said a word the entire night. He’d sat scribbling on a piece of paper, his head resting on the crook of his arm. The truth is I knew on that drive home we’d lost him. Or maybe I just want to think I knew now, looking back. I don’t think if I had found some one-on-one time with him that night, had reached out or encouraged him to engage in the class discussion it would have prevented his actions once we left the prison. I have, afterall, been learning a plenty of good lessons these past few months about what I do and do not have control over when it comes to the actions of others. But I do wish we’d spoken. I wish he knew I have The Princess Brideat home now and will start reading it this weekend and I will miss him and his stories and I hope whichever prison he goes to next he finds the peace he couldn’t find here and how much I hate his exit came with no goodbye.

I’m overdue posting these student pieces. As always, comments welcome. The guys appreciate hearing what other writers/readers think–even the suggestions for improvement (please do remember these are first drafts by novice writers).

The assignment: Write a 250-300 word description of your “house” (cell) without using the words, dirty, cellie, cold, steel, bars, clang and bunk. You can create a scene from your real life or a fictional scene, but put yourself inside of the “hero”–use his point of view. The idea is to be as original as possible, to use no cliches or stereotypes.

The Letter, by J.D.
“Hey, John,” hollered my neighbor. “What’s for supper?”

“T-bone steak wrapped in bacon,” I replied. “You know, a baked potato with all the trimmings, corn on the cob dripping with butter, maybe a fresh baked dinner roll and a big ass piece of apple pie for dessert.”

“Damn that sounds good,” he sighed.

I grinned and reached past the cheap plastic hangers that wore my pressed “Sunday Service” dress shirts and matching slacks into the box at the back of my closet-bookshelf-pantry combo area. “Too bad the packing says ramen noodles,” I chuckled. I scopped up some of the loose papers from on top of my desk and dumped them on one of the already overloaded boxes of stuff at the foot of my bed, then set up my hotpot, plopping down on my swivel chair to watch a litle TV while I waited.

A short time later the slop was done and I readied myself to choke it down when an envelope was shoved under my door. The only mail I received was either catalogs or crap I ordered from them. This was different and I picked it up for a closer inspection. Though I hadn’t seen it in twenty-six years I knew the return address and I swallowed hard at the lump that had formed in my throat. It was my wife’s address. Forty-seven years of living with the angriest, most bitter men this state could offer hadn’t hardened my heart enough to prevent the river of tears when I tore it open and read, “Dear John…”

The door slid open with such force I was jarred back to reality by the vibrations that rippled through the solid stone floor beneath my feet. A preacher was quoting verses on TV so I guessed it must be morning, and I had lost track of the last eight or ten hours.

“On your feet, convict,” boomed a voice form the hallway.

Without a word , I stood and pushed the chair aside like I’d been conditioned to do.

“Pack your shiit. Your ride leaves in an hour,” came the voice again.

I stepped outside of my bathroom-sized studio apartment and was met by the warden and one of his lackeys, a scrwny little kiss-ass we called “Fencepost.”

“Pack it yourself,” I snapped back, snatching my release papers from his hand before he could react. “And my name isn’t Convict. It’s John.” I turned to face the piss an beside him. “But from now on you can call me, Sir.” I shoved my wife’s tear-soaked letter in his chest before turning to walk toward the exit gate.

“Hey, wait!” called Fencepost. “What about your stuff? Don’t you want it?”

I paused a moment and closed my eyes visualizing my confines from the last third of my incarceration. “For forty-seven years I laid on a concrete slab you call a mattress committing every detail of every item in that rat-hole to memory, and staring at pictures of people who do nothing but stare back. People who forgot about me a long time ago. What would you have me take with me? A guitar that collects dust in the corner? A lifetime of crap ordered from catalogs tha I never really wanted in the first place? Foul smelling soap or toothpaste I couldn’t pay to get rid of? Nah. There’s nothing in there I want or need.”

“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with this shit?” The warden glared at the overflowing shelves and boxes inside the elaborate broom closet with a toilet.

“Same thing I always tell you, warden.” I glanced back over my shoulder. “Shove it up your ass for all I care.”

As I walked away, I overheard his say, “Poor bastard. He doesn’t even realize he’s going back out into the world with nothing. Ten bucks says he’ll be back.”

“I don’t think so,” said Fencepost. “That lucky bastard just got his second chance.” He handed my wife’s letter to him with a crooked smile. “He’s going back home where she’s still waiting.”

The warden read the letter.

All nine words of it.

“Dear John, I still love you. Please come home.”

Untitled, by M.J.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that my cell’s dimensions were designed to be for people without comprehension. This is not fiction. I’m basing truth on all these cement inventions that have taken the place of lynchings. Injustice attacking powerless victims, benefits the structural systems of people like Rockefeller to President Nixon. Contemplate that and then decide if *powder cocaine and crack are not the same chemically as well as in fact. So who’s worse in this community pack? The ones without power or the lab techs setting the inevitable traps? The walls of the hood are quite similar to the ones in my room. Brick after brick confining every dream to the space of reality’s tomb. No glass ceilings so the skies out of reach. Just like the roof of the womb, all is dark and the souls of the youth are consumed by the tortuous doom. And they call us violent whenever we finally become conscious of the government tyrants who are running rampnt destroying the minds of the vibrant then close our mouths around pipes and fifths until we’re drowing in silence. My floor look like the streets in the ghetto, stuffed up, cracked and controlled by the string of Gipetto. So how can I get to the front row when I’ve only been allowed as far as my rope goes? Like I’m a dog chained in the yard to pole? It’s fucked up I know, but what can be the source of change? Are we to play the game or rearrange our brains and unshakle the chains? They say it’s for me and even though oxygen is a product of trees we’d rather inhale the smells of rot when the lungs of a prisoner breathes. So it seems my reality is drunk, boxed in and boxed out without throwing a punch. The noises of men clapped at televised junk invades my ears with a thump as I stare at my reflection contemplating my wants. It’s hard though, you understand what I’m saying? I’ve turned my whole world around but am never acknowledged for changing. So life makes religious men lose faith and stop praying, turn away from communication and embrace the teachings of Satan. No I’m not hating, what’s to expected? We live in a grave, but we can’t rest in peace because we’re alive and the reaper is delayed. So at times I feel like a slave. One that captured and turned in myself to live in this cave. Betrayed my family and friends because I was in it for the bling. A multitude of us lyin gin ruin, destruction caused by the hands of delusion, mistaking truth with confusion while wearing the mask of illusions. I’m beyond that, the face we paint on our essence instead of becoming invested in the lessons given to the sections of poverty’s veterans. And I reckon th eworld spins on God’s middle fingernail, so I’m not the only one trapped in a jail, waiting for mail, hoping for heaven not hell, but never released from our cells. And we’re told to have hope, convinced it’s cool to sell dope. What a joke. Yeah, we all laugh in the clouds of blunt smoke, but nothing is funny once we find friends hanging from a sheet turned to rope.

*Starting with the War on Drugs possession of crack cocaine came with a minimum sentence of 10 years, while possession of powder cocaine could still receive a misdemeanor sentence. Crack was most often found in minority and low income neighborhoods, while powder cocaine was most often used by upper-class whites. Under President Obama Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to only 18:1 (for what that’s worth).

The last two classes at the prison have been focused on publishing. For prisoners, the want to see their work in published form is no less of a desire than it is for the rest of us still waiting to officially and professionally move into the class of “emerging” writers. Yet, the barriers to their goals are significant. No access to the internet means no electronic submissions, no ability to research current contests, submissions guidelines or current information on agents. Everything they have access to is outdated–Writer’s Digests from 2008, if they are lucky. They have no ability to create a Word document and send it to anyone as an attachment. Most of them cannot afford to purchase a typewriter, and even if they can, a typewritten page now a days only gets you so far. Entering contests requires money, and as many of us know those fees have only risen in recent years. A $10 entry fee is a half a month’s salary for most of the guys’ in our group–we asked. Despite all of that we have spent two full evenings walking them through the process of what an agent is and what they do, what an editor is and what they do, what a query letter is and the difference between submitting nonfiction proposals and finished fictional work. We’ve covered literary magazines, and talked about e-books and self publishing.

Yet, the most pressing question, the one they won’t take our word for, is whether or not, if they were to say publish a novel, if you as a book buyer and reader, saw in their author bios on the back covers they had or were currently serving time for violent offenses of whatever nature, would you still buy the book or would you put it back on the shelf? Why or why not?–they really want to know. Does it matter what the content of their work is? That is, if they are writing a a novel about prison are you more likely to buy it than say if they have written a young adult novel about a zombie apocolypse (as one of our guys has done and it’s quite good)? Are readers only interested in true stories by prisoners about prison, or can a prisoner write something else and still be trusted by a reader? Does the background of an author matter to you at all as a reader? Why or why not?

The guys asked if I’d be willing to ask these questions of my readers here on the blog, and so I am. If you are so inclined to respond, not only would I appreciate it, but I promise they would as well. And they don’t mind honesty, I promise. I will share any responses I receive, but will remove any identifying information (name, email address, etc).

All writers doubt anyone will care about what they’ve written, and most of us experience moments of doubt about whether or not we even have the right to write what we do. Who are we to think we are more of an expert on anything than someone else who clearly is? Yet, prisoners are already doubted in most ways on a daily basis. In prison, they are labeled manipulators, liars and cheats no matter how hard they are working at their own rehabilitation (given that the prison system no longer focuses on rehabilitation, only punishment). Out of prison, they are ex-cons not to be trusted–not with a job, not with housing. Do we trust them to tell us stories?

Three times yesterday I was asked, “Why do you do this work?” Or some variation of that question. The final question came at the end of our time at the prison. One guy who had been particularly quiet for the entire night took me aside as we were packing up to go and said, “I know there’s the feminine thing of wanting to help, but I still can’t figure out why you guys would want to spend your time up here with us.”

This isn’t the first time one of the inmates have asked this question. Typically, it comes from a place of wanting to know if we have an agenda. Motives, other than what we say are the goals of our program, for spending time at the prison. Some guys want to know if we are just there to collect their stories to use for our own. Some guys simply have a hard time understanding why, out of all the volunteer projects one would take on, anyone would choose working with inmates. Others have had experiences with volunteers who come in and are demeaning, disrespectful, judgemental and shaming. But when I was asked by this man last night I also wondered if the question has anything to do with their own ability to forgive themselves for their crime. Meaning, if their shame is still too great, perhaps it is difficult for them to accept that we might actually be there for no other reason than we choose to be. For this man, he told us about his young daughter who he never gets to see. So, I wondered if his family has rejected him how that plays into trusting that someone might not reject him — particularly someone who doesn’t even know him.

It is true that in order to go into the prison we have go in with a certain mindset. One that allows us to either see beyond the crimes in the room, or if that is difficult, which it is at times, to not let the impact of learning about a crime deter us from our efforts. The same guy who asked me the question about why I come to the prison, also said, “Despite what these guys say, it’s still prison, you know?” By which I think he meant that when the guys come to our group we see one side of them. He was reminding me that they are all there for a reason, and it’s not just because they are misunderstood. But most of the guys in our group would agree with that statement. They too are trying to reconcile the part of them that is capable of committing whatever crime they are serving time for with the part of them that is still a good human being, a creative individual, a father, a son, a reader, a spiritual man, etc. I watch their internal conflict with all the pieces of themselves play out over the course of our time there. They talk about what led them to prison and then talk about the struggle to serve their time in a way that will leave them better off when they came in.

This guy read me a quick piece of writing before he left, in which he referred to the death of his brother. Because the custody officer was calling for the inmates to line up, and because we don’t ever want to throw the prison off their rigid schedule, I did not have time to do anything but listen to his piece, tell him it was good and wish him a goodnight. This is the hardest part for me about my time at the prison –there’s never enough time it seems to say, “I’m sorry about your brother. What has that been like for you?” Or, “I’m sorry you don’t get to see your daughter. What is that like?” They disclose these painful moments from their past, I get to glimpse a piece of their story, and then we have to say goodbye. It’s difficult.

What I wish I had time to tell him is that I come to the prison because of stories like his. Because I care about the “rest” of his story. The part that doesn’t show up in his DOC file. The part that most others won’t ask about. I believe that all stories deserve to be heard, the full story. So, I keep coming in the hopes that, over time, they’ll be able to share their story — their full story — even if it only comes in small pieces, rushed at the end of an evening and meant to test whether I’m really there for the reasons I say I am.