Posts Tagged ‘writing in prison’

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.

Things change at the prison from week to week, day to day, and believe it or not, the prison rarely gives us notice (and if you were inclined to believe they might, well, spend more time on this blog getting to know the Department of Corrections). So, when we arrived last night to a new electronic keypad lock on the door we normally just waltz through into the lobby where we get our nametags, put away our carkeys and then follow a custody upstairs for screening, we were confused, but not suprised. We had been given no code for the door (wouldn’t that be cool–having a code for anything at the prison?), and there was no sign giving any sort of instructions. A simple: A custody officer will be with you shortly to allow you entrance, would have sufficed, but no. Just a shiny keypad lock, daring us to try a code–any code. We did not dare. So, we stood there at the door, looking in, watching for a guard, sort of like those women in old department store commercials–open, open, open (though we refrained from actually tapping on the glass of the door because, well, tapping might now be a punishable offense, you never know).

We ended up being let in by another volunteer. How she got in, I don’t know. But I saw her, dared to give a light knock on the glass and she opened right up. A custody officer showed up shortly thereafter to collect our ids and start issuing our nametags. Even he looked a little baffled as to how we’d all beat the new lock system and were standing in his lobby waiting on him instead of the other way around. Later, as we left for the night, my co-facilitator, asked why the new lock had been installed. The response? To keep folks from getting in and just waiting around without supervision. Yep, tax payer dollars well spent there, folks. I sort of felt for the officer, he seemed disappointed as well to realize it was still possible for us to figure out how to get in on our own accord. Like the long staff meeting he’d had to endure to figure out how to prevent such loitering in the lobby was now only 2 hours of his life he’d never get back.

Oh, and perhaps now is also the moment to note, not in a demeaning way, I’m sure it’s just a small oversight, but there are two entrances to the lobby. Only one has the new lock. The other…well, that might be how the other volunteer got in.

Once we had our nametags we marched upstairs as we always do to go through the screening process. I’m pretty conscientious about this process. I don’t wear jewelry, try to remember to leave my belt in the car and never have change or other various what-nots in my pockets. Not having all these extras speeds up the process, and also keeps me from setting off the metal detetector or otherwise drawing any unnecessary attention from the custody officer. The best policy as a prison volunteer in terms of not having your program hassled unnecessarily (and we were already “in trouble” for being behind with our volunteer evaluations) is to try to just stay off everyone’s radar. Don’t cause problems and you’ll have less problems.

I put my bag of class materials, shoes, jacket, nametag (because the clip on them is metal so you put it on downstairs then have to take it off upstairs) and glasses on the table for the officer search and walked slowly through the metal detector with my arms at my sides as a newly posted sign clearly instructed us to now do (DO NOT CROSS YOUR ARMS WHILE GOING THROUGH SCREENING! – these sorts of signs always make me wondered what the hell happened in the 2 weeks since our last visit). The screener went off. Damn. I went back through and tried again. No luck. I rarely set off the screener. The custody officer looked at me as if to say, well, what do you have to hide? And even though I had nothing to hide, I started to get nervous. This is probably a natural response to failing any test, but failing a test in prison can have all sorts of consquences, including being denied entrance for the night.

I turned out my pockets and took the two hairclips out of my hair (even though I’m pretty certain they are plastic). I walked through again. It screamed its alarm again. I had no choice but to look at the custody officer and confess: it must be my bra. I tried to remember which one I had on, since I know I have one with underwires that will make it through the screener. Which one had I grabbed that morning? White or black? I couldn’t remember, I only knew I’d gotten it wrong.

The officer is a relatively young guy and his cheeks flushed a little and he immediately stepped to the phone to call for a female officer. Oh, Lord. Officers used to use a wand (you’ve seen them at the airport, I’m sure) if you set off the screener. They ran it over your front, over your back, saw where it went off–like right over your breasts–and would assume that you were telling the truth–it’s my underwires. A male or female officer could use the wand because they didn’t actually have to touch you. Apparently, the wand is now old school. Now, you get a real search.

The officer instructed me to wait in the screening area while he took all the other volunteers into the prison. I said goodbye to my co-facilitator (we have a standing policy we don’t go in alone) and assured her I’d be right there. But we both knew in these sorts of situations there are no guarantees. I waited, and while waiting told myself there wasn’t anything I could do. I certainly knew I wasn’t smuggling in any contraband. I knew I’d simply worn the wrong bra, and once the female officer got there I assumed she’d understand (she must’ve gone through this a million times with the number of women who come to visit on family day) and I’d be on my way.

The original officer finally returned, female officer in tow. She had a strange way of not looking at me, which is awkward when there are only three of you in a room and you’re the only odd one out–not to mention the subject of all the fuss. I could only assume later that in anticipation of having to feel me up in a pat down she thought eye contact would be a tad too intimate. At any rate, I was instructed to once again go through the metal detector.

It didn’t go off.

Now you might think this is a good thing, but I panicked. Here’s why. They’d left me alone for nearly ten minutes. For all they knew I’d gone into the restroom and removed a dozen razor blades, or a shank or a nail (I don’t know) from my bra and flushed them down the toilet. I jokingly said, I promise I didn’t toss anything out while you were gone. I knew I sounded nervous and immediately regretted saying anything. Humor is not always a good idea in prison. But the male guard just looked at me and said, we know that–you’re on camera the whole time we’re gone. I should have thought of that, but I didn’t, and I was strangely not comforted by knowing.

I’m still going to need to search you, the female guard said. Of course. She took me down a short hallway, supposedly out of the sightline of the male guard. She told me she would explain what she wanted me to do, and that I was not to do anything until she was done explaining. Okay. They have a way of making you feel like a very small child…and an idiot. She showed me how she needed me to pull my bra away from my chest and “shake” it out. I stared at her for a minute. Okay. I put a hand up my shirt, and she was quick to assure me I didn’t actually need to lift my shirt all the way. Good, because I wasn’t going to. I awkwardly grabbed ahold of my underwire on one side, pulled it out and sort of jumped up and down simultaneously. She nodded. Okay. Then I repeated the gesture on the other side until she nodded again. It occurred to mid-bounce on the final side that if I were to be hiding something up in my bra, it would be easy enough to keep it from falling out for discovery. But I refrained from making any sort of joke about the illusions of security. I actually didn’t want to end up naked with this woman.

She then turned me around, ran her hands over my shoulders, down the length of my outstretched arms, under my armpits, down my sides, around my waist, down and between my legs and then simply walked away. I followed. They were going to let me in. That’s all I cared about at that moment.

I don’t like walking out to the building where we have our class by myself. I mean I wasn’t alone–the male officer walked with me. But normally I’m one of a half dozen volunteers walking out together. And normally, we cross the prison yard before the inmates are released for movement (when they get 10 minutes to move from their cells to wherever they want to go for the next hour). But I was late. So, it was just me, and inmates were out and about in the yard, and maybe because I’d just been felt up and shaken out I felt weirdly exposed. Look, there’s a woman in the yard. I know all the men don’t think that, but there are simply some realities of being a female volunteer visiting a male prison. All to say, I was relieved to get to my building, and even more relieved to get to my classroom where 17 students smiled at me and teased me for being late and joked about what’d you try to get in, huh and then more quietly asked if I was okay.

I am, I said. I’m just glad to be here with the people I trust.

I’ve been thinking a great deal since my last trip to the prison about how to help the guys push the borders of their writing. How to help them find new avenues to approach their stories, avenues which will take them deeper and closer to the raw emotion of their life experiences. Writing can become so academic when in the classroom, and the mysteries of “good” writing can feel even more elusive. Once I’ve learned all the rules, why can’t I still get it right? One of the new guys brought a piece to read last time, but he prefaced his reading by saying that he was more of a poet and so writing in prose was hard. He’s trying to tell a fictional story based in the facts of his crime, and I can tell he’d rather do it via poetry and I can tell that if he’d dump the fiction part of it and tell it as he feels it, sees it, experienced it, the writing would be all the more powerful.

It’s a matter of needing to write from the dark places of our lives, the places we spend time trying to avoid. And for the guys in prison I think it’s a matter of 1) not wanting to scare us volunteers 2) being uncertain that the truth of their story, the way they want to write, is important enough to warrant writing it down and 3) still being new enough to the writing process to think that there is a “right” way to do things.

Also, it seems to me that if you’ve been told that your life is a crime, and you are a criminal, it might be hard to believe that the story of that life and that crime is a necessary story to be told. Not to mention when your day to day existence is made up of following the rules, and the punishment for not doing so is severe, it might be more than a little difficult to trust that in this classroom with these volunteers the rules can be bent as long as the story is getting told.

I told the new guy–the poet trying to write fiction out of a truth that is clearly so heavy on his heart–that he should write in the way that connects him to the work. And right now, this evening, I’m combing through my poetry, short story and essay collections looking for good examples of writers who have blended two, or even all three, forms. Stories told out of linear time. Poetry that reads like prose. Essays that don’t concern themselves so much with “then this and then that” but rather “it hurt here and smelled like this and made me remember when”. Hoping to inspire him to find his own form.

Hoping to remind myself that I can do the same.