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Current Issue: Spring 2014
Featuring the winners of the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and work by Kai Carlson-Wee, Kerry Hardie, Jill Kandel, David Lee, Monica McFawn, Brian Van Reet, Melissa Yancy and Dave Zoby.
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Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Eric Boyd
When you walk down a dark alley at night, you focus only on getting through it. The alley is wide, and in the peripherals of your eyes are unknown dangers; things that you know you fear and hope to avoid, but are right there, waiting. So you stare straight ahead and walk fast. There is good and there is bad and it is so simple.
In jail, you focus on getting out and going home, but that destination is so narrow and faraway that your whole world becomes the peripherals. And it never adjusts, never becomes clear. You see an entire population of men and women who live in a blurred world. And, for a certain kind of person—let’s say, someone who writes stories—it’s an education beyond anything a civilian can experience.
In jail, you are surrounded by people who made hard choices and lost. During my time, there were only two or three people I can recall who were even partially evil because, to be evil, one must understand that their actions are fundamentally wrong. Try telling a man who grew up in the projects and had his family harassed by gangsters that beating the living shit out of one of those gangsters was wrong. Try telling a woman who stabbed her pimp, or a soldier who owned dozens of illegal firearms and wore a bulletproof vest to bed. There is a time when the world is in focus but, at some point, your values are stripped from you, little by little, until everything you could possibly want from life becomes so small and elusive that anything surrounding that becomes flicker and fog. To be in jail not just with, but among and of those people, it’s hard to go back to “normal”.
I spent nearly nine months in the ACJ, from mid-2010 to early-2011. And let’s just get the history out of the way: long story short, my idea of helping an OD’d friend was to throw them into a bathtub and run water on them (at their mother’s suggestion, after I called in a panic), and take a photo of their condition so that, once they woke up, I could say, “Why did you do this to yourself?” I remembered when we were younger and that worked. My friend had huffed keyboard cleaner and a girl filmed them as they ranted, milky eyed. Later, that video seemed to really embarrass them, seemed to snap them into sobriety for a while.
The problem was, as all this shit with me was happening, they weren’t waking up. Whatever concept of righteous help I was offering up became a matter of life and death. In my attempts to wake my friend with the shower water, I began intermittently running cold and hot, not knowing what to do. I’d never been asked or expected to revive an overdosed person. So I kept going back and forth, cold water for a few minutes, hot water for a few. That hot water ending up giving my friend second-degree burns. They were in a stage-4 coma the entire time, making only the faintest of animal-like murmurs as any of this occurred. Once the police came, the mother hugged me and said, “What happened? I know you tried to help, but what the hell happened?” She was the first one to really knock me on the police reports, even though she’d been bartending—unable, she said, to leave work—the entire time any of this was happening. I ended up with an assault charge based on negligence and was sentenced to 11½-23 months in a halfway house, with work release. But I never went to any halfway house.
While I was inside, I read poems of Jim Morrison, Rimbaud, and Bukowski. I read Celine, Harper Lee, Hunter Thompson, and sure, the autobiography of Jenna Jameson. It wasn’t too surprising to see such work in a jail. People who didn’t quite fit in, who burned their own paths; people that had their books banned and their stories celebrated in narrow margins of the world. When a man who stole meat from grocery stores to sell to bars because he needed money for his family gives you Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, you tend to grasp his confusion of the world. So I was reading, taking notes. I still have yellow pads filled with scribblings. Let’s face it, I had nothing but time, and I felt myself being affected, changed. I knew that there was no going back.
All my life I have worked meaningless jobs in an attempt to get by. Pharmacies, candy stores, multiplexes. I had artistic urges, but my brain was scattered. I painted, took photographs, made t-shirts, sculpted, and drew. Notice I didn’t even mention all the writing. Screenplays, poems, experimental concepts, and the occasional story about time-traveling because of overly tight pants. I had no direction. I saw an apple tree and tried to unhinge my jaw to devour the whole thing. After jail, I only saw one apple, still ripening, wayyy up at the top of the tree. I did everything once, and none of it incredibly well; now I write fiction. Yeah I still take up shitty jobs to get by (which is hard when you’re a felon), but I don’t pretend it’s enough as I once had. I just quit a gig at a Thai restaurant because—aside from hating it—I realized they weren’t going to give me time off to attend the Tin House Writing workshop. I am letting everything fall to the wayside now. For money I donate plasma and look into medical studies; yes, my girlfriend helps out and we’re glad the rent is relatively low. I can’t even imagine if it weren’t. I have trouble imagining most things anymore.
Life after jail is difficult. Everyone expects you to be like you were, but it’s just not there anymore. Ghosts are not the spirits of the dead, they are the spirits of the living; they are the things stolen from a body still breathing. When you speak to a P.O. for the first time you feel like a monster. When you go to a forced mental eval you’re told to tell the truth in a tone where you know they believe you’re constantly lying. When you list your offenses on a job application the interviewer’s eyes shift to make sure enough people are around in case you do something. And maybe that’s not incorrect. Maybe I am capable of anything because I’m not who I used to be anymore. Somewhere in the Allegheny County Jail there is a part of me roaming around, crying out. That is the apple at the top of the tree. That is what I’m ascending to. A good review or a hefty advance would be nice, but those things would merely brush beside me as I climb. Through writing, I’m hoping to become a person again. I’m hoping to be made whole.
While serving time, you have to see an opportunity and take it, no matter the risk. If there’s a chance to bet on handball games and get extra long-johns in the winter, you make bets; if there’s a week’s worth of food to be had for smuggling pruno, you smuggle; if there’s a writing class to attend on Friday mornings, you attend, even if a few people make fun of you for it. After being released, that mentality stuck. I began submitting stories right away, sending off work to wherever I thought might take it. I got some work published, won a couple contests, and gave reading anywhere I was invited. My life has become a series of events with periods of waiting between. You serve a day in jail, find the chance for some small escape in the form of risky opportunities, and it leads to the next day in which you live with those choices. That’s how it is for me now. At any time I could trip on an errant branch and fall all the way down, flat. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the thing I’m climbing towards matters so much.
Everything around me is blurred now and I know that vision only worsens with time. For me, this is the only way. I write every day because it’s all that’s left. I can’t find good jobs. I’ve been on probation for a few years and I have one more to go. Some people think it’s “cool”. Some people think I’m a deviant. Neither is true.
As I go over this, I admit my eyes have welled up more than I’d like them to. I can write that though because, unlike people, writing doesn’t judge me. I know I’ve done stupid things, and I know I’ve been a stupid person—but I’d like to get that idiot back. I want to walk down those dark alleys and feel unsafe again. I want everyone to stop running away from me. I want to lead a fruitful life.
Eric Boyd lives in Pittsburgh but commutes to New York every week to attend classes at the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in, among others, Guernica, Fourth River, Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, and the Twin Peaks Project. He recently had a story in Akashic Books’ “Prison Noir”, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; next year he will appear in “Make Mine Words”, a teaching manual for nontraditional writing classes, featuring work by JCO, John Edgar Wideman, ZZ Packer, and more. Boyd has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is a winner of the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Award, a program which he now mentors for. He has helped edit several magazines including Pork & Mead, theNewerYork, and the upcoming Pittsburgh anthology from Rust Belt Chic.
For the next few weeks, we will be featuring narrative accounts “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak—former winners in essay, fiction, and poetry of our Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. All of our winners have different backgrounds, experiences, publication records, and responses to achieving this esteemed prize and honor. Today we hear from David Zoby, 2013’s essay winner; Fiona McFarlane, 2009’s fiction winner; and David Kirby, 2011’s poetry winner. Here is what they have to say:
“Winning the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize came as a surprise to me. My essay, ‘Cafe Misfit,’ had been through several revisions, and I was hoping to land it somewhere. I decided to dream big–I sent it to The Missouri Review‘s contest.
Whether I publish with TMR or not, I always feel that the editors there read my work. Over the years, I’ve had some essays published with them, and a few near misses as well. Winning the contest invigorated me; I wrote several new essays last winter. I picked up the pace, and now I have a full-length manuscript which I can begin to shop around. The contest–and the trip to Columbia–let me meet the editors face-to-face, hang out and talk about writing.
People always ask what you’re going to do with the prize money. I bought a camper shell for my truck and drove the Alaska Highway with my dog, Rocket. There aren’t too many contests out there that can put you face-to-face with grizzly bears or let you spend a day contemplating glaciers.”
“I found out I had won the 2009 Editors’ Prize for fiction in the Christmas break of my first year as an MFA student at the University of Texas. I was still in a kind of daze about that first semester: my first experience of writing workshops, of feedback from many voices, of Texas. It had been a wonderful, intense, surreal four months, and I spent Christmas with a friend in England’s Lake District. There were cottages, and snow, and coal fires. This was also quite surreal; and to receive the email from The Missouri Review with the news about the Editors’ Prize seemed as unlikely as all of it, and as wonderful. ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ was the first story I ever submitted to a workshop. I sent it off to the mythical land of Missouri without any expectations at all.
It is, of course, incredibly encouraging to be chosen out of many entries as the winner of a prize. We know how subjective the act of reading is; to win feels, in many ways, like a beautiful coincidence: the right story for the right readers. As well as buoyed spirits, the prize came with a very generous reward, which paid some bills, bought some books, and made it possible for me to travel home to Australia the following summer, for the first time in nearly three years. I loved visiting Missouri for the award ceremony – to an Australian, Missouri is exotic and mysterious. I loved seeing my story in the pages of The Missouri Review. Four years after winning the prize, I published my first novel, The Night Guest. The process of writing a book can be lonely and baffling, but winning something like the Editors’ Prize is a magnificent reminder that there are other readers, other writers, who are ready to listen, and are working alongside you. The feeling stays with you, too, like a small, warm fire. I’ll always be grateful for it.”
And, last but not least, David Kirby:
“I take every prize and positive review, every horse laugh and back pat as an encouragement, much like those little Dixie cups of water people pass out to marathoners. In other words, the recognition is for something you’ve already done, but you’ve already done it, right? We’re in this for the long haul, so when someone praises my work, I don’t hear ‘Good job, old chap.’ Instead, that welcome voice is saying, ‘Not bad, boy — now let’s see what you can really do.’”
Want to join them? You can submit to our 2014 Editors’ Prize Contest here. The deadline is October 1st–21 days remaining!
In the three weeks or so, there has been one of those tagging games on Facebook that have been ubiquitous since, oh, probably as soon as the site launched. Though one of my aunts used to send me emails that were very similar way back when all we had were AOL.com email addresses, so these “tagging” games have probably been around since humans learned to write. Anyway, the current one is to list the ten books that have “stayed with you” in your life. I was tagged by my friend Laura Relyea.
There are many tagging posts on Facebook, and probably, if you haven’t already written yours about books, you’ve at least seen them in your feed. I generally ignore these tagging games (and Candy Crush invitations) but I didn’t have an idea for a Monday post and it’s relevant to books and all that, so I thought, yeah, this will work.
However, with one or two exceptions, most of these lists that I’ve seen on Facebook lack context. Why did these books stay with you? What does “stay with you” mean? Why are you imploring me to read them? Or, perhaps, you aren’t imploring me to read them, you’re just sharing (or something). Or, it’s all humblebrag, as this correspondent from Huffington Post thinks, with the requisite amount of snark. But, I’ve generally found that I see people’s list and I wish that me and that person could talk about it. Just seeing a friend’s book list doesn’t feel like it even touches on why the book matters, to my friend or me, especially if the list is diverse. It only leads to more questions. So, here’s my list with, I hope, a sufficient enough explanation of why it’s on the list. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books: trying to do something a wee bit different here. And if it isn’t sufficient, hey, just ask me. I like getting emails.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’m sure there were other books in my childhood that were big, important, impressive, amazing books. But this is the one that I really remember. This book is about Milo, a boy who is bored and unhappy with everything, and he comes home from school one day to find a cardboard box in his room. He opens it up, and finds that there is a toolbooth and a mechanical car big enough for him to sit in. He figures, why not? And, next thing he knows, he’s no longer in his bedroom but in some new amazing magical land. There are watchdogs named Tick and Tock, there is an island called Conclusions that you “jump to” (get it?), and about a hundred other delightful word games mixed in with what is a very cool story. This is the book that I felt was written just for me. And, there are thousands of readers of Juster’s novel who feel the exact same way.
Kindred by Octavia Butler. Of all the books I read in high school, this is the one that stands out. I read this junior year. When, on page sixty or something, it’s revealed that the main character—a black woman from San Francisco that keeps inexplicably getting sent back and forth in time to a 19th century plantation—is married to a white man. Why didn’t Butler tell us that sooner, I asked my teacher. I felt like I had discovered something that no one else had ever noticed! Oh, and, of course, Butler’s novel is a brilliant science-fiction, historical, romance thriller that deftly blends time and space and characterization better than most. An absolute gem.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m pretty sure I read this in graduate school. I used to go to the nearest coffee shop, which was a Barnes and Noble, to read and write. Back then, BN didn’t offer free WiFi, which is a really good way to get your writing done. Anyway, I remember reading large chunks of this novel, and was amazed and delighted by the narrative, the way Mitchell shifted voice for his various stories, and how entertaining the novel was to read. Since I’m now struggling to feel much for his new novel, I sorta wonder how much I would like Cloud Atlas if I read it again today (something I’ve wondered about all the books on this list).
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When was the first time you read this book? Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s the only book that my students are guaranteed to have read. I’ve probably read it at every level of my education, and once a year since. Fitzgerald was the first writer I tried to emulate: I would retype his stories, practice his rhythms and sentences, try to understand how he made Carraway so elusive and Gatsby so magnetic. Many years ago on the Ploughshares blog (I believe Elisa Gabbert was curating it then), interviews always ended with the question “Hemingway or Fitzgerald?” and I was always a bit pleased at how many people said Hemingway, as if Scott and I were friends with the world’s best secret.
Old School by Tobias Wolff. I hated this book. This is not a joke. I thought this was one of the worst novels I’ve ever read.
A quick digression: I’m well aware that Toby Wolff is one of the finest American short story writers of the late 20th century, and by all accounts he is a terrific teacher and all around good guy, and this probably means I’ll never ever set foot on Stanford’s campus, and I do sorta feel bad about saying this about his novel; further, I think of all the nasty things said about books, about negative reviews, literary citizenship, community, etc. and I not only wonder about adding to the noise, but, and I would guess most people who teeter on this fence feel the same way, I worry about how this will shape my life: what if Toby Wolff knows my chancellor and gets me fired; or his friends write me and tell me I’m stupid; or I get this massive backlash from readers; and is all of that really worth it just to write two or three paragraphs about why I don’t like the book, and really, is there any harm in not liking book; no, probably not, but, actually, having all these thoughts running through my head actually kinda make me angry because then we really aren’t a community where “all voices are heard” and we sorta live with fear of offending people in case we need a favor in the future, and, really, to hell with that.
Old School is a terrible book. It’s a novel written by a guy who, it seemed, didn’t really want to write a novel. There are guest appearances by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, who are portrayed exactly as you think they would be, wrapped up pretentious teenage boys saying pretentious things about literature, and then Ernest Hemingway is supposed to show up only – surprise! – he kills himself RIGHT BEFORE HIS VISIT (oh, how convenient!) so the book is one big boring narrative leading to absolutely nothing and then, sorta, the book decides to actual begin with a longish short story about theft, and you realize that 150 pages were tacked on to the front of the real story. Why? I don’t know. Lots of critics loved this book. They were wrong. They were very wrong.
I was puzzled. Why did all the critics think this book was good? Why did people rave about it? This was the first time I vividly remember going completely against the grain, against popular opinion, and doing so with absolute certainty. This wasn’t just a matter of taste. This was bad, and people were telling me it was good. My first lesson is being willing to refuse, to be my own critic, about contemporary books.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Yes, I liked this book that much. Yes, I understand the criticism of it. Yes, Tartt writes some very bad run-on sentences with some clunky metaphors. Maybe because it has all these flaws and it doesn’t matter at all is why I love it. Maybe because I lent my copy of it out twice. Maybe because discussing the book with some of my favorite people over the past year is part of the reason it’s on the list.
Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. I think the first Andre Dubus story I ever read was “The Fat Girl” but I’m not a hundred percent positive. I also wouldn’t choose that one as one of my favorites of Dubus. I don’t remember when I first bought his books—I own them all—or when, exactly, Selected Stories became the book that I reread once a year, or pick up when I’m sad, or pick up when I’m working on a story and feeling stumped with characterization. Selected Stories might be the book that I’ve read the most.
But there’s another reason this book is on my list.
Andre Dubus is how Laura Relyea and I became friends. Andre Dubus is how Andrew Scott and I became friends. There are examples of authors considered a “writer’s writer”—John Williams and William Maxwell spring to mind—but then there are the “writer’s writer” who are deeply personal to you: how you write, how you feel, how you think. And when you meet people who are moved by someone’s work in the same way you are, you’ve found something rare.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Oddly, twice in the past two weeks or so, friends have told me they didn’t like this book. WHAT?! I had so much fun reading this book, and re-reading it, and the depth and humor and insight that Smith brings to her characters. Many current readers probably know Smith best for her essays—which are excellent—but I always return to the energy and wit of her first novel.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Say what you will about Franzen, and many have, but when I first read this novel as an undergraduate, I was blown away. This was the kind of large canvas, the type of complexity and anger, that I responded to, the type of book that I wanted to write. It actually made me a little sad that someone else wrote the book that I wanted to write (if I knew how to write a novel, which I still don’t, or had even begun writing a novel then, which I hadn’t). I’ve read all his novels—and like them quite a bit—and the one I’ve reread is Strong Motion. But this was the novel that had the most impact on me, that made me think about aiming bigger with my own writing.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I wrote about re-reading this novel a few years ago, and how it was a bit stunning that such a dark, grim novel is so often taught in junior high. This is a masterpiece of language and character, every paragraph excellent, the horror of war lingering over the boys’ existence, and a tale of jealousy and friendship wrapped into one slim, elegant narrative. I’ve often thought about how such a story can exist beneath a story of prep school tragedy, how there are so many layers to this book, and how Knowles’ novel has remained on my mind with everything I’ve written the last three years.
Honorable Mention: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Privileges by Jonathan Dee; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Columbine by Dave Cullen; Loose Balls by Terry Pluto; Rookie of the Year by John R. Tunis; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens; Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; England, England by Julian Barnes; A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr; The Millionaires by Inman Majors.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Boston Woodard
“If you don’t stop telling lies about me, I’ll start telling the truth about you” – Abraham Lincoln
That quote from our sixteenth president pretty much describes why I write about prison life. Many times I have read in mainstream media or viewed on news broadcasts stories of prison incidents, episodes, or conditions that were factually wrong and/or misleading. The public-at-large is quick to believe everything offered to it by a broken prison system: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC).
Some prison public information officers (PIOs) are masterful at concocting spurious press releases prepared and tailored by prison administrators for public consumption. The falsely crafted information offered to the public (usually via media) has a one-sided take on any given issue behind prison walls. Because media access into the prison system has been severely restricted, to the point that prison officials have control of directing the coverage, the prisoner’s side of the story is seldom heard. Media delimitation deprives the public of a full account of how its prison system is being manages, which serves the CDRC well in concealing a corrupt and dysfunctional prison system.
The California Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA), the prison guard’s union, are masters of perpetuating many of the lies and information with the goal in ingratiating themselves with the public and a rapacious desire to fatten their coffer. Those of us on the inside, who observe the daily deportment of the self-proclaimed “peace officer”, see the impudence in their pronouncement that they “walk the toughest beat in the state”. Many prison staff negotiate their work day under calm and untroubled circumstances. This is not to say trouble does not arise at times, just not incessantly as claimed. In fact, some prison staff are so bored they make a game of targeting and harassing prisoners with impunity.
While some prison staff are feted by corrections officials as symbols of the “Safety and Security” of the public, there are others who are arrogant, pernicious, and dangerous to themselves and those around them. These rogue prison staff violate the rights of prisoners under the color of law exempt from punishment. Often, a snarky dig is the preferred language of prison officials when confronted by legitimate media seeking information.
When top prison officials condone, then cover up, bad behavior by its lower staff, it becomes commonplace for rogue guards and their supervising brass to employ miscreant conduct.
D.J. Vodicka, ex-prison guard and authors of The Green Wall, exposes rogue prison guards at their worst. The Green Wall was a gang of rogue guards within the CDCR. According to Vodicka, “Members of the The Green Wall placed contraband in prisoner’s cells, used unnecessary force at will, and become middle men for drug and weapons transfers within the prison. Some guards planted prisoner-manufactured weapons in prisoner’s cells, falsified reports, and stole or destroyed personal property belonging to prisoners.”
A Code of Silence was used by members of The Green Wall to cover up its activities and by some officials to protect its staff. The actions of rogue prison staff that use a Code of Silence as an unlawful tool to conspire among fellow staff do so to cover a multitude of violations. They use the Code of Silence to hide violations of policy and retaliate against staff and prisoners who don’t agree with them. “Fostering the Code of Silence includes the failure to act when there is an ethical and professional obligation to do so,” according to the memorandum issued by the CDCR on February 17th, 2004, to all California department of Corrections Employees proclaiming a “zero tolerance regarding the Code of Silence”.
The Code of Silence, still used by some prison staff, can and does evoke a desired reaction from some prisoners, which is then often used to concoct false disciplinary action against the prisoner-target.
A little more than nine years ago, I was given the opportunity by Mike Rhodes, editor of the Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno, California, to correspond as a journalist from behind state prison walls. Unlike “mainstream” news publications, the Community Alliance publishes uncensored, unfitted information about all matters of importance to the community, including the prison system.
When the CDCR fast-tracked the transferring of foreign national prisoners out-of-state, for-profit private prisons, the Community Alliance ran a series of articles of this bogus attempt by the CDCR to lower its population after being ordered to do so by federal courts. The CDRC began by bullying the most vulnerable of its charges (foreign nationals) by targeting them to be forcefully moved up to a thousand miles more from friends and families in California. My article, “Hog Tied”, told the story of Sopanareth Sok, a young Cambodian prisoner in Solano State prison who did not want to be forcefully transferred far from his family. He was handcuffed, shackled, and then hog-tied and whisked off to an undisclosed airport en route to a private prison in Mississippi.
I wrote several articles about California’s corrupt parole system, which has historically broken every rule in the book in an effort to keep thousands of life-term prisoners (who have earned the right to return to society) from being paroled. Two articles, “The Parole Conundrum: Vindictive Application of the Law” and “Parole Board Pillory: Courts Expose Corruption”, give a detailed history of why these life prisoners were not allowed to be paroled, even after decades of honest effort to rehabilitate themselves back into society where they no doubt would have been assets to many communities. Both articles are backed by numerous court rulings throughout California and the federal court system.
On several occasions, I was escorted to the prison’s custody office by prison guards, where I was encircled by prison officials who interrogated me about my articles. Two articles described the “possible” existence of “Zip Guns” on prison grounds, and another article detailed the destructive shakedowns (searches) that followed. Notes found in prison staff restrooms (not accessible to prisoners) prompted two lengthy lockdowns and institutional searches with no Zip Guns found. Many believe the lockdowns were nothing by concocted overtime ploys by the prison guards and their union.
During an interrogation, a “correctional sergeant” informed me, “We just came from the warden’s office. Sacramento (CDCR headquarters) is investigating several allegations you made in these articles.” My response was that my articles are records of facts as I witnessed or experienced everything I write about. I was escorted back to my housing unit and informed that I would be called back for more questioning. Prison officials interviewed several prisoners who were physically harmed and/or injured because of a shakedown. They were forced to stand in the hot sun for eight to ten hours. One elderly prisoner suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for weeks. Another 67-year old, partially paralyzed stroke survivor, suffered severe sunburned skin and was given two Tylenol for his extremely painful injuries. He has since passed away.
These men verified (during questioning) that my articles of the events and “allegations” depicting what happened to them were “true and accurate” as written. I was never called back for questioning.
My article, “It Ain’t So Funny When the Rabbit Has a Gun”, describes an unprecedented secretly employed staff event that caught the guards at California’s Solano State Prison, and other prison staff, completely by surprise. As employees arrived for morning shift change, they were thoroughly searched for contraband that some of them smuggle into prison.
Colloquial mumblings among the employees suggested that illegal cell-phones, tobacco, cigarette lighters, various unauthorized weapons (knives, etc), and other contraband were found secreted in various locations. The search was initiated after months of local news media reports revealed that it was prison staff that were smuggling contraband into Solano State Prison. Prison officials had been covering up their illegal doings for years. Prisoners have never been busted for smuggling cell phones into the prison. Only staff have the opportunity to bring cell phones and sell them for astronomical prices.
In 1996, I was targeted by prison officials for writing about California’s Three Strikes law and the rule changes regarding media access into the prison system. I filed a federal complaint against prison officials and the CDCR for violating my First Amendment right(s) to freedom of speech. Shortly after I won the summary judgment in that case, Woodard v. Duncan, the case was settled (in my favor) out of court in 1999.
A second intimidation-and-retaliation campaign against me, this time in a different prison, began in 2006 in an attempt to stop me from writing about my prison surroundings. It started with verbal threats. Every time I attempted to file a Citizen’s Complaint against rogue guards and administrative staff, harassment and retaliation followed. The prison’s Appeals Coordinator also threatened me with “appeals sanctions”, made verbal threats, and filed false documentation in an attempt to sully my prison record. I wrote, “Appealing the Impossible”, which prompted more threats.
In retaliation for filing a complaint on two rogue guards, a third guard using Code of Silence tactics concocted and filed a false disciplinary report against me for “threatening staff”, an extremely serious charge. A fourth, honest guard stepped up and told the disciplinary hearing officer (lieutenant) that I never made a threat to the guard who filed the false report or to any staff member. I was found not guilty of the charge, and the phony report was expunged from my prison file. Ex-prison guard D.J. Vodicka, and the guard who stepped up at my disciplinary hearing, are examples of honest officers doing their jobs and holding true to their oath to do so.
I wrote “Rogue Prison Staff: Breaking all the Rules”, depicting the threatening and dangerous behavior of several rank-and-file and administrative staff. Shortly after my article appeared in the Community Alliance and on www.indybay.org, I was shackled (again) and escorted up to an isolation cell in administrative segregation (“the hole”). According to the lock-up order, I was placed in isolation because I was a “security risk” to prison staff because of my journalistic activities. In “Rogue Prison Staff”, I included the names of those violators who participated in the retaliation against me.
Once again, most of my personal property was stolen or destroyed by prison staff, and I was forced to donate or mail out my typewriter and what was left of my belongings. To further punish me for exercising my First Amendment right to define my surroundings, I was subsequently transferred to hundreds of miles away to a remote prison on the northeastern slopes of California’s Sierra Mountain range in Susanville. My transfer was adverse and illegal.
I filed second civil rights lawsuit against those responsible for violating my right to freedom of speech in the Federal Eastern District Court in Sacramento. After five years, that case will be going to trial, according to my attorney, at the end of 2014 or early 2015.
After my arrival in Susanville, the Community Alliance and others have published several of my articles detailing abases and violations by some prison staff at that prison. Reports I have submitted describe how Muslim and Native American prisoners were targeted and had their religious rights violated, how prisoners are punished by being forced to stand outside in freezing weather half naked for hours (as written in my “Punishment by Cold” article), the way mobility-impaired and elderly men on canes and crutches have to stand in long lines for hours in the rain, snow and hot sun to receive medical prescriptions, and instances of the abuse of authority by appeal and mailroom staff.
I’ve filed three Citizen’s Complaints on three staff members at Susanville for violation of my civil rights, including trashing and stealing my personal property. I’ve only written complains on rogue prison staff and the administrative officials who condone their dangerous behavior. Most of my encounters with prison staff (on a daily basis) occur without incident because they do their job. Period!
The abuse of authority and retaliation I write about befalls prisoners throughout California’s prison system from the high-powered “Level-IV” prisons such as High Desert, Pelican Bay, Salinas Valley, New Flosom, and Corcoran state prisons to Soledad, Solano, Tracy, Tehachapi, and Calipatria state prisons. I would guess women’s prisons such as California Institution for Women (CIW) and Chowchilla have their rogue prison staff problems as well.
My reporting is small, but it is honest and unfettered. As a good friend of mine calls it, I’m “keeping it real”. My articles barely scratch the surface of the multitude of violations rogue prison staff escape punishment from with impunity. Legal efforts have been made in recent years to stop violations by staff and to improve prisoner’s living conditions. It’s a work in progress that needs all the illumination we as prisoners can muster.
Boston Woodard is a jailhouse journalist, musician, literary tutor, event organizer and prisoner’s rights activist. He has been writing about the system’s failures and abuses for twenty five years in both free world and prisoner publications. His work can be found in The Communicator, Soledad Star, Folsom Observer and the San Quentin News. He currently writes the “Prison Press” column for the Community Alliance (Fresno, CA) from his prison cell. Boston is author of “Inside the Broken California Prison System” (Amazon). He is currently co-authoring “PRISON, the Ins and Outs” with Maria Telesco, longtime prison advocate. More information on Boston’s writing can be found on www.humblepress.com and www.fresnoalliance.com
I don’t have a cell phone, which drives friends and family crazy. I visit almost daily Columbia’s last remaining video store instead of joining Netflix. My presence on Facebook is ghostly at best; I often read the newsfeed but seldom post on it. And I’m a chalk-and-blackboard kind of teacher who will only go electronic in the classroom when she’s simply made to. So you get the idea. I lead a distinctly low-tech life.
That’s why I was so surprised to discover how much I enjoy reading the digital version of The Missouri Review. Not to sound too terribly self-serving but I love that my visual and “found text” features have so much additional information embedded in them. In the piece on Ruth St. Denis, one of the pioneers of modern dance, readers can click on a link and watch a clip of one of her most memorable performances. And the visual feature on the vamps and flappers of the silent era offers an abundance of silent film clips and additional biographical information on the actors and actresses referenced in the work. The features come alive in ways the print version cannot.
The digital version also gives TMR the opportunity to promote our cover artists. The summer 2014 cover is by Anthony Tremmaglia, a Canadian artist I found while poking around Emily Carr School of Design in Vancouver. Tremmagila has designed covers for Village Voice, Wired and San Francisco Weekly. His work is unique, clever, witty, fun—all those good things a cover should be. With the digital issue, readers can click on a link and go to his website and view a rich portfolio of work.
So you see I’m slow to catch on to this digital revolution. That doesn’t mean I am going to rush out and buy a cell phone. I enjoy too much the feeling of being a little disconnected and occasionally unavailable. But it does mean that I’ll enjoy the benefits of reading the magazine I love best digitally and click on video and audio files until my heart’s content.
When subscribing to TMR, try our digital issue for a year. For those of you who are fully outfitted with the latest and greatest gadgetry, the digital is readable on iPad, Nook, iPhone and just about anything else. I think you’ll love it. I do.
Kristine Somerville is the marketing director of The Missouri Review
Yeah, yeah, I get it—the pools haven’t even closed yet, it’s not even Labor Day, and it still feels like a dog’s mouth outside (at least it does here in Columbia, Missouri). The crisp fall weather, bonfires, and pumpkin-flavored everything that accompanies the October 1st deadline is merely a twinkle in your eye. I totally understand why you’d want to wait a few more weeks to submit to TMR’s 24th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, Essay, and Poetry—each genre winner earning a feature in our Spring 2015 issue, a fancy reading in Columbia’s finest country club, and a cool five grand.
Here are the top ten reasons why you should go ahead and submit to the Editors’ Prize right-dang-now!
10. You’ll forget about it later. This is especially true if you’re in school (teaching or a student, or both) and the semester has just started. Everything is going to pick up, and by the end of September you’ll be flailing in a whirlwind of projects and deadlines. Might as well get it out of the way now so you’ll have less to stress about later.
9. Likewise…procrastination. You’re still in summer break mode and don’t feel like doing the reading assignment. Submitting to the contest is the perfect way to both procrastinate AND do something productive. Win-win!
8. Starbucks has apparently already started serving Pumpkin Spice Lattes. You can treat yourself to one after you submit. No need to wait!
7. It feels good to check tasks off a to-do list. Almost as good as winning $5,000.
6. Speaking of which, you may be broke now, but think about how good it would feel to win that dough. What will you spend it on? Books? Shoes? Wine? Fixing your iPhone screen (had to do that this summer and it was expensive!)? The world is your oyster!
5. You can’t daydream about everything you’ll buy if you haven’t submitted yet. That’s the rule.
4. You also can’t pick out your prize reading outfit if you haven’t submitted yet. That’s another rule.
3. Here’s the online submission link, right here, in front of your face: SUBMIT HERE. No excuses now!
2. You’ve been hard at work writing new stuff and editing old stuff all summer, and now it’s time to send it off into the world and see what happens. We can’t wait to read.
1. Baby hippo wants you to submit. Why would you say no to baby hippo?
Editors’ Prize Guidelines
24th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, Essay and Poetry
Not Just Any Contest!
Select winning entries in the past have been reprinted in the Best American series.
$5,000 Fiction | $5,000 Poetry | $5,000 Essay
Deadline: October 1st, 2014
Submit online now or download the entry form (PDF) for print submissions.
Interested in reading a past Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize winner? Check out the essays “Big Jim,” “Letters to David,” and “My Thai Girlfriends” on textBOX, The Missouri Review‘s free online anthology: www.missourireview.com/anthology
(No other information is needed to enter)
▪ Page restrictions: Please include no more than 25 typed, double-spaced pages for fiction and nonfiction. Poetry entries can include any number of poems up to 10 pages in total. Each story, essay, or group of poems constitutes one entry.
▪ Entry fee: $20 for each entry (make checks payable to The Missouri Review). Each fee entitles the entrant to a one-year subscription to TMR in print or digital format (for a free sample of a digital issue, go here!), an extension of a current subscription, or a gift subscription. Please enclose a complete address for subscriptions.
▪ Entry instructions (for mailed entries): Include the printable contest entry form. On the first page of each submission, include author’s name, address, e-mail and telephone number. Entries must be previously unpublished and will not be returned. We accept simultaneous submissions but ask for immediate notification if the piece is accepted for publication elsewhere. Mark the outside of the envelope “Fiction,” “Essay,” or “Poetry.” Each entry in a separate category must be mailed in a separate envelope. Enclose a #10 SASE or e-mail address for an announcement of winners. Entries will not be returned.
▪ Eligibility: Previous winners of the Editors’ Prize and previous employees of TMR are ineligible. Previous finalists, however, may enter again.
▪ Mailing address: Missouri Review Editors’ Prize 357 McReynolds Hall University of Missouri Columbia, MO 65211
▪ What Are You Waiting For? Enter Online Now!
Download the entry form for print submissions.
The winners will be announced in January 2015.
If you have any questions regarding the Editors’ Prize Contest, please feel free to e-mail us at: email@example.com.