Dispatches | December 20, 2013

litOnLockdown (2)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 literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Last week, I was waiting to enter San Quentin when two men asked me to take their picture next to a sign by the front gate. “Department of Corrections,” the sign reads, “California State Prison, San Quentin.” One of the men wore jeans, cowboy boots, a trucker hat, and a grin underneath a bushy mustache. They struck me as similar to people I might’ve know from my hometown in Texas growing up, that sort of affected Western stereotype. They grinned and gave a “thumbs up” as I took their photo. I wondered what they would do with the picture and exactly what it was intended to prove.

San Quentin rests on a pretty piece of land that juts over the bay. You can see it from the Larkspur ferry, another popular tourist attraction in Marin County. In fact, the ferry passes so close to the prison that if the men are outside, they will wave to the passengers. Sometimes when I’ve ridden the ferry, people make comments and smirk when they pass San Quentin, like the men in the photograph. I suppose it’s because San Quentin is infamous: it does still house most of California’s death row inmates (a non-negligible 637 people).

The first prison I ever visited – a maximum-security women’s prison in North Carolina – I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was there as an attorney working on a death row case, representing a woman who was accused of killing a child. I was struck not by the strangeness of it, but rather by how ordinary it all seemed. All that marks prisons, really, is the view of the outsider: “they” are in there, and “we” are out here.

San Quentin is different, not just because it’s in Northern California or because it’s all men, but also because I go there in order to teach writing. I’m actually quite reluctant to tell my students that I am a lawyer by training (a recovering lawyer, as one of my old bosses used to say), and I quite rarely talk to them about my own writing, which is generally about crime and violence.

You can’t bring anything into San Quentin, technically, although exceptions are generally made for car keys, notebooks, pens, and a water bottle. Once I pass the two requisite checkpoints, my hand stamped “PASS” with invisible ink, I walk through the yard with the other Friday night volunteers. Sometimes, I pass my students, who greet me and promise that they are coming to class ready to work.

My class consists of 17 students all working on writing a research paper. There are some differences compared to a regular classroom. There’s a set of molding encyclopedias. There’s a sign instructing students not to approach “the desk,” which sits in a corner unused during class. Normally, we rearrange the tables – which are occasionally found in rows, like a schoolhouse – into one large table, like a conference room table. I say “we” but mean “my students” – I’ve found that I don’t nearly have the physical strength that a group of 17 men does.

Unlike some prison writing facilitators, I’m not there to help my students unearth their feelings or discuss their lives before San Quentin. It comes up, of course, but more often the discussions are quite the opposite. In our class, we focus on the world outside – social and political trends, some of which intersect with the politics of the California penal system, and some of which don’t. I drill them on the rigors of academic writing; the importance of counter-argument, the ethics of citing sources fairly.

The Prison University Project (PUP) is a unique program because it’s the only on-site program that grants college credit to students; the program is accredited through an independent institution in Oakland because you can’t get federal or state funding for college education in prisons. Many prison programs focus on practical vocational skills intended to help prisoners attain jobs once released. It’s true that PUP classes are transferrable so that students, upon release, can continue their education. One selling point is that these programs reduce recidivism – no slight task given that California’s recidivism rate hovers above 60%. But is there an inherent value in teaching those housed in prisons to think critically other than the potential benefit to “us” on the outside?

One of the arguments advanced in favor of a liberal education for everyone is that students learn to question society and themselves, to think beyond their own beliefs and prejudices and encompass other frames of reference. Limiting education to “vocational training,” as well intentioned as that is, doesn’t allow individuals to see themselves any differently than society is telling them how to feel. Writing, in particular, has that transformative capacity. By learning how to explore other ideas and ask questions, my students learn how to become better democratic citizens.

If we think that writing is contributing to the democratic conversation, then my students are working against an overwhelmingly negative message from the state. In California, which houses a prison population second only to Texas, anyone convicted of a felony cannot vote until his or her parole is terminated, which is often five to ten years after release. We have to be honest when we admit that those who are incarcerated aren’t valued. Even if we focus on their welfare and health with good intentions (for example, by reducing the overcrowding problem), we don’t necessarily see them as people.

This is different than the traditional rehabilitative view of prison, which suggests that prison time somehow gives (or ought to give) offenders the chance to reconstitute their conscience. Quakers thought that prison should be a place of quiet introspection where people could reflect upon the wrongness of their crimes. In many southern states, prison was a source of labor, and it was thought that through the heat of hard work, the soul would be forged anew. (Many states still use prison labor to do things like fight wildfires.) But, to talk about “rehabilitation” is still to segregate “us” and “them.” Research suggests that academic education reduces recidivism, but that’s not the only reason why I’m there. I can’t speak for others, but I’m there because I think that a truly democratic society needs the input and thoughts of those on the margins, the voices of people who we, as a society, intentionally choose to ignore.

You only need to meet my students in order to understand why this is true. The class as a whole is quite similar to other writing classes I teach, and it’s surprisingly easy to ignore the external circumstances: the guard tower, the alarms that periodically go off, the occasional off-topic discussions. Students are asked to perform unfamiliar tasks, and while the stakes may feel different for various environmental reasons, their trepidation is the same. To be a writer is to try and fail over and over again many times.

Some years ago, I left a high-paying law firm job under bad circumstances; I was broke, unhappy, and lonely. I could no longer see myself as entirely competent nor in control of my own destiny. While it’s not close to the same thing as what my students face, I understand the need to define yourself through your words, to see writing as something of generative value, rather than only as a way to capture past memories. I guess you could say that I try my best to believe that we can all be more than one thing in life, and I hope that my students are able to write themselves into new conversations.

headshot2Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She practiced corporate law, specializing in securities fraud, and represented death penalty clients and victims of domestic abuse pro bono. Her novel-in-progress is about an unsolved mystery.

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