Dispatches | October 11, 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.

Today’s Writer is Shawn Schmid.

I have always enjoyed writing, from letters and postcards, to writing stories for my daughter, and academic papers in college.  The writing I did during the years 1991 to 1996 was of a different sort.  1991 was the year I accidentally embarked on a career of prison writing.  I was addicted to narcotics, in 1991, and I am thankful, and lucky, that I did not hurt anyone physically during the crime I committed.  I stole narcotics from a pharmacy, while brandishing  my trusty pocket knife, and I was sentenced to 12 years for Armed Robbery.  That is when I began my prison writing career.

I knew something about prison writing, just from reading—even before I served my prison time.  I had read the Jack Henry Abbott book, In the Belly of the Beast.  Perhaps there was help from Norman Mailer.  Most people know the sad story of Abbott.  He wrote a provocative book, people on the outside liked it and helped to get him paroled in 1981, but he was only out for six weeks before somebody pissed him off so he took him outside and shanked his ass, just like he would have done in prison.  Abbott’s victim died and he went back to prison, where he first wrote another book, and then killed himself in 2002.  The second book did not sell as well.  All of the money from his first book goes to the widow of the 22 year old waiter Abbott stabbed to death in 1981.

In prison, I learned more about prison writing.  I worked on the newspaper, The Telegraham, after I was transferred to the medium security Graham Correctional Center.   I learned a lot more about prison writing while I worked at The Telegraham, by reading another prison paper called, The Angolite, written by several inmates at the Angola Prison, in Louisiana. (The Angolite is its own very long story.  The main lesson learned reading the Angolite is:  under no circumstances should one get into trouble while celebrating at Mardi Gras, in New Orleans.)  With that Angola prison nearby, you won’t catch me jaywalking in New Orleans.  I would just be too scared I could wind up in Angola Prison to enjoy a wild time in Louisiana.  Prison is hell on Earth; just look at the maximum security prison where I went through registration and classification (R&C), Menard Correctional Center, in Chester, Illinois, as a convincing example of “prison hell”. My cell block had chiseled on its entrance: South House 1888.  Angola Prison looks even worse than Menard.

In prison, there are several reasons why most people do write.  These are the ones I can identify:

Write letters, otherwise get no money orders

Write letters, so you will get letters

Write for the prison paper, so you have a job other than picking up cigarette butts or mopping floors

Write to your daughter because that is your lifeline

Write a woman, so you have a woman

Write a school paper, so you can get an AA degree if your prison offers community college classes

My prison writing consisted mostly of letters, and in those I poured out my heart.  At the time, as my heart was filled with pain and suffering, a lot of the letters sounded a little sad.  I wrote to everyone in my family, and I asked all of them to send me a money order for 20 dollars, more or less, if they could afford it, except for my daughter, Katie.  To her, I did not add any requests for twenty dollar bills, but I wrote her letters that were suitable for children, in my mind.  Katie was between the age of 6 and 12 while I was incarcerated.  In her letters, I wrote cheerfully of the future, filled with fun vacations, beaches, and canoeing, islands and palm trees.  I drew pictures of flowers and birds, and sometimes I wrote a little poem or a story.

I was locked up from 1991–1996.  That is 66 months (a 12 year sentence in the state of Illinois at that time = 6 years, minus an additional 6 months off for “extra good time” if you followed the prison rules, so I served exactly 5.5 years, or 66 months; that was 2011 days).  I got out in 1996 and lived happily ever after.  Not everyone does that.  I have one brother who’s in Federal Prison, today.  He is still using drugs; that’s why he can’t stay out.

My prison writing story is simply the story of a man who goes to prison for 5 years.  His wife divorces him before he makes it from County Jail to prison, and man despairs, as he thinks of the love of his life, a baby five year old daughter, in Chicago, crying, “where’s daddy?”.  Such a feeling of despair like this one is very difficult to describe to someone who has not heard the screaming, and the giant steel doors clanging shut, in prison.  You decide either to breathe in and breathe out, or you find a way to end your life as quickly as possible.  Going cold turkey off narcotics and alcohol increases the discomfort of most prisoners.  But I had something to live for!  I had a daughter, and we loved each other, and we had a good relationship, so I decided that alone was a good enough reason to endure.  I also had a woman on the outside who loved me.  She would visit me for most of my weeks inside, and she helped me in so many ways, to keep improving myself.  I vowed early to leave prison a more healthy person than when I came in.  My prison writing began my first week in jail.  I wrote a letter to Katie, my daughter, and I wrote a letter to my girlfriend, Dotty.  I wrote letters to both of them, nearly every week for the next 264 weeks.

My daughter lent me her letters, and I am almost finished transcribing them.  I photocopied about ten pages, for illustration, because much communication consisted of small, tedious drawings of flowers and birds.  I wrote a brief narrative about my 5+ years of letter writing, and I have illustrated it with some of the letters I sent to my daughter.  I would like to publish it, and just describe what five years of remote parenting looks like.  I told Katie I was sorry, in my letters.  I don’t think I focused on endless apologies, though; I focused on the future.  I told her I am sorry that I made a mistake, I committed a crime, and I’m sorry I had to be away from her for so long, and that I missed her.  I told Katie exactly what I had done, too:  I said I had used drugs and become addicted to them, and then I had made bad decisions.  I had run out of drugs, and so I went and stole some drugs from a pharmacy.  I told her how sorry I was, to have stolen.  I do not (then or now) believe that a person has the right to take the personal property of another human being.  I believe in the Brit philosopher John Locke’s idea of Personal Property.  You and I have that right to our personal property.  I believe in that, and so I’m telling you now, I will not take your personal property.  As I explained to my daughter, while I was addicted to drugs, there were times that my philosophical values became meaningless to me, and I was driven by a meaner set of values of the addicted person.  William Burroughs described it in his 1950s book, Junkie.  It’s like a computer language of ones and zeroes.  When you have drugs, it’s good, when you don’t have drugs, it’s bad, and you must take care of that zero and change it into a one before you do anything else, like love another human being.  Katie told me she had learned that such things may occur, in her school’s DARE program.

So I kept writing letters to my loved ones, Katie, and Dotty, my mother and siblings, and friends for five years until I got out.  The day I was released, in September of 1996 was one of the most exciting days of my life.  It was way up there with my daughter’s birth.  On my release date I drove in a car for the first time in over five years.  I shopped in a grocery store and I was allowed to buy whatever I wanted. Dotty and I were in a bubble of utter joy and happiness.  Nobody told us what to do, when to come and go, when to walk through a door, or when to take a shower or go outside.  We did all of those things, at will!  God, it was exciting.  I had sex for the first time in years—I could write more about that, but you know that 10cc song?  Love is the Drug:  “dim the lights, you can guess the rest”!  But one sentence more, at least, in case you may have had that same pleasure.  How exciting is it?  How sublime, to love another person, to kiss them and hold them in your arms, and to lie together naked and laughing in your bed, with iced beverages, snacks, and candlelight, and be together all night long.  It is a dream of utter happiness and satisfaction come true.  I went to the DMV and got my driver’s license, and I actually drove a car!  I listened to music, and I turned it up loud; I took a bath, just because I had a bathtub, and I could.

That’s the end of my prison writing story, I married my sweetheart that very year, about a month after release; I married the woman who visited nearly 5 years. I say “nearly” because prisoners joke that everyone’s wife divorces them, everybody’s woman leaves them, and Dotty did leave me, one time.  It was about year 2 or 3—she said she couldn’t bear it, and she left.  She went and got another boyfriend, so at least she got the chance to have sex for a couple of months, there!  I think that was the good part.  It is not good to go that many years without sex, especially for a beautiful woman in her 30s, I believe.  After some months, we talked again, and she decided she wanted to visit and that was it.  We were still in love, so we started back our letter writing and visits.  After I was out, we were friends with her now ex-boyfriend.  We went to his wedding, and there are no hard feelings between any of us, to this day.

I reacquainted with my daughter and a fine relationship was forged between her and her stepmom, my wife, Dotty.  We have been married for 17 years, now, and the climax of my story occurred several years ago:  Katie told me, you know Dad, when you sent me all those letters from prison?  Yeah?Well, we actually have done ALL of those things you wrote about, like look at this pretty picture of a beach I cut out of a magazine…maybe we can go to the beach one day!  We went canoeing, we’ve been to The Bahamas, and we’ve been to an island in Mexico, Isla Mujeres; we’ve done all that we wrote about, and more!

Katie told me I am the best father on Earth, and I know I am also an ex-convict, and an almost lifelong drug user.  That is a paradox, isn’t it?

Katie stayed with Dotty and I in China for about four months (my wife and I lived and worked there for three years), after finishing her undergrad, while applying to grad schools.  Her future husband David came and stayed awhile also.  They hiked The Great Wall, and the rode an elephant together, in Thailand.  Katie graduated with her MFA from U of WY, Laramie.  She is an award winning poet (her thesis won a 3,000 dollar 1st Place Thesis of the Year Award..  I am so proud of my daughter!)

I believe that everything that is written, especially all of the books, are attempts to talk about the meaning of life.  I do not believe my life has any additional purpose or meaning other than I have loved my daughter Katie, and I have loved my wife, Dotty, and I have loved my family, as best I can.  Prison writing helped me to shape my personal meaning, in my life.  However, I cannot recommend it as a method.  It is better to write where you are, now.

DSCF0900Shawn was born in 1960 so he wanted to be a hippy like his 17 year old parents, but he was too young.  He graduated high school with honors in 1978, and traveled to Germany for a month as winner of the prestigious AATG prize in German Language Studies. Mr. Schmid’s daughter Katie was born in 1984, after Schmid’s first tour of duty in the War on Drugs, and first 2 year drug rehab were over.  Spending most of his thirties in prison, Shawn earned an AA degree there; after release, while living the good life, he earned a bachelor’s, summa cum laude, from SIUE, and a master’s in Applied Linguistics for teaching ESL.  Teaching English to adult immigrants has a don’t ask don’t tell policy–they never asked me if I were convicted of a felony, so I never told them, and I was completely, unusually employable there.  Because of a moderate, frontal lobe traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a traffic accident in 2009, Schmiddy now has labile affect, laughing one minute and crying the next, but if you leave him alone in a quiet room, he can write an essay or a letter.  No real job post-TBI, Schmid works his ass off as stay-at-home spouse, aunt Betty’s pool boy, and father in law’s gardener, and hard working wife Dotty’s personal assistant.  Shawn says he is rich beyond compare and he lives at the beach, in California.  He’s 100 pages into a memoir entitled The Blue Years.