The Kind of Light That Shines in Minnesota

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By Michael Nye

Last week, I went to the 2015 AWP Conference (along with 12,000 others, right?) to represent the Missouri Review in a range of different programs. Along with doing my best to meet with writers, editors, and publishers, I also was a part of several programs. On Friday night, TMR was one of six Missouri literary journals that hosted a reading at Segue Cafe, showcasing the diversity of our region and our magazines. On Saturday, I was a panelist not once but twice: the first was on literary podcasts, and the second was on teaching literary magazines in the classroom. Both went really, really well.

But what has really stuck with me was my Wednesday night event.

“Beyond Bars: Voices of Incarceration” was a reading, free and open to the public, in downtown Minneapolis at the Central Library. There were ten readers, all of whom (except for me) instructors and teachers and mentors in prison writing programs from throughout the country. Each of us read a brief piece, five to seven minutes at the most, on behalf of incarcerated writers. After, ten of us were on a panel to answer questions about how to support these programs, how to get involved, what challenges we face, and so forth.

I was invited by Jennifer Bowen Hicks from the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. TMR was the only strict “publisher” at the event, though several of these organizations have created and sold chapbooks and/or books of their students’ work. The other participating programs were Hennepin County Outreach Services (based in Minnesota), the Women’s Writing Program (also in Minnesota), Words Without Walls (Pittsburgh), and Revised Sentences (North Carolina). Several other organizations helped to support the event:  Hennepin County Library, the Minnesota State Arts Board, The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, Carleton College, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Red Bird Chapbooks, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Basically, lots of people got involved.

Our role has always been, I thought, pretty simple: TMR showcases nonfiction from inmates and instructors. That’s it. I didn’t realize how important our Literature on Lockdown series has been to both groups. But that’s what I heard over and over again last week: that what we publish matters, that the writers published in our series are proud to get their voices heard, that we are needed outlet for a group of writers very rarely represented in the small press and literary magazine community.

The AWP conference is a wonderful thing. Readers of this space know how much I enjoy the conference, and over the years, I’ve written blog posts leading up to the event and post-event roundups. There are plenty of those from a wide-range of writers, and they go up every year at the same time, regular as Christmas decorations. And they are all well and good, just like the conference itself, which, for whatever complaints people might have about it, really is a good and amazing conference.

And, yet, despite all the best efforts, it can feel a bit homogenized. You know?

When our previous social media editor, Alison Balaskovits, came up with Literature on Lockdown and the Working Writers series, what she was responding to was the palpable sense that there is a world of writers that is often left out of our culture. We needed to do something, no matter how big or small, to be an outlet for those writers. And this past week has shown me that Alison’s vision has taken shape into something critical and unique, thanks to the many writers and teachers who have answered our call for their work.

So here is our reminder: we want to read more.

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.

If you feel you fit our Working Writers Series — no major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing — get in touch. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. Please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Literature on Lockdown: Accused of Writing

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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 literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s writer is Sandra Gould Ford.

When authors teach creative writing to the incarcerated, prisons are usually chosen. Other facilities should be considered. Once upon a time, I didn’t know that there were differences.

For three reasons, I asked the warden of the Allegheny County Jail if I could teach inmates how to write fiction, poetry, essays and memoir. First, because I’d heard a young man from my low-income, black neighborhood say that good employment was hopeless because of “the box” on job applications. When marking that he had a felony conviction, his employment consideration ended. In that moment, I believed that writing could provide income based on the quality of the manuscripts rather than problems in the past. I was also inspired by Wally Lamb, Sonia Sanchez and other authors who taught in correctional institutions. Thirdly, a grant maker asked me to propose an arts project.

When Warden Rustin granted me permission to teach, I completed the grant application. The jail also advised that they would provide no funds. While I awaited the major grant, start-up funding was received from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council as well as support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Arts in Education program. All I needed was money from the grant maker who asked for my proposal. When they did not fund the project, the jail provided the remaining support.

The Bureau of Corrections exists to, “protect the citizens of Allegheny County from criminal offenders.” For that purpose, two facilities are maintained. The prison was first built in 1826 and influenced Charles Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol. The State Correctional Institution that was rebuilt in 1882 houses about 1,500 convicts. Jails are different.

About eighty new arrestees arrive at the Allegheny County Jail each day. There, they await formal identification and the pre-arraignment hearings that will decide if arrest was warranted. When cause is found, the arrestee is either released on bail or held until trial. Jails “lock up” parole or probation violators, fugitives, persons whose bonds are revoked and people sentenced to Jail by the Court. Most of the 2,000 people in my county’s jail are accused of crimes, but have not been convicted.

In prisons, the length of stay is prescribed and can be lengthy, lasting years or lifetimes, without the possibility of parole. In jails, the accused – unlike the convicted – could leave at any point. Thus, class and program planning must be flexible.

The Allegheny County Jail has eight floors for housing inmates. Each level has thirty-five units (pods) designed to hold 56 inmates. Women are on one floor. Of the 35 pods on the fourth floor, the women occupy just four units. My first classes were drawn from that female population.

For the first few weeks, the women were open, cooperative and enthusiastic. They loved the idea that their writing would be published in a special book. But, in the fourth week, the ladies dragged into the classroom. After slumping into their chairs, they asked why they should bother. They’d become convinced that no one would want to read anything they wrote. That’s when we discussed diamonds and how those gems began as coal. They became rare and precious when great pressures transformed them. From that understanding, the title for our first book was enthusiastically born, Diamonds in The Rough.

At first, I refused male students. I’d just seen a program about ruthless male gangs. Although jail officials counseled that their populations – unlike in prisons – were too transient for gangs to stabilize, I wanted no problems. But after months of “Good morning” and “How are you?” and doors held open by males in red jumpsuits in the hallways and offices, in accepting that a momentary lapse could land anyone behind bars, in remembering one young man’s employment plight, I agreed to teach men … if the jail let me return.

Year after year, my swipe card kept opening the jail’s entrance. Along the way, the students produced beautiful, illustrated anthologies and a spoken-word poetry contest, men vs. women. Students learned about publishing contracts, copyright and how to create personalized chapbooks. One student wobbled to class – slightly dazed but determined – fresh from 60 days in ‘the hole.’ Several were ‘sentenced’ to the class because of suspected talent or because the chance to write prevented disruptive behavior. The writing also offered opportunities to vent, as with one student who finally expressed childhood abuse and another released pent-up anger about a betrayal. Two students won PEN Prison Writing Contests, a stellar achievement under any circumstance, but special because of the short learning experience that is the nature of jails.

I had promised ‘Da County’ five residencies. As my fourth ended, I searched for a replacement. The Graduate Writing Program at Chatham University was approaching prisons about teaching the incarcerated. Chatham eagerly stepped in and is growing the program, now called Words Without Walls, expanding to a half way house and Pittsburgh’s prison. They’re also producing a book that will guide others in establishing writing programs for the incarcerated.

Two major films have been located at the Allegheny County Jail. In 1984, Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton starred in “Mrs. Soffel,” a true story about an incident at the older jail. In 2009, Russell Crowe starred in the vigilante thriller “The Next Three Days” at the new facility. I think I spotted him once. For me, the stars were the accused and the convicted who tried writing poetry and flash fiction, novels and Op-Ed pieces and reflections on their lives via memoir.

Authors can make meaningful differences by teaching the incarcerated the craftsmanship, discipline and insightfulness required to produce literary art. For many of my students, I suspect that the classes changed – even if just a little – how they experienced jail and how they view life. Best of all, some students continue to write. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, artist and activist Grady Hillman said “creating a piece of art, whether it’s dance or music or creative writing, is an act of critical thinking.”

It requires considering the needs of the audience, which means (the incarcerated) have to look at what they’ve done from the point of view of others. That’s one of the fundamental premises of corrections — to be penitent, think about what you’ve done to others, try not to be totally in the moment but think about the consequences of your actions and how what you do affects the lives of others.

In the May, 2014, the Prison Arts Resource Project survey showed how the arts in general and writing in particular helps the incarcerated; therefore society. Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the project’s report includes:

• As a result of the Prison English Program, the New Mexico Corrections Department receives program savings of $27,000-$40,500 per semester.
• Participation enabled offenders in the Northeastern Correction Center, Concord, Massachusettes to begin (or continue) the process of changing their self-identities from procriminal to prosocial.
• Participants in California’s Arts In Corrections programs reported increased self discipline, self-esteem, self-respect, sense of purpose, and reconnection with family as a result of the program. Participants also reported reduced racial tension in the correctional facility. The evaluation follows up on ex-offenders 25 years after participation in the Arts-in-Corrections program.

I appreciate the incentive created by the invitation to apply for that arts project grant; even though my jail proposal was not funded. I’m thankful that Wally Lamb, Sonia Sanchez and others have established models for other authors. I’m grateful for the Polaris that is the PEN Prison Writing Program. And I endlessly value the efforts of Austin-based poet and translator Grady Hillman who’s spent 25 years teaching creative writing and helping to design and implement arts-in-the-prisons programs around the world. Other programs exist and deserve support.

My thoughts are bittersweet about the young man who spoke so passionately about the employment challenges people face after serving their time. I regret his challenges and send him blessings because, without him, the path to Allegheny County Jail’s Words Without Walls would not have begun. Because of him, I hope more writing programs are developed for the incarcerated, the convicted as well as the accused.

Sandra Gould Ford is an author, artist and educator who presents writing and arts experiences that encourage, refresh, enrich creative thinking and inspire. She founded a writing program at a 3,000-inmate jail, published an international quarterly and produced two writer conferences.  Sandra now enjoys exploring the human experience through the arts. Visit her online at www.sandragouldford.com

Literature on Lockdown: Vision of a Tree

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By Michael Nye

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 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.

EricBoyd_PhotoEric 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.

Literature on Lockdown: "Writing From Inside: Truth and Consequences"

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By Michael Nye

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 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

Literature on Lockdown: Elizabeth Tannen

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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 literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Elizabeth Tannen

Notes From a Prison Teacher: On Round Characters, Imagined and Real

Rob is reading a story about his daughter. In this scene, the narrator recalls watching her race up a hill by the Mississippi river when she was three. It’s fiction, but the class gets the sense he’s writing from life. Sure enough, when he’s done reading, Rob sets the loose leaf paper down on the table and tells us that it really happened, that the piece even bears his daughter’s name.

It’s one of those moments in which I catch myself feeling, at once, both a reflexive surprise—and surprise at the surprise.

What surprises me is the realization that Rob is a father. It shouldn’t. He’s probably in his mid-thirties, if not older. Like everyone in the room, like everyone, he’s got a family and a past I can’t immediately see. It shouldn’t have startled me, either, during a previous class when Jim, a student with white-hair, a nasal voice and an uncanny knack for humorous dialogue, took out a color snapshot of a baby girl and slid it across the table to show one of the other students—his granddaughter, he said.

But it did.

I know the men I teach are fathers. And grandfathers. And husbands. And brothers and friends. Painters and athletes and uncles and sons.

But they are also men who are incarcerated. And when I come to teach them in the blue-carpeted, florescent-lit library of the facility where most will continue to spend their days for years if not decades to come, I sometimes need to remind myself that they are more than only that.

There is much to work against.

All the men dress, roughly, the same: white t-shirts, light denim jeans with elastic waists, baby blue button down shirts. They’re given the same pairs of black plastic glasses. In most of their daily interactions, they are known by their last name or a long ID number issued by the Department of Corrections. They’re deprived small liberties most of us take for granted: the ability to access the internet, or to go to the bathroom without being watched.

I have opinions, of course, about this—about the effectiveness of our justice system and the common sense of rehabilitating people this way. But those opinions aren’t what motivate me to teach them creative writing. And what I want to talk about is what does.

Prisons reduce people to one thing. One identity, one persona: a person who committed a crime. That fact, I think, is one simple explanation for why I and many writers like me drive dozens of miles from home, undergo extensive trainings (to summarize: do not have any kind of sex with an offender) and pass through rigorous security regimens (beware: keys, rings, underwire bras) to talk with them about the craft of creative writing.

Here in Minneapolis, I’m part of a collective of about twenty writers who’ve banded together to do this work. But there are many like us around the country who do the same. Writers who, instead of volunteering to teach the ill or impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged, are drawn to these bleak exurban complexes—to men and women who’ve been convicted of crimes.

It is exceptionally rewarding work. In prison, writing becomes a primary mode of communication. The men who take our classes choose to take them, which usually means they’ve begun some process of self-reflection and self-work. Every prison teacher I’ve met would agree that our students are some of the most engaged we’ve taught anywhere: they dedicate themselves to craft, read voraciously, encourage one another. Most people with authority over our students are paid to enforce some rigid routines of prison life: to regard them as offenders. We have the privilege to swoop in and treat them as people. It’s an honor, and it feels good.

Still, writers are prone to ask why: to seek shapely narratives, context and meaning around the world and our own curious choices. So it’s no surprise that this why question has nagged at me since I began teaching in prison, about a year ago. Why these prisons? Why these men?

Every teacher has their own story. Some of my colleagues have relatives who’ve been incarcerated, or backgrounds in law. Some approach writing as a means of healing and catharsis. Some, like I, can’t explain our motivation in such neat terms.

But I try. And when I do, I keep returning to that peculiar, startled sensation that surfaces in moments like the one when Rob read about his daughter: to the way our students are reduced to one simple thing, and how that is something writers resist.

A few years ago, the novelist Jennifer Egan gave a craft talk on characterization at the Center for Fiction in New York. She advised the audience to avoid writing predictable characters.

“The thing about real people,” she said, “is that they’re not consistent.”

In fact, Creative Writing 101 teaches us to avoid flat, or stock characters. We in the writing field are constantly reminding ourselves that people are complicated: that they are good and then bad, generous and then stingy, hard and then soft. That they don’t do what you expect. And that, therefore, nor should those you create on the page. Writers traffic in human complexity. Our stories are not credible unless our characters are credible; and our characters are not credible unless they are complex.

Everything about the drably dressed men and dull cement walls of prison reject this. And that is partly why, I think, we feel pulled there. Because something in us is compelled to seek some humanity in the place where it may be most difficult to find.

I don’t look up the crimes my students committed. I trust many of them did grave, terrible things. I also expect that various factors, whether histories of oppression or childhood trauma or stretches of simple bad calls, contributed to the circumstances in which they did wrong. I’m not interested in excusing or minimizing their crimes. That said, it’s impossible not to suspect that few of them had access to the kind of economic and emotional privilege that I did, and that their paths may have led elsewhere if they had.

I can’t change these varied pasts. I’m not qualified to heal or pathologize them, or to make the kind of societal changes necessary to alter the course of their punishment and the hardness of their time.

But for a few hours a week, I can recognize them as something more than men who messed up. I can attempt, at least, to see them, first and foremost, as writers—a simple gesture that, I believe, is valuable for us all.

BODY headshotElizabeth Tannen is a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She has work published or forthcoming on The Rumpus, Salon, The Morning News, NPR, and the Huffington Post and has done residencies with the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos and the New York Mills Cultural Center in Minnesota. She writes the blog Dating in the Odyssey Years, and is currently attempting to revise a memoir, draft a novel, and become a poet. 

Photo credit: Karen Kopacz

 

Literature on Lockdown: Alternatives

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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 literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Brian Batchelor.

Alternatives

Prison is where inspiration goes to die – or so I believed. I’m an inmate of 12 years, the cold cuffs locked around my boney wrists at the still-in-bloom age of 17. I have spent all my adult life behind brick coated in boring hues: white, off-white, eggshell white, gray-white, and the occasional “what the hell is that” splattered an crusted on walls (think greens, yellows, and browns) adding a bit of (real?) color. The cells aren’t much bigger than graves, possessing similar damp and cloyingly pungent scents. As for the fashion, well, I’ve seen miniature dogs on television with more style than the white T-shirt, blue-jean clad clones lurching around the prison. Even the yard – our outdoor retreat as small and claustrophobic as an elementary playground at recess – has trouble dying itself spring greens. My point: this place is bland. Arid. Exasperatingly lackluster. I challenge the ghost of Robert Frost to pen an inspired pastoral here, or the whimsical brush of Winslow Homer to capture a vibrant landscape inside these walls. Creativity has such little flight here and even less sustenance to power its beating wings. That innate drive humans have for creation through inspiration suffocates on the stale air prison secretes. So the question is, how can anything artful be crafted in this environment? Where can beauty be glimpsed and admired when even the sun’s arms reach weak and insipid across the prison?

For years I stumbled around in dim conditions, desperately searching with outstretched arms for something inspiring – something beautiful – to grasp. Eventually my eyes dulled, along with the rest of my senses, and I withdrew into myself, blurring the reality around me. Aspiration became a smoldering bundle of dying embers. Insolence superseded passion.

A few years crawled by until I found myself enrolled in the prison’s college program, choosing to participate for no other reason than to break the monotony turning me into a pale husk of lassitude. During an Intro to Literature class, my professor planted a few pages of poetry in my limp hands. Ambivalent about poetry and all its stereotypes, I took the pages back to my cell and read them in gray dusk. Slowly the cell swelled with light, my body becoming a lantern of wonderment as I hunched over the poems clutched in my grip. My passion’s wick had been lit by the fervency of the words cascading down the pages, and as I read the last poem (“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar) I knew I was experiencing an awakening. The next day I visited the prison library and checked out a thick book of assorted poetry; I ate each page with famished eyes. A new awareness burnished my sight as I gorged my soul with delicious stanzas filled with sweet metaphor. I read about the good, the bad, and the ugly…then it hit me: had my years of searching for motivation been misdirected? Beauty wasn’t the only face of inspiration; maybe it was the ugly I could praise, that the marred and bloodied wings of the caged bird was something worth singing about.

There are things in this country nobody has described: the sun turning razor wire silver at high-noon; how when a guard moves, their ring of keys imitate a wind-chime at their waist; or a tattered, dog-eared book of poetry’s satisfying weight in the tender hands of an inmate seeking salvation. Pages brim with the glorification of things aesthetically pleasing to our senses, but beauty is lessened without its counterpart – rugged ugliness. Just as manure helps flame a rose garden red, barred windows cut the landscape into a striking mosaic, each iron-framed sliver multiplying its splendor. I am surrounded by things that, ostensibly, twist the face in disgust, but it’s these distortions that deserve a writer’s speculation. Creativity and imagination can transform the unsightly into poignant art, and an urgent desire to do just that rages through me. So my duty then, as the port Pablo Neruda remarked, “is to express what is unheard of” and give narrative to my current reality – a blemished setting disregarded by the world.

Prison doesn’t have to be inspirations or creativities gravesite. The transformative power of imagination can be cultivated in any environment and ripened through words. Imprisonment is only the situation, not the slow degradation of identity and expression it can seemingly be. “Imagination / creates the situation, / and, then, the situation / creates imagination,” James Baldwin declared. I have the fortuitous option to view my environment through a writer’s vividly attentive eyes, creating a relationship between conscience and the present, fueling inspiration. I can create poetic beauty from the rubble and give it to the world as unique testament, thoroughly satisfied as I cap my pen. Awareness is what I was lacking those years when my sense’s atrophied, conscious of only the repulsive surface of things looming around the prison. No creative impulse – no satiating inspiration – stimulated my mind into action until a couple pages of poetry stirred the diminishing embers. Now my “situation” and “imagination” work hand-in-hand. Possibilities for inspiration and creativity have opened up, as Adrienne Rich has written:

The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that

slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum

“There is no alternative.”

The alternative to beauty is Dunbar’s “torn and bleeding hearts,” his “tortured souls,” and I discover unobserved alternatives frequently, pen at the ready to honor them in words.

picture 001Brian Batchelor had been incarcerated since 2002. Over the last couple of years he had been taking writing workshops through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW). He is also a member of the Stillwater Writer’s Collective. 

In Support of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop

By Michael Nye

For several months now, TMR has been publishing a “Literature on Lockdown” series, which are essays written by US prisoners and the men and women that teach writing and literature in these prisons. One of the goals of our magazine is to discover not just new voices, but under-represented and often ignored voices from the margins of our culture. We’ve received a positive, enthusiastic response to this series—curated by our social media editor, Alison Balaskovits–and we’re hoping you can help us out.

We were recently contacted by the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. They are attempting to become a nonprofit for the purpose of improving their structure and offering better services to their students by being able to seek a greater range of funds and reduce sponsorship fees on their donations. In order to make it to this goal, they are need to raise donations to match a Minnesota State Arts Board grant.

What MPWW does is offer writing and literature courses inside the Minnesota prisons. These include fiction writing, essay writing, poetry, spoken word, oral story telling, children’s literature, and fantasy writing. MPWW also coordinate reading, brings in visiting writers, publishes a literary journal, and offers postal-mail-based writing mentorships for inmates. This is all done by a core group of instructors who donate their time and energy to the common good. These are serious writers, with diverse backgrounds ranging from social work to factory workers.

Please go here to help support Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and its goal of becoming a nonprofit. Even a little bit of money is a tremendous help toward their goal. You don’t have to give much to make a difference.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Literature on Lockdown: The Long Wave Goodbye

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By Alison Balaskovits

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 Donald Joseph Urbanski

The Long Wave Goodbye

Because I was born curious of most everything – except for social norms, my life has been an arduous journey.

During my first two years of elementary school, I was often found investigating the nooks & crannies of St. Anne’s School and its adjacent church. Instead of sitting in the classroom with the other children, I often snuck over to the church and watched the sunlight as it streamed through the stained glass windows, turning the sanctuary into the world’s largest kaleidoscope. Almost hypnotically, I was lulled to sleep by the sunbeams of colored light and the warmth of the church pew and sticky scent of incense and candle wax, until the laughter of morning recess would beckon me from my hiding spot.

At first, the teachers considered my behavior quirky, saying that I was a shy and precocious child who preferred his own company. However, with the onset of second grade, school authorities began calling my extracurricular activities truancy and malingering.

As expected, this was cause for alarm. When asked about my repeated tardiness, I was unable to give a sufficient answer. To avoid further questioning by school officials I stopped going to the second grade altogether. I would deliberately miss the school bus or walk out of the school under the pretense of using the bathroom, leaving the hall-pass on the floor by the back door. I would then begin exploring the neighborhood parks and city streets until 3:30pm when the school day was over. This of course, invited further scrutiny by school officials and truancy officers.

As a result of my youthful wanderlust I was given a battery of tests by school authorities and social services. Their diagnosis at that time was hyperactivity with the addition of avoidant personality disorder. It was also noted that I was an extremely inquisitive child who cognitively outpaced his peers causing isolation due to my social apathy. Needless to say, this was considered a detriment to my developing social skills. It was decided that short-term residential treatment would be necessary if I was ever to function properly in public school or society. It was then at age eight, that my adolescent apprenticeship in childhood psychotherapy began in earnest at Valley Youth Center, Bar-None Boys Ranch, Bethany Children’s Home, St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, and Glenn Lake County Home School.

While my years increased, I became a chronic run-away and teenage street survivor. And because of my pubescent homelessness and petty larcenies, the juvenile justice system ordered my detention along with additional psychological testing. Those tests concluded that I had developed antisocial tendencies with an attraction to lawlessness. Furthermore, if those issues went untreated, my unbridled curiosity would eventually lead to a life of incarceration. So began my life’s vocation at age 14 in the Minnesota State Training School, Red Wing.

In reality, the order for behavior modification treatment by the juvenile court system was never fully realized. By then my navigational skills of treatment centers and juvenile delinquent facilities was second to none. I was capable of hiding in public while being on a first name basis with the institutions’ general population and staff alike. In short, I was impervious to any treatment techniques or methods of rehabilitation – a fact I foolishly prided myself on.

True to form, my two year stay in Red Wing was more of a training ground for drug abuse and criminal instruction than it was for character development. Upon my arrival I was introduced to a makeshift syringe fashioned out of an old eyedropper and an overly used hypodermic. It was full of the strong narcotic Dilaudid. After my first taste of that burnt orange elixir, I was immediately hooked! No longer would the pangs of fear and loneliness be felt or tolerated – at least while the medications flowed. As you might imagine, the comforts of home, family and freedom were forfeited in my never-ending pursuit of narcotics. A hard truth I’ve come to regret many times over, especially since I’ve never escaped the fear of rejection or the pain of loneliness – I merely aggravated them.

Now that my adolescence is 40 years behind me, I’ve acquired over 39 arrests in eleven different states with at least five prison sentences to my credit. For those reasons, I’ve been labeled with the correctional term of “career criminal”. The clinical terminology is just as unattractive: narcissism with the proclivity for sociopathic behavior.

I’ve been serving a 35-year life sentence on the installment plan: I’m what you’d call a frequent flyer of the criminal justice system, or just plain “loser” in layman’s terms. Amazingly, I’ve managed to stay alive long enough to carry these names and a host of less endearing ones as well, like dope fiend, deadbeat dad, criminal lowlife, and the coup de grace, societal parasite.

Today, I’m sitting here with roughly 4,380 days of my fifth prison bit on top of me. Regrettably, what I failed to realize during my last four prison stints is that no refunds are given for a squandered life – not the timeliest revelation when you’ve recently pushed past the half century mark.

It was only after decades of institutional living that I came to understand the futility of hanging on to my dreams, or to the hope of ever going home again. Talk about waiting in vain, those sentiments nearly crushed my spirit. Especially when I realized that my two daughters, who had always shared their wild laughter with me as children, had grown into unfamiliar women since my imprisonment. Now they stand behind shy smiles of reservation wondering if I’ll ever come home.

It was then that I knew how defenseless I was against the slow moving hand of time and its steady erosion of my life. Unfortunately, this “correctional truth” has left me in a barren purgatory where I’m forced to watch the world breathe while I hold my breath and cling to faded memories while wrestling with the residue of what might have been and what never will be.

There are certain amenities within the prison package that never get mentioned in the frequent flyers brochure. I only found them years later in the small print where absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder; where you’re reminded daily of the long wave goodbye when all you find is an echo in your mail box. Sadly, this echo is soon followed by unanswered phone calls to family and friends, and it ends tragically when visiting with loved ones becomes nonexistent. It’s a slow burn to be homesick for a place that no longer exists. And it’s sheer frustration to exist in the in-between with nothing left to lose on the outside and still more to give from the inside.

That’s the epitome of my incarceration – aching to know that it matters to somebody else like it matters to me. But the reality of my life is having no one to share with and having no defense against the certainty of loss and isolation. Now after three and a half decades, my prison has become a cage of degradation, capturing my broken spirit and turning my heart into a literal dust-bin of despair. Meanwhile, the bane of my imprisonment remains a persistent yearning for the outside world that has rightfully moved on.

Donald Joseph Urbanski is a freedom fighter who enjoys writing short essays that promote the sanctity of life. He believes writing should educate, liberate, or at the very least, give a brief reprieve from the struggles of daily life. In the near future, he hopes to professionally share the gift of recovery with those still suffering from the perils of addiction. Philippians 4:13 “We can do everything through Him who gives us strength.”

 

Literature on Lockdown: Eric Boyd

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By Alison Balaskovits

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 Eric Boyd.

Grace in Suffering

What I did I wouldn’t call criminal, just stupid. Even my judge, after so many court appointments, didn’t understand what had happened. And there’s a reason I got out on illegal sentencing but, either way, I paid the better part of a year for it all. I don’t want to tell you about that that, though. I want to talk about what it means to write from jail, get rewarded for it, and end up better off than than before any it ever happened. I’ll tell you about that now.

Starting out. The end of 2008. I was homeless for a couple weeks, sleeping in the crawl-space of an art gallery, working six days a week at a multiplex where I often washed my hair in a utility sink. Eventually I got my own place, with a roommate, and that didn’t work out so well, which is why I ended up in the Allegheny County Jail from May of 2010 to February of ‘11. That last part was hell. But let’s be honest, things weren’t so hot before that anyhow.

A few months into my stint I joined a writing program that met once a week, Friday mornings. A few classes in, it became obvious there was a knack. I hadn’t written that many stories, but the men seemed to sit up when I shared my work. This wasn’t in my head, either—my teacher, the incomparable Sandra Ford, had actually alerted me to this.

“Eric,” she’d said, “you’re a born writer.”

And I think I had some smartass remark to that, but her point was made. If I could write stories which gripped some of the meanest, toughest, kindest bastards I’d ever met, then I could write. I would write.

Before jail, I’d let myself slip. I paid my rent and sat around and didn’t do much of anything. Life had beat me. After I was initially arrested I tried to get back into it, but found myself lacking. The worries pile on. Rent, bills, work, food, laundry, school loans. I had resigned myself to a series of banal risks—drinking on the job and watching porn at the local library—and my existence was as pointless as a greased door jamb.

But writing at the jail, I was free. It felt good, and easy, and seemed like something I could keep doing. For me, the kicker came when Mary Karr visited the ACJ. It was a well-publicized event: she had a lecture at the Carnegie Library Hall, over $100 a head for the better tickets, but the morning before, she was at the local jail for nothing. A lot of us laughed over that, especially me because I listened to the classical station on my radio and heard them, for a week, hocking VIP tickets to her lecture for high-price donations.

After Mary’s talk with us, which wasn’t bad but did find her grasping for more connection between us than there really was (‘I spent a couple days in a mental institution’ was the gist of her most egregious reach), a lot of the men and ladies lined up to speak to Mary personally. I made sure to be the last in line. Once I got to her, I introduced myself and asked if I could recite a short poem. She said sure, and I did. It wasn’t much, but she smiled and told me “I had it” and to “keep going.” Less than thirty minutes earlier she’d been telling us how she got a $1,000,000 advance for her latest book, and she was telling me to keep going. It’s easy to romanticize these things and it is even easier to dismiss them, but when I actually that day factually, it still amazes me.

One day Sandra was teaching us about formatting, a weak point for me, and she showed us a book. The PEN Prison-writing handguide. A lot of us didn’t even have the slightest idea of where to place, commas. Sandra had us all copy down an address to write for a free copy of the handguide. The price was right, so I hurried and sent off for my copy right away. Plus, at the time, I wanted to get the handguide as soon as possible because it seemed useful, but I knew I would be getting out of jail almost any day. A couple months later I received the handguide and used it for a few more. On the back of the book there was information about PEN’s annual Prison-writing contest. It said that anyone could submit work within the year of their incarceration. I began working straight away; I dedicated so much time to my pieces that I ended up getting out of jail before I could mail them.

Just before the PEN contest’s deadline, in August or so, I sent my pieces in. I promptly received a rejection letter from them saying that, because I was not currently in jail, I could not submit. My heart was broken. That is barely a metaphor. I believe I felt something in my chest bend and crack when I read that letter. Then something else happened inside. Something which happens to every inmate, I’m sure. I got angry. For PEN, I had sent stories and poetry which revealed something. I had undressed my soul for them, and they flat-out said no to me. That pissed me off beyond belief. I knew what I and my work were worth.

An inmate learns to put their guard up at moments like this. In the ‘real world’ it would perhaps be closest to a You can’t fire me because I quit situation. I worked myself up for days. I had pined over my submissions. Even just the actual act of sending them off was a task. I bought a manilla envelope, spent over twenty dollars printing everything out at the local library, attached the sheets with paper clips because I’d read a lot of folks didn’t like staples; I went to the post office to mail them. I took no chances. In my head I stewed over all this. Should I write them back? Why? Why bother? Because they were wrong, that’s why.

I read the back of that handguide a hundred times. I could submit within the year of my incarceration. I had done just that. I’d been in jail for two months of 2011, and I was submitting my work that Fall. I waited, sure. Tinkered and edited to the best of my abilities at the time. I tried. Really hard. Finally, I rejected their rejection.

I wrote back, quoting their handguide and really fighting the good fight because, shit, who else was going to? Nobody else was gonna speak up for the merits of some loser jailbird’s ramblings. I sent my letter and waited.

A week later I got a response saying that I was correct, that my work could still be considered for the contest. The response then said, in no uncertain terms, that I did not have to resend my work. They still had it, no worries.

“Bullshit,” I remember saying out loud at that one. I was instantly cynical to the whole thing. I didn’t need to resend my work because they’d already made up their minds and thrown it away. That was obvious to me. It was rotting in a landfill. What could I say about it? Nothing. If they never got back to me about my pieces, they’d just say it was because I hadn’t won. Easy. I crumpled up that response and had enough fire in my belly to start writing even more.

I have always been a person who enjoys pressure. I thrive in it. I like arguments, deadlines, and challenges. In jail I was only in one scrap. I remember my cellmate at the time (great guy, read a lot of Rimbaud) asking me where I had been when the fight started. I said I was in the cell, against the bunks.

He smiled. “So you weren’t standing by the door?”

“No.”

“That says a lot. You weren’t afraid. You wanted to fight.”

“Well I didn’t start it.”

“But you weren’t scared of it either.”

I think about that a lot. Being an ex-con is the most impossible challenge imaginable. The ‘re-entry’ programs. The drug tests and mental exams. The probation officers who oversee it all and pile on more whenever they’re having a bad day. It took me over a year, after being released from jail, to find a job (which didn’t run background checks, of course). I remember having an interview with a uniform wholesaler. He ran one of the most successful private uniform sales businesses in the country and that meant something to him for whatever reason. He was a big man with wide shoulders. During our interview he was wearing a collared shirt half unbuttoned, revealing gray chesthairs and a gold chain. The entire time we spoke I tried as hard as possible not to look into his glistening, proud ape eyes.

“Well everything seems alright. You’ll pass a background check, right?”

I told him everything. He put his head down, then looked at me and grinned.

“So you really need this job, huh?”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“I mean, not a lot of places are going to hire you. Probably nobody, really. You’re a felon.” He said the word as if there was scum stuck on his tongue and he needed to remove it. I explained that I wouldn’t be any trouble, that he could even make some money by hiring me, with those federal bonds the government gives out as insurance protection when employing ex-cons. He waved his hand off at that.

“Oh yeah, the insurance. That’s a good point. It’d be through the roof!” He laughed. “But maybe it’d be worth it because, let’s face it, you’d be a good worker. A great worker.”

I began to feel red.

“I mean, you’d do anything I said. You just applied to work in my warehouse, but I’m sure you’d do anything like, for instance, if I told you to scrub my toilets. You’d do it! You’d have to!”

I thought of many things and finally settled my mind on my rent. “Yes… I can do whatever you need.”

“Well, I don’t need you. Sorry. Too much hassle.”

That night, I did not sleep. I felt sick because he really thought he was right. And he had no reason not to feel that way. In jail I was a Doc number and out of jail, now, I was an insurance risk. Numbers. They always took your soul away with numbers first. He became one of many people I decided to prove wrong. But I still needed a job. The next morning I called the man back. I told him that he was right about everything he’d said, that I really needed the break and that I could do anything he asked. He hung up on me.

Eventually I’d find a job, at a little Thai restaurant, but I still wasn’t fulfilled. Something was still missing; it was the writing that I needed. I’d started sending work out like mad, but got nowhere. Almost as long as it took to get the day job, it was several months before I had any stories accepted into even the smallest blog zines. But I stuck with it. I kept on. By the end of 2011 I had pieces in about a dozen places. It was great.

One day the next March, a letter came from PEN. I tore into the thing and it was there: the forgotten dream, the thing I’d left behind. “Congratulations!” Second place, fiction. A check for $100 would be received shortly after. Unbelievable.

A few months later I was reading my winning work at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, the first time I’d ever been to the city. I had been informed, by newsletter, that PEN was having a reading of the contest’s winning works, but I was not a part of the program. I immediately began nagging various people until it was agreed that I could travel up from Pittsburgh and read my own story. The piece, originally over 3000 words, was trimmed down to a few hundred, and while everyone else on the program was reading several pieces, I was only responsible for my own. I understood. I was nobody and I would likely make a fool of myself. But the pressure of the evening took its usual toll on me and I gave a good reading. I was asked to read the final selection of the night.

Encouraged by the response of the reading (Nick Flynn gave me a piece of gum and asked me how long I’d been writing, because ‘it took longer than a few months to do that…’), I went back to New York a week later for an unrelated PEN event. There, a slew of people remembered me and I got handshakes, cards, etc. One person in particular, a man named Jackson Taylor, was insistent on speaking with me, but I had to leave the event early. A buddy of mine had helped me get to the place, and they were leaving. I knew nothing of the subway system and had no choice but to go.

That night, waiting for our train, Taylor came down the steps, I think with a woman in an eyepatch, and into the station.

“Eric, we meet again!” He said excitedly. “Where are you going?”

“Greyhound.”

“When’s your bus?”

“3.” AM. It wasn’t even 10pm yet.

“Well, I’ll get you there, if that’s okay? I really did want to talk to you.”

We ended up at a diner in Chelsea. Jackson introduced me to the host at the joint, a small latin man. “This is Eric Boyd, from Pittsburgh.”

“Oh! Steeeelers, right?”

We talked about writing. Jackson seemed to see something. I still don’t know what. Finally he told me he was starting an MFA program, that the first wave of students were currently applying and that classes would be starting the next Fall. He told me to consider applying. I informed him that I didn’t have an undergrad degree; he said he’d talk to the dean at the college and get me in. We took a cab to the Greyhound station and I was dropped off without even knowing that Jackson was the head of the PEN Prison Writing program.

So now I’m in school at the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. I have a life going in Pittsburgh and, anyway, most of my stories are set in and around this town; I like it. However, that’s meant I have to travel in and out of NYC every week. I take the Megabus into Manhattan on Tuesday morning and leave on Wednesday night. If I get tickets far enough in advance, it’s pretty cheap. People ask me how I deal with such a commute. I say that I’ll let them know when I start to deal with it: I pop Zzzquils like they’re tic-tacs. It’s not so bad. Plus, it means a lot to me to make the trip up to the city, attend the classes. With that and the writing and everything else, I have been trying to prove the fuckers wrong—the ones that wrote me off, called me a loser. The ones that said my life was over. To hell with that. As I fought for my stories in the PEN contest, I now fight for my soul’s worth. School has helped in that regard.

I have no interest in retreating from my past. I want to hold it in my fists and move forward with it. I want to help the men and the ladies as much as I can. I want to be back there because, before jail, I was a college dropout without any hopes, making $7.25 an hour at a shit job. Now I make $8.25 at a different shit job, but I’m on my way to a graduate degree, possibly to teach at the very jail I was housed in, while writing short stories that mean something to me. There are no words to express that mix of humbling awe and terrified excitement. Sometimes I think about all of that and it melts down over me like some great majestic light.

A lot of this probably sounded boastful. Truthfully, I left many things out where it would just sound like I was bragging. And it’s easy for me to talk about this now. It’s easy to act like a tough guy who’s had more luck than most. But remember, an inmate always puts their guard up. My girl, she says I put a few years on my face while I was in jail; she jokes that she misses the old me, but it is only half-joking. I know she is telling the truth because, like any other inmate, I always have my guard up, even when I don’t need to. So I’ll say now that I’ve spent more nights weeping in the dark than I care to count off. I have nearly broken both of my hands while bashing them against the walls (so badly, in fact, that I had to buy myself a punching bag). And I have hidden so much away that sometimes I barely remember who I was before any of this happened. There are question marks branded into my soul; I look in the mirror and see someone else. Can you possibly understand that? Maybe I could explain it better. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll tell you about it someday.

EricBoyd_PhotoEric Boyd is a short story writer living in Pittsburgh while attending the Writer’s Foundry MFA in Brooklyn. In 2012 Boyd won the PEN Prison Writing Contest. He is an advising editor for theNewerYork, an experimental lit zine. His own stories have been featured in several places including Guernica, Dead Beats, and Nanoism, as well as a story in Akashic Books’ upcoming “Prison Noir” anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; next year he will will be featured in Chatham University/Trinity University Press’ anthology, “Make Mine Words”, featuring work by Oates, Denis Johnson, Tim O’Brien, and Jamaica Kincaid. Boyd is currently working on a short story collection about the avenues of Homestead, PA.

Literature on Lockdown: Donald Joseph Urbanski

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By Alison Balaskovits

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 Donald Joseph Urbanski

The Machine’s Mechanical Heart

Every half-hour of everyday of the past eleven years, an employee of the Department of Corrections has shined a light on me to make sure I was perpendicular and present. Words are never exchanged, and if eye contact is made, it’s only to reestablish the distance that divides us. How do human beings walk past one another 192,000 times without ever inquiring about their well-being? They do it in eight-hour shifts.

Today those sightings are taking place on an astronomical scale, for there are roughly 2.3 million Americans who wake up alone every morning and then climb out of bed from the side that’s not bolted to a wall. Variety simply isn’t a strong suit of incarceration. It’s primarily a monotonous affair that thrives on indifference. And for that reason alone, any vehicle that brings relevance to a prisoner’s life or provides a distraction from their mundane existence is a welcomed detour from the mind-numbing tedium that’s so common with cage-living. The problem however, is most distractions in prison revolve around minor rule infractions or salacious war stories that follow a continuous loop of locker room humor, or they’re centered on the banalities of institutional life and the occasional dangers created by prison politics.

Obviously these are simple generalizations, but they carry as many hazardous variables as there are prisoners. One of the most important variables that hinders an inmate’s chance at obtaining a new lifestyle that’s free of crime, addictions and abject moral poverty, is their inability or unwillingness to be thoroughly honest about their past, present or future. This was true in my own life, as I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the correctional cot for years with nothing more refreshing than a new lie.

Another harmful variable that exacerbates the problem of inmate apathy is the warehouse effect that occurs with prison overcrowding and redundant programming. Because there’s so much structure in the prisoners’ daily routine, they progressively become reactive instead of proactive. Myopia and stir-crazy become real threats, especially for long term inmates who are unable to overcome the rigors of institutional life.

These conditions have been systematically driven forward since the latter part of the 20th century, and it’s due in part to industrialization of the American prison system. Unfortunately there are serious ramifications to this trend. As some inmates become acclimatized to this punitive holding-pattern, it produces a toxic level of complacency. As a result, prisoners frequently become apathetic, and therefore, less proactive with their recovery and reintegration; it also increases their chances of joining the next generation of inmates who will spend the majority of their lives revolving through the criminal justice system.

After decades of institutional living, I eventually became so apathetic I would scarcely move unless I was prodded by count lights, ring-out bells or work whistles. What’s more, my own correctional ease lured me into believing that my many incarcerations were nothing more serious than an occupational hazard of my criminal lifestyle, which regrettably became a way of life. And because of that reality, I’ve been a reoccurring cog in the machine since 1971 with my adolescent apprenticeship beginning at Valley Youth Center, Bar-None Boys Ranch, Bethany Children’s Home, Saint Joseph’s Children’s Home, Sheriffs Boys Ranch, Glenn Lake County Home School, Woodland Hills Juvenile Offender program, and MCF-Red Wing. I’ve also been arrested in eleven states, with at least five prison sentences to my credit.

By no means am I saying that prison doesn’t serve a necessary function. It does. Corralling me and then welding the gate shut for 13.4 years has saved my life; it was also society’s best option, as I left them no choice. However, it’s also become apparent to me during the last three and a half decades of institutional living, that the Department of Corrections has become a refuge for society’s undesirables; a literal dust-bin of human sweepings and despair. We see clear evidence of this unrequited humanity now that our nation’s prison system is the largest provider of housing and health care for the mentally disabled.

Another imperiling variable of prison overcrowding is the assembly line approach to health care and rehabilitation programs. Even though these practices are cost-effective, it diminishes the programs ability to deal with the inmates underlying issues of criminality, addiction or waning mental health. I’ve personally experienced those cost-effective solutions when I attempted to seek help for my own issues of depression and anxiety. I was routinely given a cocktail of psychotropic gorilla-biscuits until my mental faculties and motor skills turned lethargic and infantile-they literally knocked my dingus into the dirt. That’s not a safe condition to be in, considering prisons aren’t playgrounds.

Sadly these problems exist on a much larger scale than the Department of Corrections. In our society we tend to view wealth and economic growth as the surest way to prosperity and personal happiness. For that reason, money becomes a goal instead of a tool for enriching our lives or improving our communities. We shamelessly exploit the disenfranchised by using them as units of commerce or placeholders in prison cells and as objects of evil and hostility. On a daily basis the airwaves are bombarded by sirens of fear like Nancy Grace and Ann Coulter, or on reality shows like “Cops” and “Drugs Inc.” These provocative programs continuously feed the cycle of fear until another high-tech alarm system is installed or another super-max prison cell is built. Meanwhile, the never-ending race for media ratings does little more than perpetuate social apathy in a nation already full of sequacious individuals.

Through that long process, we gradually become desensitized to criminality and its steady erosion of our collective consciousness. We further ignore the root cause of crime which is often our inability to appropriately deal with our own human iniquities. Therefore, when therapeutic programs fail to address the spiritual well-being of their participants/prisoners, the program’s overall objective becomes compromised.

A further aggravating factor of behavior-modification programs are the existing therapeutic tools that tend to focus on the perniciousness of the offender’s criminal actions instead of on the root causes of their criminal thinking. Moreover, those treatment techniques generally consist of stringent guidelines on how the participant should conduct their daily attitudes, actions and speech. Should the participant not meet those program requirements, they are then met with aggressive accountability tactics by their peers and program staff alike. Those procedures will generate an immediate outward compliance within the therapeutic community. But once the individual is released from those constraints, the therapeutic undertakings usually fall by the wayside-engendering relapse and recidivism.

Even though the above practices are popular in the secular field of psychology and psychotherapy, it’s been my experience (through trial and error, but mostly error), that if those secular techniques are used alone and not in conjunction with spiritual principles, then the inmate or the average citizen for that matter, stands little or no chance of sustaining a abundant lifestyle–in or out of recovery.

I’m not simply raging against the machine, and I’m not insinuating the entire regimen of correctional programming is ineffective or without merit. Not it is my aim to minimize, criticize, or devalue the valiant efforts that are performed on a daily basis by the prison’s therapeutic community. In all honesty, the lion’s share of my recovery has been accomplished because of their benevolence. And one day I hope to hold a similar light-bearing position, even if it’s to simply put the intoxicated person to bed and then be there when they wake up with a hot cup of coffee and an encouraging word of hope.

Furthermore, after several years of living clean and sober, I’m convinced that human beings have three vital parts: Body, Mind and Spirit. If those three characteristics are not simultaneously administered during the recovery process, the prescribed treatment will inadvertently reinforce the very problem it’s been designed to eliminate. Recovery is a miracle, a portrayal of amazing grace, and it can’t be achieved through mechanical sterility; it’s accomplished through mercy and active intervention. And it’s profoundly relational. That’s the true purpose of rehabilitation, inside of prison or out.

My whole life I’ve never measured up. I’ve been a general disappointment for over 40 years. I’ve got scar tissue, lengthy prison sentences and a lifetime of colossal failures to prove this fact. I’ve grown up, and old, in correctional facilities. If I was released today, I wouldn’t need a quarter; there’s no one to call. But I’m still a blessed man, because I’ve been able to come to terms with my shortcomings – and with considerable hard word, this state-raised kid has spent the last eleven years of his incarceration enjoying the very definition of freedom by surrendering his will and life over to the care of God. And I’ve done so until I’ve become a pariah in my own homeland of 10,000 prison cells.

Donald Joseph Urbanski is a freedom fighter who enjoys writing short essays that promote the sanctity of life. He believes writing should educate, liberate, or at the very least, give a brief reprieve from the struggles of daily life. In the near future, he hopes to professionally share the gift of recovery with those still suffering from the perils of addiction. Philippians 4:13 “We can do everything through Him who gives us strength.”