Literature on Lockdown: Michael Carrino
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Michael Carrino.
In the Prison Near the Highway
I taught pedophiles how to keep a diary. It was the mid 80’s. New England. It was Autumn and I was teaching writing courses at two local colleges. Through a friend I heard a nearby correctional facility was looking for a teacher or writer to work with sexual offenders. I applied and was hired. I believe I went to the prison twice a week. I’m not exactly sure anymore. This vexes me, given how many times I’ve encouraged college students to be specific, to use names of people, places, and objects in poems, stories, and essays. My own poetry is littered with names. I kept a writer’s journal, but looking back at it now, I did not write about the prison class until I was well into it.
The men were young. No one over forty I would say. The group was small. Twelve or a few more. Attendance often depended on what privileges might have been revoked by guards, other teachers, or counselors. I was given a list of rules at first, then informed of other unwritten expectations as deemed necessary. Don’t stare. Don’t linger anywhere. Try to bring less “teaching crap.” Never question an order.
The guard who always signed me in, lead me down to the classroom, and signed me out, had no use for anyone whose job was to teach or counsel. He felt all the inmates were scum, but pedophiles were the worst scum, evil, unfit to live. Anyone who would choose to work with them was “wasting everyone’s time.”
The first day he slowly frisked me, told me to empty my pockets, tonelessly recited some rules from a form he then had me sign. His name was Lyle. At least that’s the name that comes to me now. I can’t find it in my journal scrawl. He was large like a jungle cat. He seemed tense, coiled, yet eager and ready to lash out whenever necessary, and with relish. When I told him why I was there, what I was hired to do, he turned to get a better look at my face, and tilted his head, regarding me as if I were prey.
“You gonna work with those perverts?” He placed his balled fists on his wide hips.
“Yes, I am.” I smelled spoiled milk. Just like in Catholic school in Brooklyn.
“The other inmates hate them. So watch yourself if they find out what you’re here for.
And they will.” Lyle lifted his hands from his hips and rubbed them together, as if in joyful anticipation of trouble.
“You know, when we get to the room, I lock you in with them. There’s a phone on the wall if there’s trouble, but that’s it. You can’t get out until I come back and let you out.”
“Understand?” He folded his arms, unfolded them, and reached into he pocket. With a magician’s flourish, he pulled out a large set of keys, picked the one he needed and held it in front of my face. Then he turned away; pressed a loud buzzer. The barred steel door that blocked the entrance to the working prison slowly opened, with an echo like a bowling ball rushing down on pins. As I stepped forward, Lyle stopped, turned to face me, and stuck a finger in my chest.
“Never, for any reason, snap your fingers. Not in the halls, the library, if I let you go there, the classroom. Nowhere, no time.”
“Jesus fuck, just don’t!” his taut, pale face reddened. He balled up his right fist.
“Snapping fingers means snappers are passing. The fucking sick bastards who snap kids off the street. Snap kids up. Get it?”
The classroom was always quiet. The men rarely spoke to each other, or looked directly at each other or me. I stopped asking questions to the class as a group after the third or fourth session. I spoke to them as a class only to assign and explain a writing assignment. I worked one on one with each man at his desk, our voices low as we studied the pages of Diary entries written since the last class, or the last class they had attended.
I presented and guided their practice in the many possible uses of a Diary. I had them start by recording the simple events of their day. Brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, anything in their prison routines, the smaller actions within a routine. Where they kept their toothbrush. Some men wrote in hardcover notebooks, some on scrap paper stuffed into a manila folder. I believe they all used pencils.
Most of the men wrote only lists, or two, three sentence paragraphs. A page or a bit more. A list might consist of what they had eaten each day since the previous class. As I sat with each man I would casually ask what they had done before or after a meal, how a particular food tasted. The lists slowly turned to longer paragraphs, the paragraphs to more pages, sometimes five or six. They had time. They had beds to make, meals to eat, and other inmates to avoid.
I gently corrected for only the most glaring mechanical errors. I ignored spelling errors unless I could not decipher a word. I made a few suggestions concerning word choices. “Is there a better word to use here than ‘nice’”? I assisted them through the twists and turns of syntax. “This sounds a bit awkward?” Try this more clear, direct route?” I praised what they managed to write, to share with me.
One constant from each of these men: it was always a good day in prison, always sunshine sparkling through imagined windows on the drab bare walls. Words like “nice,” “sweet,” “great,” seasoned whatever they wrote.
Another constant: they spoke and acted in class like children. Children about 9 or 10, or 11. They would disappear into themselves if a critique was too direct, too absolute.
There were a few men who, even early on, wrote three, four, or more pages. No daily action was too small, too unimportant to mention. With these men I asked a few more questions about the sights, sounds, tastes, and textures of their days. All their responses were consistently brief and without any reflection. I also suggested a few more possible revisions of syntax and mechanics. Again, I praised what they shared. These men also found every day a good day, filled with pleasant meals and chores.
As I worked with one man, then moved on to another, the rest of the class was quiet, adding to what they had written. No discipline problems. Ever. Nice. Sweet. Great.
Soon I felt all the men were ready to explore other uses of Diary writing. At that time I used a book by Tristine Rainer called The New Diary. It had been a useful guide when I started my own writer’s journal, and it was a big help working with these men. I fell into my own routine. Each class, starting with the sixth or seventh class, I presented one of the four natural modes of expression: Free-Intuitive Writing, Description, Reflection, and Catharsis. I also suggested they try some other techniques suggested in The New Diary like Unsent Letters, Portraits, Dialogue, anything that might spark some reflection. Some thoughts about themselves or others. They all made an effort. They tried every suggestion at least once with varying degrees of success.
A few men went back to recounting the daily routine of incarceration. They were comfortable with it. At times I could get one or another to reflect a bit about how some aspect of this daily existence felt. But, as usual, no reflection went beyond a sense of numb acceptance of conditions, or the continued recounting of days without a care or complaint. Nice. Sweet. Great.
One man filled page after page with a bit more reflection on the daily routine. He had a worry here or there about possibly catching a cold, or misplacing a sock. Never anything about his therapy group, a guard, the writing class, and certainly not why he was incarcerated. OK. Nice. Sweet. Great.
The rest of the men, 5 or 6, found a certain bliss. Descriptive portraits. If I suggested a different form or technique I was met with passive resistance. Even less eye contact than usual, as low voices became confession box whispers. I let them write.
It came in long gushing torrents of words. All about the beauty and pure love of a girl somewhere in a pristine rural world. A girl to love. A girl who loved truly and deeply. All the writing was chaste and reminded me of one or another fairytale. They never spoke to each other in class. I imagine they could have discussed it among themselves. Somewhere. At some point I stopped thinking about any motive. Their writing was all Cinderella and Prince Charming. Snow White and another prince. Another hero. The dwarves were rarely mentioned. There were brief kisses, a few words of undying love. Meaningful smiles. Idyllic. Perfect. Nice. Sweet. Wonderful.
None of these most despised men ever wrote about their families, any aspect of growing up, their pedophilia. Each man wrote like an obedient boy who had not yet entered puberty. They were unable, or unwilling, to self-examine. They never acted tough. They never wrote anything mean, anything violent, or explicitly sexual. On page after diary page I found innocence on a quest to slay a hateful, evil dragon, or monster, so as to preserve a purity of thought, word, and behavior. On the page, failure was not an option. Happily ever-after. Nice. Sweet. Perfect.
Lyle was often silent. But he found the time, however brief, to needle me on most days. I had become familiar to him, part of the routine, a mouse the big cat could toy with or ignore.
“Last day, last dollar, Teach.” He slapped me on the back.
“Your perverts gonna miss you, Teach?” “Walk in the middle of the hall, Teach, I don’t want you disappearing on my watch.” He jangled the big set of keys in his right hand.
“Well, so long, and fuck damn I won’t keep hearing you asking me how my day is going.”
“You are correct about that.”
“You couldn’t do my job for five minutes you half-faggot.” He spoke low and slow. Always.
“You’re right about that Lyle.” I lowered my head as if searching the floor for treasure.
He stuck the magic key in the rolling thunder door to the outside. The sidewalk. The highway.
Michael Carrino holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College. He is a retired English lecturer at the State University College at Plattsburgh, New York, where he was co-founder and poetry editor of the Saranac Review. His publications include Some Rescues, (New Poets Series, Inc.) Under This Combustible Sky, (Mellen Poetry Press), Café Sonata, (Brown Pepper Press), Autumn’s Return to the Maple Pavilion (Conestoga Press), and By Available Light (Guernica Editions).