Literature on Lockdown: Seph Murtagh

litOnLockdown (2)

Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Seph Murtagh. 

In the spring of 2008, I taught a literature course to a small group of inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. I was a graduate student at Cornell at the time, and I was participating in a program that connected Cornell faculty and grad students with teaching opportunities in local prisons. The class I taught was on “literary existentialism” – my own inexpert coinage – and I put the syllabus together chiefly because I thought it would be an interesting thing to teach Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to a group of inmates.

As it turned out, it was an interesting thing, but not for the reasons I expected. I think anyone who steps foot inside a prison to teach a class to inmates is grappling on some level, whether they are aware of it or not, with the question of forgiveness. One of the dynamics of being a college instructor is that you tend to be relatively unfamiliar with the personal lives of your students: their embarrassing acts, their family melodramas. When you teach in a prison, though, there is one aspect of student history that is impossible to ignore: at some point in the past, your students were arrested, and they were put in this place. In New York State, if you’re interested in learning about the specific nature of those criminal acts, it’s not hard to do, because the New York State Department of Corrections keeps an online database tracking the criminal history of every inmate in its system.

While teaching at Auburn, I couldn’t resist looking up my students in this database, and one of the things I realized as I examined their criminal histories was that in many cases the decisions that had resulted in them ending up in prison – horrible decisions, with earth-shattering consequences for themselves and others – had been made when they were very young men. I don’t want to excuse the heinousness of these crimes, because in some cases they were very bad, involving grievous harm to innocent people. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that many of these crimes had been committed in a matter of seconds at the age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and the consequences of them would continue to haunt these men for the rest of their lives.

We know from the study of neuroscience that the human brain isn’t finished maturing until around the age of twenty-five. We know from the evidence of our own senses that young people – and especially young men – are capable of doing some really dumb things. We know too that people are capable of astonishing transformations, that no human life follows an unswerving path, that people break off marriages, alight on new careers, change genders, reinvent themselves so radically that they seem like different people when you bump into them years later. The prisoners who signed up for my class at Auburn were obviously trying to change something about their lives. It wasn’t like anyone had forced them to be there. The very fact that they were in the classroom at all seemed to indicate a willingness to change, a desire to achieve better things in life.

So a question that was continually on my mind as I taught at Auburn was, what do we owe these guys, if indeed we owe them anything at all? What as a society are we able to forgive? And how do we go about systematizing that forgiveness in a way that is fair? In answer to the question of what we’re able to forgive, I hope the answer is that we’re able to forgive a lot. For those who are personally touched by the tragic consequences of a crime, of course, this can be a nearly impossible thing to do, and there are some crimes that are so monstrous that it’s hard to imagine how they might ever be forgiven. But when it comes to the sort of crimes that my students at Auburn were guilty of – burglary, assault, drug trafficking – I want to believe that if you stopped the average American on the street and asked whether a person, who had screwed up at the age of twenty-one but in the years since had made a good-faith effort to redeem himself, should be offered a second chance at life, the answer would be yes.

The problem is that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the opinion of the average American on this topic and the savage realities of incarceration as they play out in American life. In the popular imagination, a prison is a place where criminals are kept so that they may undergo a period of productive rehabilitation, a kind of socially-sanctified “time out” that is ultimately in the prisoner’s best interest. A prisoner does his time, and once he is released, he rejoins society, hopefully with a newfound appreciation for the errors of his ways. This is a total myth, of course, and bears about as much resemblance to the realities of incarceration as a prison does to a gated community. The truth is that prisons are far more like gigantic warehouses where we store people who have been deemed undesirable by civil society: the suspect, the violent, the perverted, the insane. We need a place to exile them, and it’s not like we can ship them off to a distant island. So we ship them off to a prison instead.

What tends to get forgotten is that the vast majority of these exiles will be returning to society someday, and there is no guarantee that someone who has been placed inside a prison because he has been judged a menace to society will suddenly be viewed as any less of a menace on the day that he is released. There’s no magic wand that gets waved over a prisoner once he has served his debt to society, erasing his past and removing the stigma he carries as an ex-con. Most of the inmates I taught at Auburn will be getting out of prison one day, and when they do, they will face an uphill battle. The obstacles they will encounter are well-documented: loss of legal rights, difficulty obtaining gainful employment, denial of housing and public benefits, not to mention the inward stress of fighting back against all of the negative labels that society insists on hurling at you, labels that sap your spirit and reduce your humanity down to a caricature. When we think of a prison sentence – two years, seven years, twenty years – we tend not to think of the additional punishment that goes along with being relegated to the status of a second-class citizen for the rest of your life. But this punishment is real, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s even worse than the initial prison sentence.

You can probably tell the amount of compassion a country feels for its less fortunate members by the degree to which the country is willing to educate those same members. This is a test that America has been failing abysmally. Just how bad we’ve been failing at it, in fact, can be seen in the astonishing growth of the prison industry over the last several decades. Since 1980, the prison population has more than quadrupled to the point where roughly one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. It’s easy to look at these numbers and be overcome by feelings of futility and despair. How on earth did we let this happen? The short answer is that we let this happen because we care a whole lot more about jailing certain people than we do about educating them. Of course, there are educators out there who are working to reverse this trend, but the frontlines of the struggle are not prison classrooms like my one at Auburn; they are the public schools all across the country where hardworking teachers and administrators struggle daily against the poisonous effects of poverty and racial segregation. Until we give these professionals the resources they need to do their jobs, we will not see an end to the problem of overcrowded prisons in the United States.

photoSeph Murtagh lives in Ithaca, New York. He was the winner of the 2009 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize from The Missouri Review for his essay “A Hive of Mysterious Danger,” which recounts his experience teaching at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. In 2004, he won the Creative Nonfiction Award from The Mid-American Review. He graduated with a PhD in English from Cornell University, and he has taught literature and writing courses at Cornell and Ithaca College. Since 2012, he has been an elected representative on the Ithaca Common Council.

Literature on Lockdown: Michael Carrino

litOnLockdown (2)

Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at 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.”


“Just don’t.”

“Why not?”

“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.

IMG_1537Michael 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). 

Literature on Lockdown: Wally Lamb

litOnLockdown (2)

Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at A physical mailing address can also be provided.

We’re pleased to present our interview with Wally Lamb. You might know him as the author of novels such as  Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone (the last two were Oprah’s Book Club picks.) His next novel, We Are Water, comes out later this month. Today, though, we will be speaking to Lamb about the two nonfiction essay volumes he edited,  Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away. The collections feature essays from his writing workshop students at the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut. Lamb has been volunteer facilitator at the prison for the past fourteen years. He generously spoke to our own Alison Balaskovits about what it’s like to teach the “incarcerated wounded,” lawsuits, and how these experiences have influenced his own work. 

couldnt keep

It’s been ten years since the publication of Couldn’t Keep it to Myself and six years since I’ll Fly Away was released. Has the attention garnered by the books changed the way that you approach the workshop?

No, not really. The women are primarily writing for themselves, and publication comes down the line if they work hard at it. But for many of them that is not their goal. For some of them it is. We have had some award winners in the Pen Prison Writers Program. I think four or five women have distinguished themselves in that way. Several of our women have been published in the Sun Magazine’s reader’s rights section, where they have the theme of the month and they write in. And there have been other publications as well. It’s not my goal for them, necessarily, unless that is what they want.

In the introduction to Couldn’t Keep it to Myself, you mention this concept of the walking wounded, an observation of the handful of students from your first year of teaching high school. Yet this seems to the theme of the two collections, our incarcerated wounded. You make the point that this begins not at the moment of the incarceration, but their entire lives have led up to this point.

Many of the women I’ve worked with, certainly the majority, have had wounded childhoods. In many cases that means sexual abuse, lots of times by somebody in the family or a neighbor or someone like that. Along with that, or subsequent to that, there is a secret-keeping they are threatened with. Many of them enter into a collusion with the perpetrators of the crime. They carry that within them. I think because they are female – certainly this is not across the board – more often than not females are more apt to implode than explode. A guy who has been sexually abused can go to a bar and, for better or worse, pop the guy on the stool next to him. I think women to be more self-destructive as they try to keep those secrets. I deal with a lot of women who tried to keep those horrible things inside and take care of everyone else. And then one horrible day they snapped and in many cases took a life or hurt someone in a very serious way. Not all, but a lot of them.

Was it difficult for these women to publish such personal narratives knowing that their private lives would be made public?

Many women chose not to take that road. One of the things that happens when these secrets that they have been carrying inside of them come out on the page, there is a kind of lightning, and it’s like the defusing of a bomb in some ways. When they take that next more important step of reading it to the class and hearing not only feedback on how to make a stronger draft but they also hear comfort and solidarity because similar things have happened to many of them. This burden that they’ve been carrying inside, suddenly there are twelve to fifteen people helping to carry it with them. I find that a lot of them who wanted to be assured that this was going to private or only I would read it or it would not go outside of the writing group, little by little, by stages, many of them let go of the terrible secrets and then want it to go public. I only know of only about three instances where a woman wanted to continue to protect the person who had injured her. Some of these perpetrators have died at this point. But sometimes other members of the family knew about it and bear some guilt. But by and large, once those secrets are out and have been made public to the group, there doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue to making it public in a larger circle.

It is really, when you think of it, pretty brave.

Have the women shared with how much these classes and the writing have gone towards healing these wounds?

We talk about that quite a bit.

First of all, I would have to say that we have qualifications to get into this writing group. The most important one is that they have to be discipline free for a period of six months before they enter the program. And if they are disciplined for something they did outside of the program then they are suspended, sort of like a high school thing, for a month or two months or so. So that means we tend to get self-motivated women who are interested in rehabilitation. I only see a percentage of the women who are on the compound. And these are largely the same women who will take advantage of other rehabilitative programs. Not that there’s too much, but the same woman in our program might also be in the dance program. We just recently added classes taught by professors from Wesleyan University. And that was after a lot of road blocks that the prison system put in. But the women are very excited about getting college credit for those classes too.

To get back to your question, yes. I have seen some really dramatic healing going on. I’ve seen women who were so bowled over in pain and embarrassment for what had happened or what they had done that they could not have direct eye contact with people. They were crying. A lot of the women, at first, cannot read their own work and so they pass it to someone who is a friend of theirs in the class or they pass it to me and one of us will read it. And little by little, I’ve seen this over and over again, a woman who is in the process of finding her voice will then allow that voice to get stronger and clearer.  Then there’s no stopping her. I’ve seen woman who were almost frightened to be in the program become the leaders. When you’re there for fourteen years you see this development over cool. For someone who has been an educator their entire life, it’s really cool. Or as we say in New England, it’s wicked cool.

What do you do in preparation for these classes?

My primary preparation is going through the writing that has come in. I’m there once every two weeks. I collect the work, either an assignment or something that they have self-assigned. I give them feedback in writing and I will shape a class around some of the women’s work. I might do a little grammar lesson to begin, point of view or subject verb problems. We don’t spend a whole lot of time on mechanics, but we might do a little of that as a warm up.

Sometimes I give them outside assignment assignments. We have used the Pushcart Prizes, those annual volumes that the Missouri Review is often well represented in. We have classroom sets of that, so I will assign a short story in there, or an essay. We get a global reaction and then pick it apart in a more technical way.

I have three people who are my co-facilitators. Once upon a time I was a high school teacher and the woman in the classroom across the hall retired and I knew she would work well with these woman, so I snagged her. Another woman’s field is in alcohol recovery, Susan, is an editorial writer, and a good one. So she coaches that aspect. More recently we have a guy named Doug who runs the stroke program for a community hospital and gets people back and running after they have had a stroke. He is also a very well published writer.

I don’t tell the women they must write this genre or that, but we have the bases covered as far as who is writing what.

What are some of the readings that you typically share in these workshops?

The most recent one that comes immediately to mind is a short story by Donald Hall, who I believe was the poet laureate of the U.S. not too long ago. He’s primarily a poet, but he has this beautiful story called “The Ideal Bakery”. It’s one of the stories that I have gone back to over and over again as a model. And it’s short enough to hold their attention.

I make sure that the women have paper and pencils in front of them and I’ll start reading the story aloud. At the halfway point I will stop and say, “Now I want you to write anything you want for ten minutes”, whether they have questions, observations, or if this reminds them of something from their life or something they’ve read. We reconvene after those ten minutes and we share what their reaction is. It almost becomes a pot-luck kind of thing and everyone brings a little something and we have this feast of reaction. I’ll continue the story, and when the story ends we have another ten minute writing time and we do the wrap-up. At that point we talk in terms of craft. They have to get the plot down first and then we’ll make observations. They really make astute observations. They have become amazingly good at literary criticism, not only the professionals but of one another. Regularly we have observers come in and their mouths drop open because they have certain assumptions about what women in prison can or cannot accomplish, and those assumptions are debunked so rapidly when they see the level of sophistication of those critical remarks.

Is there anything that the women not allowed to write about or you are not allowed to comment on?

It’s probably a self-protective thing for them to not go into details about their crime if their trial has not happened yet. Lots of times they are waiting for a couple of years if it is a serious or high-profile case. They don’t get before the judge and jury for a while. We steer them away if they are writing about that kind of thing.

There has been a lot of gang violence and gang members who are brought to prison. When you enter the prison you have to repudiate all of the gang signals and rituals and so on.  A woman who was in both of the books, Brenda Medina – she’s out now, thank goodness – but when she was in prison she had been a gang sister. She was afraid to write about her gang involvement, but it was important for her to do so because she was trying to figure out how she fell into that trap. We sought permission from the then-Warden, who thank goodness was a reasonable woman, and she gave permission for her to write about it. Had that not happened, the guards have a lot of power there, and for no stated purpose they can go into the cells and confiscate whatever they want. Had Brenda been writing about gang stuff without special permission to do so she may have gotten into serious trouble.

If the women want to criticize the prison system or the day to day stuff that’s going on, I ask that they give the guards or whoever they are writing negatively about a pseudonym. We don’t want to put anyone on trial unfairly. But they will get to the bottom of some of the behavior that is unethical.

Was Couldn’t Keep it to myself an idea that you pitched to your publisher or did they approach you and ask about your work at the prison?

It came quite by accident. I live in Connecticut and I was going down to New York. I hopped a train in New Haven and was off to see my then-editor Judith Regan. I was bringing my schoolwork, the things the women had handed in and I was writing comments. The meeting was to talk about the novel I was working on and was about to come out. And Judith said, “So, what else is new?” and I started talking about this class that I had been teaching at that point for about five years and I went on about how I couldn’t believe how good this writing was. She said, I think to be polite, “Oh, you’ll have to show me sometime”.

“Well as a matter of fact!” I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a piece by a writer named Nancy Whiteley, who writes very humorously but also pretty poignantly. It was about three hand-written pages or so. I looked up at Judith when I finished and she had tears. She’s a hard-boiled New York women and I had never seen tears before. She said, “Wally, this is better than 75% of the professional stuff that I see. Would you like to do a book?”

It wasn’t something I had considered, so I said I would have to go back and see how the women feel about it. I went back to the prison services and I said there was a possibility of a book, would you please guide me in terms of safety and security? And therein lies another tale. I don’t know if you know how we ended up on Sixty Minutes?

Oh, yes. The women were being sued for their writing?

They were suing them because of their writing. What they were suing them for was the cost of their imprisonment.

That’s so bizarre. It’s not as if they chose to be there.

Correct. But they overplayed their hand. I had just come from two very successful books that Oprah Winfrey had endorsed for her book club. The prison culture is one of fear. Everybody is afraid, particularly, of public criticism. I think they were so afraid that Oprah might pick this and make a bestseller out of it and the resulting outcry would be how dare these women profit from this?

Just the math of it: the book sold for about $75,000 and there were thirteen contributors. The women wanted to make a battered women’s shelter the fourteenth partner, because many of them had been battered women in these shelters. I edited the book but I didn’t take any money for it. That divided up into about $6,000 apiece per woman that she would be able to get once she was released. In other words, it would be held for her by the publisher.

The prison system was not after that money, that $6,000, they went after $117 per day times the number of days of their sentence. One woman, Bonnie Foreshaw, had three bucks in her account to buy overpriced toilet paper at the commissary, and suddenly she owed the state of Connecticut $917,000. It demoralized the women. I’m not a rabble-rouser and I’m not particularly an activist, but I got so pissed off that they were trying to shut down those voices just when they had acquired them. I went to battle against the State of Connecticut, and eventually it got flipped around.

I talk about this in the introduction to I’ll Fly Away, but what happened was the lawsuit languished for a year and a half.  I got a call from the PEN American Center. The lawsuit had gotten some publicity and someone remembered that and called my office and said, “At PEN we give a first amendment prize for someone whose freedom of speech is under attack. Could you nominate somebody from your group?”

I asked if I could nominate them as a group. They said no, it has to be an individual.

I nominated the hardest worker, one of the women who had the most amazing transformation because of her writing. And she won the award. It was funded by Paul Newman’s company, Newman’s Own, and carried a $25,000 prize. If you’ll excuse my language, that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

I was told I was no longer welcome at the prison. They said were investigating me and investigating the program. While this investigation was going on, they forbade the women to write anything for the program and they confiscated their floppy disks. We’re talking about ancient computer material. But the cruelest thing of all that they did was they wiped out the hard drives of all the women’s writing. We had these old Apple 2E computers and suddenly all their writing was deleted.

I got ahold of the PEN American Center and told them what was going on and PEN got ahold of 60 Minutes. 60 Minutes investigated and found out that I was telling the truth about what was going on and that the prison system was lying. Once they shined their TV cameras and lights on what was going on, suddenly the Attorney General did a back-flip: This is a wonderful program and we’re going to settle this lawsuit. It all ended okay, but before that it was a year and half of something very Kafkaesque. They were telling lies about me. I would pick up the newspaper and see these fictions they were writing– this program is sneaky, they didn’t know anything about it, and all of that was bogus.

Did they assume that you just walked in randomly and started teaching?

I don’t know what they were thinking. The spokesman for the Department of Correction was feeding lies to the Hartford Current, which is the big newspaper in the state. For instance, they said that they didn’t know anything about the book and that I had snuck book contracts in through the mail and they had confiscated them.

Now, that’s what I read in the newspaper. The real story was that I had submitted the manuscript for their approval and they never got back to me. I submitted copies of the contracts and they never got back on those. Nor would they answer calls from the lawyers at Harper Collins. They said that they had confiscated them from the mail? They were never mailed. I had passed them out in class one day assuming that they never said anything about the sample it was okay. It was bizarre and very scary, particularly for the women.

Are you considering doing a third book in this series?

I’ve got a couple of projects that are going to keep my busy for a while, but I am stockpiling the very fine writing that has accrued in the past five years or so. I may or may not do a book. I was thinking – although there are no immediate plans nor do I know how to do this – that this might be really interesting as a stage play, where the women’s writing becomes dramatic monologues and there might be five of them on the stage. Little by little they can tell their stories, both the tragic and the victorious. But this is a vague plan.

How have these experiences and these women telling their stories to you influenced your own art?

It has. With my fiction, I’ve never been afraid to go to the dark places, but I think the women have made me more daring. For instance, with my new book, We Are Water, because I have read so many stories of pedophiles that victimized a lot of these women, there is a pedophile in my story and I take the gag off of him and he tells his story. It was scary to write as this guy. I don’t think I would have had the nerve if they had not given me an education. I guess I would call myself a feminist in terms of what they have taught me about the inequality of women and men and the power structure between women and men and how some men are extremely abusive of that power. And some women too. There’s been a give and take, a flow back and forth between who is teaching what to whom. They’ve taught me a lot about life and I’ve taught them a few things about writing. It’s symbiotic, and I feel so lucky and so blessed to have them in my life and have this class to go to. It takes me about forty-five, fifty minutes to get down there by car. I get my homework done and I pack my stuff in the car and I am frustrated, I can’t believe I’m going to do this, I have my own stuff to do and I’m whining the all the way down there. Three or four hours go by and I’m driving off the compound and I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m just so glad that I went. They’ve become really important to me personally, and really important to me writer to writer.

Wally Photo 4Wally Lamb is the author of four New York Times bestselling novels: Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone. His fifth, We Are Water, is due out in October 2013. Lamb also edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for the past fourteen years. He is a 1972 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Education. He also holds a Master of Arts degree in Education from UConn and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Vermont College.