Literature on Lockdown: I Write From a Cell

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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 A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Rahsaan Thomas.

I was sentenced to 55-years-to-life back in July of 2003 for 2nd degree murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter and gun-use enhancements. My speech is the only part of me that is still free.

Incarceration has forced a need to write. It started with letters to loved ones. Next, I needed to write my own habeas appeal. After the courts jerked me, I found a need to help others and tell my side of the story so others won’t follow this path to hell. Now I love writing.

Writing is the one thing I can do from a cell that can make a huge difference. I am not scheduled to go home anytime soon. By the time I do, I will have missed my sons’ whole entire adult life after already missing his childhood. By then, the woman who loves me will moved on and there won’t be nothing to return to except to meet any grandkids my sons may have by then. Writing makes my circumstances worth something more than the circumstances of being a Lifer.

Two prisons ago, I was a law library clerk and I have been using the skills learned there to help others get free. The Federal courts’ one-year AEDPA deadline to file a habeas-appeal came and went before I was able to acquire enough skill to submit the best writ I could. Conditions of lockdowns, outdated books, no borrowing book policies, one law library for two full prison yards and other obstacles made mastering law in a year impossible. Therefore, although I can prove my case is a stack of lies, I lost all my appeals. However, I have been getting successful results for others with the lessons learned at my expense. Therefore, I write to fight for those who can’t read or write well enough themselves.

Since then, I have become the Sports Editor for the San Quentin News, an inmate run newspaper. My job as Sports Editor is much bigger than just keeping track of stats for the newspaper, it’s about giving prisoners a chance to make the papers for something positive. As I was quoted in the LA Times saying, “The last time I made the newspapers, somebody got shot.” I love having this chance to help others make the news for their positive accomplishments, instead of only violent acts.

Now I write to get people to see why some of us have done horrible things. I write to get people to see the changes that could be made that would make the world a better place for all of us. I write to showcase those of us who have made those changes. I write to combat hate with knowledge in an effort to breed understanding. I write to help others get the justice they deserve. I have co-written and published a book of short stories called Uncaged Stories through – each of my tales are focused on waking up youngsters, so they don’t end up my cellmates. I write because it’s the most powerful weapon I have that can effectively hamper oppression.

I am doing everything I can to become a better writer at San Quentin State Prison. I am a member of the Journalism Guild. I am in Creative Writing and Poetry classes. I have gotten B’s in Communication and Business Management at Coastline Community College. I have taken Sociology and English at Feather River. The skills are starting to match the passion.

So from prison I’ll keep writing until there are no more words or there are no problems to write about.

Rahsaan ThomasRahsaan Thomas is currently serving 55-to-life for second-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from stopping a robbery. He is using his time positively. He is the Sports Editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild. He is also a member of the William James Prison Arts Project Creative Writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His short story from last year called “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology, Brothers in Pen: Stories from the Annual Public Reading at San Quentin. Levon “Rasta Von” James, a director from Rochester, NY, is currently at work turning “One Bad Apple” into a short film.

Literature on Lockdown: Chow in Prison

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 Milo De Ville

My essay is about chow in prison. Folks outside prison call it food, but we say in here:

“Hey Jimmy, what time is chow?”

“Can’t tell since my watch broke.”

You get the picture. Now when the guards yell out chow, we all go out and line up outside, sort of like going seeing a movie. We get our chow on an orange plastic tray with a plastic yellow cup and a red plastic spork.

Used to be that they gave us real spoon, fork, and knife. Took them away years ago because folks use them for other things.

Now it’s true this country is in love with chow. I do miss a good Big Boy hamburger or some real good biscuit and gravy. I been down since Ronald Reagan been president so I still think a lot about a big old chicken fried steak sandwich and a mess of fries. That’s good eating where I’m from.

Which reminds me, they give out juice for breakfast and dinner, but it ain’t. It’s Kool-Aid. That’s Kool-Aid. My cousin Mel, who sees me once in a while for visitation, say that so ghetto. I think cousin Mel is right.

Now getting back to writing about chow. I read some time back in a Reader’s Digest that folks eat because of boredom. That’s true. Prison is a whole lot of boredom. You wake up to the same ugly faces, wear the same color clothes, and listen to the same stupid whining.

“Hey Country, how come the doctor ain’t seen me? Don’t they know I got a heart condition, a bum knee and is bipolar? Don’t they care?”

Once in a while, just to break up the boredom, the fellers around here get drunk on their ass on hooch, which ain’t legal and stink. Then they get to fighting and once in a while, we get in a riot. Some people drink too much and get awful sick.

When there’s a movie on tv, I go to a “store.” It’s where a feller sell you stuff like honey bun, popcorn, wham-wham, zu-zu. Usually you pay it back two for one or something like that. I got to have me a bag of popcorn and a RC or two and maybe a sleeve of crackers when I’m watching tv. Watching a tv movie sort of kills the boredom.

Prison is sort of like Mayberry. We got kin folks like Gomer, Goober, Otis, and Aunt Bea (some of the guys got this thing for dressing up if you know what I mean). Now back to what I was writing, prison is no place to hide. So if you can make some killer fudge or some top of the line burrito, word will get around. Knowing how to cook can make you look awful good or you getting to looking like a fool. There’s a trick or two in getting the masa in prison tamale just right. I known some really good guys who make it worthwhile to get in their tamale and some others just to stay away from.

Chow I guess is about an hour from now. It’s Salisbury steak tonight. One thing I kind of like about the chow hall is I get to hang out with the fellers. Bullshitting with them over a tray of watery biscuit and gravy and soupy oatmeal is a good way to start the day. You see other races make a big show of greeting their kind. Once in a while also, you get to see a fight in the chow hall like the time two sixty-five year olds bitch slapped each other. It all started when one of them wanted the other feller’s breakfast ham. Instead of asking for it, he stabbed it. The guards in the chow hall couldn’t stop laughing. So chow might not be good, but there’s always some good bullshit and some good laughs.

There’s folks in here that like naked women and naked animals and like looking at them skin magazines. I never had a liking for things like that. But then there’s folks in here that get all a twitching looking at “America’s Test Kitchen” or “You Can Cook” or “Iron Chef.” A couple of the fellers even take pages and pages of notes when their favorite cooking show comes on. Then at chow, they’ll sit and talk all about while shoveling down Italian casserole.

I got to say something about Italian casserole. The noodle, ground chicken meat, and tomato sauce is all mix-up. It’s dry enough to choke the Pope and the garlic toast, well it’s so dry, poor old Mr. Kennedy uses it to build garlic toast house. The prison store sell it for five dollars and he gets fifty cents.

So as you can see, prison chow is a whole lot more than pancakes we use to play Frisbee with on the rec field. It’s about boredom. It’s about fellers showing off their culinary skills, even though all you doing is boiling water with a stinger and using grocery from the fellers who run the “store.”

In the meanwhile, I got to get ready for chow. Tonight is Salisbury patty with potatoes. The patty look like a cow turd and the potato is hard as rock and the cake is so dry, you swear it came over on my great-great grandma’s boat. I got to go.

Milo De Ville, a long-time member of an advanced fiction workshop offered through Arizona State University’s Prison English program, is incarcerated in the Arizona State 01Prison Complex – Florence. His fiction has appeared in Rain Shadow Review.

Literature on Lockdown: Tom WS Richey

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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 A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Tom WS Richey. 

There’s over four hundred headstones. At least seven rows of sixty. But they’re unlike anything you’d see in a public cemetery. They’re flat rectangular stones no bigger than a letterbox set flush into the earth, each bearing a number, no name. There are no flowers, and the surrounding grass hasn’t been clipped in some time.

The graveyard is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, its top coiled with razor wire, though I can’t explain why; prisoners there are unable get out and no prisoner is trying to get in. As large as a football field, the graveyard lays between the prison baseball yard and one of the cellblocks. The times I’ve stood at the fence, capable of reading some of the numbers that appear in no sequential order, I’m gripped by the past, by the curiosity of how these prisoners came to lay before me, just represented by a number in the ground. Why did their families refuse to take possession of their bodies? Didn’t they have loved ones? Had they served so long in prison, they became no more than a memory to all those who knew them? What were the circumstances of their death? Questions flooded my mind.

The lowest numbered stone I can see is a 10, and I suspect this two-digit number belongs to one of the first felons in the Washington State Penitentiary, which has stood for over a century. The highest numbers have five digits. Currently, Washington State issues six-digit numbers. My eyes are drawn to a three-digit number: ?55. The stone is newer, replacing the old stone that had obviously become so weathered, they couldn’t read the first number so they replaced it with a question mark. It indicates they maintained few or no records of the men laid to rest.

Fear sprouts from the dread that settles my stomach as my eyes drift over the numbered stones. I don’t want to be laid to rest here so far from Britain, my home, confined for eternity. But I’m all too aware it could come to that. I’m 45 now, approaching my 28th year in prison. Growing old in a penitentiary isn’t how I imagined my life would be.

I left Britain in 1985, at the age of seventeen. Sylvester Stallone influenced my decision. I’d watched his film, ‘First Blood,’ a year earlier and it made an impression on my immature young mind. I wanted to be a Special Forces soldier just like the Rambo character. My dad, an American, encouraged me to join the US Army’s elite forces. Jobs were scarce under Margaret Thatcher’s regime, so I thought I’d give the army a try. I promised my mom I’d return after a three-year tour of duty. By then, I hoped to have an idea of what to do with my life.

Things went well for a while. In the months ahead, I became an Army Airborne Ranger. I returned home in December 1985 for thirty days leave. But the joy on my mom’s face over having her son home for Christmas would be removed a few months later when I was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. I took LSD, had a bad bender, and shot two people, killing one.

When I came to my senses the following day, I turned myself into Tacoma authorities and confessed, preparing to face punishment for my actions. I didn’t expect the sentence of 65 years a judge handed down. But I’m in no position to complain. My senseless actions took a life and destroyed so many others including those I loved most: my parents.

A few months later, police in Ohio arrested my brother, Kenny, for arson and murder. The prosecutor would use my admission of guilt to tar him with the same brush, which led to his conviction. He stayed on death row for twenty-one years before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals finally overturned his flawed conviction and freed him. Yet, the brother I knew died on death row. The broken man he became would see his way back into prison. I feel responsible for that.

My actions at the age of eighteen were akin to throwing a grenade into a crowd. The shrapnel hit many people. I deserved punishment for that, and I’ve never believed otherwise. But, when I began my sentence in 1986, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of spending decades in prison.  When we’re young, our lives seem to have no expiration date. I deluded myself with the belief that, in time, Washington officials would realize I wasn’t a bad person; that I had made a bad mistake and was worthy of a second chance at life. I hadn’t been in trouble before. Surely that would count for something? I can’t say how many years I hung onto that hope. The trouble with hope is that it’s light as a feather, but when you carry it long enough, it begins to weigh you down.

I’ve now served more years than I thought possible. The young man I remember has died along with his dreams and all that seems to be left is an aging body full of regret. There’s nothing worse than taking a person’s life. You can never give it back. I can never heal the shrapnel wounds that scar those I’m responsible for hurting. I admit, sometimes when I focus too much on what I cannot fix, I’m visited by temptation to take my own life. Some people will say it’s an outcome I deserve. I’m in no position to argue against that. I committed an unforgivable act so I understand the opinions of those who regard me with disdain and wish the worst for me. I find no fault in that. No fault at all.

Yet, I must hold on because I can’t inflict more pain on my mom and brothers. I’ve been the cause of too much of that in this lifetime. So I find myself hanging on in this cloister cave of misery. In time, my mom will pass as my dad did a few years ago, and so too will my brothers.

The graveyard chills me. I know I’m looking at my future. I know I might resurrect hope to keep me going a little longer and that it will all be in vain. I realize that the graves before me probably tell stories similar to mine, of men struggling through lengthy sentences, holding on while their loved ones die, leaving them no one to claim their bodies when, finally, hope dies along with them. Is this what my life will amount to? A rectangular block of concrete with the number 929444 stamped into it?

Perhaps I deserve no more than that.

Tom WS Richey’s work has appeared previously in British publications such as “The Guardian”, “The Independent” and “The Edinburgh Evening News”. His book, “Kenny Richey; Death Row Scot” was published in the UK by Black & White Publishing in 2005. 

Literature on Lockdown: C. Fausto Cabrera

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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 A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is C. Fausto Cabrera

The art room is located on the third floor in the education department across the hallway from the vocational computer class. These programs are praised for the opportunities they create and rightly so.  Along with the GED program on the lower level, they are bullet points for the tours they give to community members. Yes, tours. Anyone can schedule a tour of Stillwater Prison.

The groups range from 10-20 people at any given time; some people wore suits and ties, but most of the time it is casual. The host walks them in leading them to the front of the room to meet our instructor for a few words about the program. Then they usually take the long way out past the outside wall so that they could view the artwork in action and on the walls.

There are always a couple of inmates (I say inmates because we are only labeled students within the program) that group up for your quintessential construction worker talk about women on the tour. Chitchatting, loud enough to hear, hoping to be noticed, looking for a little eye contact; grasping what would make them feel human again; a simple flirtation, making a man with options who retains a little appeal.

As a tutor in the program, I retain the ability to find something to do in the back tool room, out of sight. Where I didn’t have to witness the looks in their eyes making me feel like an animal in a zoo.  It’s how pompous rich people look at waiters in a fancy restaurant or in their gardens on large estates. It’s like they’re looking right through you. We are ghosts; no wonder why some act up for attention.

Once, the tour caught me while I was out working on a time sensitive painting I needed to finish. My station was set up with wet paint palettes and busy brushes so it’d cost too much to run in the back. One by one people walked by peering around the room. Part of me had the vanity to assume that they’d stop and marvel at my work and ask questions I assumed an artist in his studio might answer. The quiet power of shame is an overwhelming feat, and most of us just continued to work with our heads down peeking up from time to time with polite smirks like young schoolchildren on our best behavior. Some people had quizative, yet confused looks on their brows; some maintained a poker face while other kept the type of smile you often see in response to handicapped children, a look that says, “Oh, that’s good they give them something to do,” insinuating that our artwork doesn’t hold value.

After ten years of incarceration, to experience that eerie tension of those walking through like that. Not so much as a nod is a bittersweet. On one hand, I’d felt so low and dehumanized; but on the other, it was nice to know I still had a heart to break.

There is usually one woman in every couple of groups that knows who she is and transcends the social awkwardness by treating us like human beings. She asks direct questions and says hello when eye contact is made. This is the person who knows what justice is about.

They don’t bring the tours into the classrooms anymore. They just pause in the hallway between the two classrooms to explain the prestige of the programs we choose to join. Through the internal chicken-wire glass windows, they just look in the rooms pretending not to see us. Prison is normalized in their minds. I never thought those tours could get any more dehumanizing; until I saw those looks through the glass window and truly felt like an animal at a zoo.

In prison, there is an “us & them.” No matter your thoughts or feelings; no matter the strength of your self-perceptions or identity…there is a barrier between us and them. If you need an example, try to shake your boss’ hand, attempt to ask a guard a personal question, pat a teacher on the back or give the therapist that has saved your life a huge of gratitude. Being around people for extended periods of time bonds you. Co-workers, service people: barbers, stylists, mailmen, teachers, gas station clerks, bank tellers, whoever. There are unspoken bonds with anyone you start to see on a regular basis, and with that certain social boundaries. My unspoken bonds have razor wire fences that remind me that I am a villain. Mine tell me I am untouchable, a pariah. Yet, the whole function of prison is to make society better, and one way of doing that used to be to help me become a better person.  But there isn’t a day that goes by I am not seeped in regret and remorse, and I wonder what the point is. Because I hit that glass ceiling like a bird hits a window and I am reminder…

When you step into prison you receive a uniform. Your individual punishment is walking through that point A for however long they give you until you walk out the other door marked point B. Punishment now become collective. If there are more than a few fights, or just one big one…the individuals get taken to segregation, but then everyone gets locked down.

If some individuals abuse a “privilege,” then it is taken from everyone, forever. Sugar’s replaced with a substitute thought to cause cancer because people use it to make hooch (wine). Fruit is no longer delivered to the units for the same reason.

As needed, keep on person pain meds are regulated to unneeded schedules because a few have abused them. No real sustaining medical issue occurred. The restroom doors were taken off the stalls in education because a couple of people grouped up behind them (the individuals were directly ‘punished’ in real time.) “It’s just the way it is,” written on the tombstone of individuality.

What that is saying is that if someone is doing stupid shit to jeopardize what I hold dear then I better police them so it doesn’t get taken away. But that’s the kicker. You cannot police yourselves here because they will take you to segregation for intimidating, threatening or fighting. It’s a joke; the dollar bill on a string. They just want to yell and torture us. They create the problems, threaten you with the definition and then laugh at you when you are not allowed to solve it. What’s the point? It’s to give society the peace of mind that laws are established for the good of all. When will the joke of “dropping the soap” end? There are no dance cards to fill. What is wrong with us? Why are you fascinating by crime and punishment? Are you not entertained? Until you’ve met someone incarcerated and find they’re just like your neighbors, probably even better.

The bitter comes out of the sweet air-conditioning of the education department when I step out into the humidity of the hallway on brimstone summer day in society’s hell.  The air as cigarette smoke, like a sauna steam as my vision blurred and skin lathered with an insect-like itch. Days like these, I have zero ambition, save a small hope of there being ice left in the machines purchased by our phone profits. Oh yea, there is ice in hell when all the douche bags don’t hoard it. People fill bags and trashcans with it only to keep a few bottles cold for twenty minutes or so, idiots load three pitchers of ice water only to dump half of it out in an hour. It’s the idea of cold they collect.

Steps are heavy in jeans. I climb the scorching black stairs, I can feel their absorbed heat on my soles. The heat index raising degrees with each tier until I reach my floor on the fourth. The stairs are the precursor to the possibility of mail, and like an oxygen mask, I am relieved by the very thought of receiving word from the street. My anxiety builds despite the taboo of expecting anything worth a damn in prison. It has been a few weeks that I sent out a couple of letters have been waiting on some responses I put out the past couple of weeks. You can’t expect mail unless you send it, like karma. Will they finally have a come to Jesus and change their wayward ways and buy some stamps. “Do you need anything?” people asked with good intentions. “Just some pictures if possible. I haven’t seen the kids in so long.”

Without looking directly, I use my peripheral to see if there’s anything on beds or floors in the cells I pass. Did the guards already delivered the day’s mail? I get to my cell to see nothing new. I lean over the tier to see if I can see the two-man crew handing it out. I ask a neighbor at the galley rails and he just shrugs like he could give a shit less. I instantly hate him. He has given up on the world and I have repeatedly refused to. I spot the mailmen on the tier below, hope is alive.

Unfazed of course, change out of those hot ass jeans, plug in my fan to blow some hot air, but it’s the thought counting.  I don’t turn on the TV because any extra heat might provoke spontaneous combustion these days. For some reason, baby powder helps and I contemplate whether I should try the ice machine or just go for some of that slightly cooler filtered water downstairs. Our sink water tastes like the blood of thieves.

I lay back under the fan and start to nod off under the suppressing blanket of heat. The guard walks up, hesitates, double checks the nameplate, says my name like he hasn’t pronounced it a hundred times before. I sit up,  trying not to be too anxious. He sifts through a pile in a makeshift shoebox to hand me a few papers and a letter. Oh shit! My insides feel like a little school broad but this isn’t the time or place so I maintain my typical facade and thank him like I could care less.

There is always a brief moment where you acknowledge that this letter might change your life. A legal letter, a word from an old girl, or some bad news from that place you used to call home. It’s a weird anxiety that floats between hope and expectation.

The power of laughing is an adhesive that bonds people. It transcends a moment and throws it through time. “The time so and did this,” or “do you remember what so-and-so said that day?” I am not sure what happiness looks like exactly but I’m sure laughter is involved.

A major nuance of prison life is the dependence on laughter. It gets you through bleak situations. Were you to be a fly on the wall with no perception of context you’d mistake prison interactions with that of a high school or college. Victor Frankl spoke on the necessity of laughter in dire situations in his book Man’s Searching for Meaning, about surviving concentration camps during the Holocaust. People marvel at the elasticity of the human soul when facing such daily pressures. You’d be surprised what you get used to.

I read an article about a tour of college students that visited a Texas prison. They were appalled and offended by the amount of laughter and high spirits they witnessed. They were under the impression that we, as convicts should be “paying their debt to society” in more of an oppressive nature. Can there possibly be laugher in Hell?

What is it about laughter that makes us want to share it? A story, a joke, movie or sitcom; laughing alone just doesn’t feel complete. My barometer for comedic success is a sliding scale based on how many times I am amused and to what extent. I figure, in this day and age for a hour and a half movie the most you can expect to laugh out loud is at least three times, preferably for more than a second or two…five laughs is about average and seven is an arguable classic. If that’s the standard for a movie than from a twenty-minute sitcom a few smirks or smiles, a chuckle is worth making it into weekly rotation.

Tiers wit open bar fronts arrange our cellblock, so your neighbors are literally a shout away. During sporting events, you can hear cheers and clapping; at night if you want to tell someone a movie is on you can call for them, and of course you can hear someone laughing. There been nights when I heard more than a few people laughing in unison and surfed the channels rigorously in order to partake but I couldn’t find the show they were all entertained by. It was too late to shout out, but I guess I could’ve been a dick and just asked. But prison etiquette triumphed.

One night, I am sitting in my cell watching this new sketch comedy show cracking up! I mean dying! But it seems diminished because I am alone. After gaining my composure, the first thing I think of is how I have to tell someone about this. I contemplate calling out, but that’s a dick move. So every sincere laugh this show pulls out of me it’s like an investment, a stock. Now I am compelled to sell the show to anyone who will listen. As if I have part ownership and will succeed with it the next day. I’m even bringing it up in casual conversation to people I don’t usually talk to, campaigning for the show like it’s the answer to all of our prison problems.

I never consider that I may be placing the show on a pedestal, building the expectation too high bringing its potential. Isn’t it always the case, when you boost and brag about a weekly show to hype it up, the next episode is always the lamest one to date? Then every critique or rejection cuts straight to the heart as if you are being rejected…when it’s just our standard of comedy we are trying to affirm. But it didn’t matter because I was already invested, so to over compensate, every little thing they do is hilarious. In the end, it may have made the show better for me. At least until I find someone else who likes the show.

scanC. Fausto Cabrera has been incarcerated since July of 2003. He began to take writing serious in 2008 at the encouragement of a trusted professor. He is a part of the Stillwater Writer’s Collective and was included in the anthology, “From the Inside Out: Letter’s to Young Men Vol. 1”, available through Amazon. 


Literature on Lockdown: Eighty Square Feet

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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 A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Tim Boland.

Eighty Square Feet

This is an excerpt from a letter written on June 4, 2011, to my brother, who at the time was in the state prison at Rush City. I had just spent the previous three years of confinement in a single cell, and was scuffling with the new and extremely perverted concept of sharing eighty square feet of living space with another grown man…

I got spoiled in that single cell. All was lush, beautiful, and my business was my own. Living in a cage is strangely tolerable when you live there alone. But as soon as another breathing body is thrust into the equation, the whole thing goes up in smoke.

Here at this joint, everybody’s double-bunked, and there’s no choice in who you get as a cellie. Instead of a test drive, it’s trial-by-fire. I was hoping to get a cellie who would at least meet some basement-level criteria: One who didn’t talk; one who didn’t snore; one who didn’t steal; one who didn’t smell like a loaded diaper; one who didn’t keep lunatic hours; one who didn’t have a dangerous crush on bright lights and bad noise.

But If I’ve learned anything in prison, I’ve learned to expect the worst. And that’s what I got. The worst. Three hundred and twenty pounds of train wreck, to be exact.

You can learn a lot about a man just by his hustle. Some take the hustle to a high art, some to the depths of depravity. Either way, a man’s got to make some hay. My cellie makes his by snorting lines of hot sauce. No joke. He’ll even do a line of dirt if the price is right.

It goes down like this: He rounds up a few marks (mostly new arrivals), sells each a ticket to the circus for a buck of two with a promise to perform a feat beyond the bounds of reason, a feat unfit for public consumption, a feat declared a capital offense in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Then, with the eyes of a captivated crowd upon him, he hoovers up a giant line of hot sauce with a homemade straw. Then he crumbles to the ground and rolls around all floppy and demented, partly for theatrical effect and partly because he’s in serious pain. Then, miraculously, he bounces back to his feet like nothing ever happened. The spectators go away with their minds blown and he goes away with his nostrils blown and a few coins in the bank.

This past week, however, has brought a temporary hiatus to the snorting sideshow. He got a Ben Franklin dropped on his books. Somebody from the streets actually loves him. I’m guessing Mom.

So, predictably, this gifted hondo provoked a ballistic canteen order. The contents of the haul were your average fifth-grade staples: cookies, candy, Kool-aid, chips, Ding Dings, etc. He lugged the giant sack into the cell Monday. It was smash-and-dash till Friday. His entire diet for four days came straight from the trashfood cache. Having never seen such a gluttonous rampage, I was prompted several times to mumble F-bombs and blasphemy.

Last night at 12:33 am, I was awakened from a sound slumber and the cool, clean drift of darkness by a riot of snack-bag rustling. The cellie was hungry, so, operating strictly on an animal impulse, he went full speed ahead and trampled my sleep with a moonlight feeding orgy. Then, after a good half hour of madness, and just to put an exclamation point on his supreme idiocy, he raked all the crumbs off his bed and onto the floor.

When I climbed down from the bunk this morning, empty wrappers were strewn across the landscape like a cellophane graveyard, and the soles of my feet were greeted by a gang of chocolate chunks and Cheeto dust. The first thing that came to mind, after I chiseled the shrapnel off of my sock bottoms, was paying him five bucks to snort a line of anti-ignorance powder. Industrial strength.

But instead I chose to embrace my inner pacifist. I swallowed my tongue and swept the floor. Which turned out to be pointless, because when you live with a savage, a clean surface lives fast, dies young, and leaves a dirty corpse.

I also thought about sitting him down for a come-to-Jesus chat, but there’s really no point in delivering a how-to-live primer to a 40-year-old child. It’s impossible for such a creature to approach anything with the slightest degree of civility or moderation or outright sense, so telling him this cell isn’t his personal pigpen is like going on a picnic and telling an ant to stay the hell away from the potato salad.

Hold on, it gets even better…

Not only is my cellie a serial hot sauce snorter and epic slob, he’s also a small talker, a tidbit guy. A constant stream of jackass drivel spews from his mouth. I’ll be buried in a book or writing or maybe just thinking about how pathetic my life is, and he’ll throw some mindless chatter into my ear. A full recap on his private restroom functions. A comment on the weather, like that’s somehow relevant to something. Or he’ll let it be known that he just tried to call his ex but she didn’t answer but he never liked the bimbo anyway but they might still get back together and so on and so forth. Now you’d think after about six thousand consecutive times of getting no response, he might catch on and take the hint, but he has a sociopathic lack of regard for the fact that I don’t want to hear a word he has to say. About anything.

He’s probably a cannibal too, and I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. And if he’s a cannibal, he’s clearly a thief. And if he’s a thief, dammit, then I have to start setting booby traps. And we all know booby traps are bad business. Even if the trap goes unsprung, the atmosphere will reek of suspicion and I’ll have to subconsciously worry about my Jolly Ranchers getting finger-fucked every time I leave the cell.

Here’s the deal: I’m not trying to turn this cellie thing into some hip domestic enterprise. I’m not looking to take a new pal on-board, nor am I trying to incite a civil war. I just want to do my time and for him to do his time. If that too much to ask? I want there to be my realm and his realm. Two separate realms. Mind is red. His is blue. Whenever the two overlap, the world becomes purple. I loathe purple. Despise purple. Annihilate purple. Purple is my poison. Purple is my nemesis. Purple is my agent of imminent death.

If I sound a little frazzled, Brother, it’s because I am. With each passing moment, I shed another layer of sanity. So don’t be shocked if my next letter is from a mental asylum… or from somewhere other than my eighty square feet of Hell. I hope not, but you just never know.

Anything is possible when a man’s at the end of his rope.

tim computerTim Boland is known as Convict #232240. He is the editor of the Lino Ledger, the newspaper at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Lino Lakes, where he writes a series of essays on prison life. He is, in his own words, “not a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser but a once-promising kid from the suburbs who went to State on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams but then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a cocaine smog and ended up arriving at a colossal achievement in idiocy.” He’s scheduled for release in 2015. 

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 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.”

Literature On Lockdown: Tim Boland

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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 A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Flossing With Razor Wire

Often I tell myself that prison won’t define who I am, won’t be my legacy, won’t be the story of me.

But prison occupies a chapter of my story. It is a chapter with infinite subplots; a chapter that winds and tumbles and burns and weaves and dives and rises from the ashes.

My prison story started as it does for every inmate newly committed to the Department of Corrections – at the St. Cloud Penitentiary, the ancient abysmal brute. And as every man in a Minnesota prison knows, the St. Cloud story begins in E-House – the teeming, brooding, screaming slum where open wounds and broken hearts collide; where days are dark and minutes feel like miles; where memory segues into complex regret; where prisoners get acquainted, or in many cases re-acquainted, with the mindless drag of incarceration.

I had grave questions when I got to E-House: who will be my enemies? What happens if I drop the soap? Where will the riot break out? When do I get shanked? Why is my cellmate nicknamed Psycho?

As a part of the orientation process, the DOC put me through a series of tests and screenings and appraisals in order to assign me a proper classification. In other words, they wanted to know how much of a pain in the ass I was going to be.

The Educational Department, after I was able to spell my name correctly on a piece of paper, deduced that I could read and write at a ninth-grade level. Health Services vampired a vile of blood from my vein and informed me that I did not have AIDS. Psych Services conducted a brief survey, during which I revealed my chronic consumption of tequila and magic mushrooms and gold spray paint and marijuana and powder cocaine and prescription painkillers and the fact that I was high as a bright blue sky when I committed every one of my crimes, and they determined I was a Low Priority for drug treatments. Those were all shrewd deductions, but I decided on my own, without the help of any experts, that I had a special gift for being out of control, not for being a criminal. If I were a gifted criminal, I’d be living in the Cayman Islands, driving an Aston Martin, wallpapering my villa with fifty dollar bills. But I wasn’t. My outlaw career was a disaster, and as a result I was ordered to spend a majority of my 30s wading through the penal cesspool, wearing elastic clown pants, flossing with razor wire.

There are the obvious personal and occupational repercussions of being a convicted felon. I’ve forfeited, among other things, my right to vote, possess a firearm, manufacture gambling devices, operate a funeral parlor, hold a liquor license, drive a school bus and/or enlist in the Navy.

But I’m okay with those sanctions. Shotguns and slot machines aren’t at the top of what I’m worried about. Nor are riots or shanks or dropping the soap or the sort of madness that stalked my thoughts back at E-House.

It’s the subtle repercussions of captivity that crush my spirit.


I am a great lover of women. Whoa, did I say women? I meant food. I am a great lover of food. I become despondent when I think about deep dish pizza. Steaming hot and stacked to the heavens with roasted peppers and tangy tomatoes and silky smooth mozzarella. My mouth goes Sahara-dry when I dream about sushi. Slabs of raw, ruby-colored tuna chased with pickled ginger and flaming shots of wasabi. I weep like a sullen child when I see a grocery store ad in the newspaper. Bunches of emerald green grapes and sweet Georgia peaches and succulent strawberries and sun-kissed tangerines. I might sound like the lunatic who sits on the park bench and yells at the pigeons, but believe you me, after enduring years of greasy slop and institutional sausage, it sounds perfectly sane.


The letters and phone calls and visits keep spirits afloat, but they can’t replace the real deal. Anybody doing a long stretch of time can sense the inevitable cycle of disaffection running its course, until there’s nothing left but smoky traces of places and people once known. The mailbox gets a little emptier each day. Acquaintances become strangers. Old friends fade away. Wives and girlfriends grow tired and lonely and go elsewhere for love. I know because I came to the joint married, and I will leave alone. That’s a real son of a bitch to swallow, but it’s part of the prison jackpot. No matter how much I love them or they love me, people have bills to pay, needs to meet, mouths to feed, lives to live. I can’t bribe them to care or beg them to stay or blame them for not wanting to play a fool’s game.


I call it Fleeting Peon Syndrome. Life itself is fleeting, especially looking at it through the grand-scheme lens, but prison life is the pinnacle of transience. At any moment, no matter how long I’ve been on my best behavior or how many pleases and thank yous I say, no matter how many doors I hold or hands I shake, if I succumb to even the slightest imbecility, or find myself on the business end of the wrong-place-wrong-time-wrong-guy scenario, I’ll be cuffed up and trundled off on a dolly like Hannibal Lecter and disappear into a steel-and-concrete dungeon and there will be a new editor of the Lino Ledger by tomorrow morning and the sun will rise in the east and fall in the west and the pistons of progress will continue to churn and new fires will be kindled and old ones dashed and nobody will miss a beat or give a damn. That’s how prison rolls.

What seems like a lifetime ago, I was a free man. Then the great sledgehammer of fate dropped down from the clouds and I was arrested at pistolpoint and crammed into the back of a squad car and then chauffeured to the county jail and then to a segregation cell and then to a bitter courtroom and on to a maximum security prison and soon to a halfway house and then, after seven years of reaping the whirlwind, I will go back to where this mad epic unexplainable chapter began.

I will once again be a free man.

tim computerTim Boland is known as Convict #232240. He is the editor of the Lino Ledger, the newspaper at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Lino Lakes, where he writes a series of essays on prison life. He is, in his own words, “not a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser but a once-promising kid from the suburbs who went to State on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams but then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a cocaine smog and ended up arriving at a colossal achievement in idiocy.” He’s scheduled for release in 2015. 

Literature on Lockdown: Seph Murtagh

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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 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

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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 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

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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 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. 

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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.