Behind Prison Walls
Many summers ago the long process of working out a Federal Prisons Writing Program for inmates was tackled. The prison administers had taken under advisement to ask the High Desert Branch of California Writers Club (HDCWC) in Apple Valley, California to consider if writing members would tackle such a project.
Our past President Robert Isbill parlayed with prison officials to design a program based on the needs of the writers and inmates. By September of 2011, five volunteers signed up for the inaugural program. On the first Orientation Walk-through, which would help HDCWC volunteers get a feel for what prison life was really like, they followed an Educational Department supervisor by the name of Matt (his last name is never easy to pronounce) on a three-hour tour of the facilities.
We learned about the different offerings given to inmates for recreation, education, crafts, repair and maintenance. Our tour took us through a small and very restrictive library, several glass-enclosed classrooms, a rec hall with separated rooms for ceramics and leather crafting, as well as the dreaded isolation cells for those incorrigibles that we always see on TV documentaries. Having learned that prisoners take great pride in how strong they are, the facility doesn’t allow workout stations or strength training gyms. Maintaining a neutral environment is the ultimate in safety for the guards and administrators.
So when I entered the prison yard for the first time as a volunteer writer, I was intimidated. Few jump-suit clad inmates strolled the open spaces, but never showed any outward threats or intimidation factors that you would expect. Being female in an all male prison makes me all too aware that eyes are on me at all times. I can never let down my guard completely, although I know prison administrators, educators, and officers are close by. Our team of writers can feel comfortable enough to engage in banter with inmates, break the tension with a well-placed pun or a remark that lets the guys burst with laughter that echoes in the small classrooms.
Restrictions are Many
Visiting writers cannot shake hands directly, cannot hand out items without approval, and must keep watch of any potential outbursts or aggressiveness. The same rules apply to walking into an animal shelter: don’t stick your fingers in the cage, walk calmly, don’t offer food …. you get the idea.
Inmates are coached on behavior to qualify into the writing program. Only 20 to a class. It was no surprise to hear that the waiting list was growing as more inmates heard about the writing program. Working on their best behavior, inclusion requires respect, good behavior at all times, and the knowledge of a long waiting list. You screw up, you’re out.
Cut Intimidation with a Knife
At that time, the supervisor of educational programs was my other “female” friendly face. She knew how to move the guys around, discipline them, and encourage them. We do have other female writers in our volunteer program. They feel as intimidated as the men. Guest authors feel the tension immediately. They haven’t had the time to assimilate the overwhelming feeling of despair and feel less threatened in their new surroundings. Inmates know how privileged they are to share space with the outsiders. We can’t always know what roams through the inmates’ brains. The fact that respect for each other motivates them to respect the programs is crucial to their safety, and —for the volunteers— who step out of the box and into theirs.
The Prison Prose Project in still a viable form of creative education. Still on hold, the project added a second meeting per month, but appears to be in mothballs now. Inmates are now sharing some of their work and testing the outside waters, so to speak. They’re curious about marketing and publishing, how to get their families on the outside to learn what developing a book really means. Hope is palpable. It can emerge as a book, a short story collection or memoir. I was continuing in the project, even with occasional lock-downs that delay us, and for me, using this time to generate new sparks of inspiration from an extremely different viewpoint. I was hopeful, but it’s not gaining any interest today.
The program has since been placed on hold and those who are waiting for the formality of starting the program again must wait for a new cadre of administrators who will consider the merits of letting the Incarcerated Authors — as they call themselves — have another chance to make an impression in their lives with the satisfaction of writing and even publishing their books.