Archive for January, 2012

My first novel was about a group of hard-ass American prisoners. They petitioned the government for an island to finish out their sentences, their families coming with them. The government gave them the island of Adak in the Aleutians, a former hard-duty Navy Station, a terrible place where it rains or snows 85% of the time. During WWII, the weather killed more people than the Japanese did. A fierce wind, called a Williwaw, rules the island.

No guards are on the island and no social workers or prison staff. The US Coast Guard maintains a constant surveillance of the island so no one escapes.

It was called Prisoners of the Williwaw.

One day I was teaching in a Pre-trial facility and a female inmate came up to me. She was a young woman, maybe in her early twenties. As with all inmates, I didn’t know why she was there.

“Hey, Mr. Griffin, I read your book.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“The Williwaw one. I really liked it.”

“That’s great. Thank you.”

She paused. She had more to say. “I know what you were trying to do.”

I expected the usual – write an exciting story, a page-turner. I try to do that with everything I write.

“You were trying to say that we inmates can accomplish something worthwhile. Your hero, Frank, he builds a society, despite a lot of opposition. He’s not some innocent guy accidentally put in prison, like we see on TV or the movies. He’s a convict, yet he does something amazing. He builds a society.”

Tears came to her eyes. “Thank you,” she said.

The buzzer sounded. The school for that unit was over. She was gone.

It was the nicest thing anyone has ever said about any of my writing. She saw through all the ins and outs of the plot and right to the heart of the story, the theme.

Writers don’t often get favorable comments, but I’ll never forget that one.Prisoners of the Williwaw

The book, Prisoners of the Williwaw, is still available wherever you buy your ebooks. I’m working on a sequel now.

An Act of Courage

Posted: January 28, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
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In a local prison there was an inmate who couldn’t hear and couldn’t speak. He made funny sounds with his mouth and he was always ling. The other inmates accepted him and helped him, as they seem to do with anyone who is out of the ordinary. This is contrary to the impression the public has of inmates.

One day this man was at the end of the line at the chow hall. Behind him a group of guards started mocking him,

chow line

chow line

making strange sounds, smiling, and contorting their bodies in strange ways.

Another inmate approached the line from the opposite direction and saw what was happening. He didn’t say anything to the guards – he just kept walking. When he got back to his cell, he thought about what he had seen. It wasn’t right. So he decided to report it to the shift supervisor. This guard took the information, a smirk on his face, and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll look into it.”

Of course, nothing happened and the inmate saw it happen again. He reported to the next level of supervision and this is what he was told: “Look, fella, if you’re smart, you’ll just shut up. Keep pushing this and every guard here will give you a bad time. Take it easy and just do your time.”

And the higher supervisor had the same smirk on his face.

snirkThe public seldom gets into a prison to see what goes on there, but watch reality jail or cop shows on TV, and you’ll see the smirk.

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Us and Them

Posted: January 26, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison, Reform
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Us/ThemUs and Them. That’s what really bothers me about prison.

There are many situations of us and them in our lives. The bosses and the workers, the students and the teachers, my car and all the other cars on the road, average guys like us and the rich, the one percent and the ninety-nine percent.

Nowhere is the us and them stronger than in prison. There’s the inmates, men or women, and the guards and staff. When a person applies for a job in prison, he or she is told many rules about “fraternizing” with the convicts. They are warned that all convicts are manipulators (as if we all weren’t).

One woman told of working very well with a young man in a half way house. He called her by her first name and she used his. But he broke his parole conditions and was returned to prison. On her first week on the job, the young man saw her and came up to her, calling out, “Hi XXX.” She hesitated for a moment and then knew she had to freeze him out if she wanted to keep her job. She did and it bothered her ever after.Us  Them

Convicts, too, are told by older convicts to “follow the con code.” No fraternizing with the enemy – the staff and guards. No walking along with them, no chatting about stuff, business only and nothing more.

mike oulton

Mike Oulton

A friend of mine, Mike Oulton, (I wrote a book with him) told of being reprimanded, even threatened by more experienced cons for talking to staff and guards in a pleasant way. Mike thought nothing of saying hi to the warden or asking a guard how his son did on the high school football team. He suffered for this friendliness from both inmate and staff.

How can therapy happen in such an environment? How can there be real learning? It’s an undeclared war zone.

A director of programs in an area prison took a good step forward. She arranged for a university class to be taught in prison, half the students were inmates and half were regular college students. Multiply that by a thousand and we’re getting somewhere.

What is your opinion of the prison us and them?us them

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  • mike Oulton

In this interview, I discuss prison as a form of slavery, the lack of education in prisons, and the loss of a prisoner’s identity.

What are your views of prison?

Identity #2

Posted: January 22, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
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Continuing our look at identity – prison rips the identity out of people.

fingerprintWhenever I go into prison to teach my class, I hear the public address system call for Inmate Smith to go to the infirmary, or Inmate Smith to report to the social worker.  In what other institution are people referred to like that? Do we say Student Smith or Patient Smith?

In a maximum-security facility, I wanted to return my ten students to their unit. I called control. “I have ten men to return to Unit D,” I said.

Silence. “You mean ten inmates?”

“No. Ten men.” This was a pre-trial facility, so everyone there was supposed to be presumed innocent.

Silence. “Ten inmates.” The tone was angry.

Two of the guys had to go to the bathroom and there was no washroom where we held class.

Finally I said, “Ten… to return to Unit D.”

There was a long silence and then the door clicked open.

Constantly being called an Inmate gets to a person.

Reports on a person do as much damage. The man reads the report the caseworker does on him.  He doesn’t even recognize the person on the paper. He’s some evil dude. He’s not himself.  But the report stays there and the same old tired things keep being said, as if there were no hope for change. A very creative, interesting man gave me his whole file to read. I couldn’t believe it – not one positive word about him.

An inmate studies the walls around him.  He puts his hand on them.  What do they tell him about who he is? He’s an prison cellanimal that must be caged.

No doubt he will be raped.  Many inmates are. He will lose this last bit of control over his body.

Study an inmate’s function in society.  He exists so I will feel better about me.  Let’s say I have a real nothing of a job. My boss yells at me, my wife and my kids don’t respect me, but one thing I can say – I’m better than those bums in prison.

And he is entertainment. We get to hear the racy details of his crime every night on TV, and then we see him pleading with the judge, and then – what a show – he is dragged off to prison.  We feel safe knowing that he’s locked up. Alleluia. Evil is in jail.

Television programs like Oz contribute to the negative image of prisoners. Inmates are portrayed as animals who have no morals. These programs like to say ‘they tell it like it is.’ But that’s exactly what they don’t do. They show only the evil side of people and seldom the good.

Prison, which is supposed to make a man into a new and better person, has destroyed him. Perhaps Oscar Wilde says it best:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

Bloom well in prison air:

It is only what is good in man

That wastes and withers there

Do you think our prisons should build a new positive identity or tear down what’s there?

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Posted: January 20, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison, Reform
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identityPrison rips the identity out of people. Imagine a prisoner named Bill

Everything in his life militates against him believing that he is somebody. From the moment of his arrest to the moment of his final release, the system tells him that he is less than a human being.

His hands are cuffed and he is put in a cage to ride to the police station. He will overhear officers referring to him as ‘scum bag,’ ‘ass hole’ and worse. His possessions and his clothes will be taken from him, and he will be given a number. From now on the passive voice will be used to refer to him. Bill will no longer initiate action on his own.  “He was arrested, he was sentenced, he was moved, he was given prison clothes.”

Bill is given an institutional personage and a number. Yes, we all have numbers in our lives, but Bill’s number often replaces him. He is told the rules, and he must comply. He must fit in. He must become an institutional man. His daily schedule will be determined by the authorities, when to eat, when to sleep, even when to piss.hands behind bars

Slowly Bill loses his identity, the things that make him an individual. He becomes a case, someone to be treated by prison social workers and shrinks. He will be defined as a sociopath. He’s sick. He will be told to be caring in an institution that doesn’t care for him.  He will be taught alternatives to violence by people who have used high levels of violence to keep him there. He will learn a new rule, that his keepers are always right and he is always wrong. He will be expected to bottle up all his normal sexual desires. Most likely his wife will divorce him and often his kids will disown him. The quicker Bill loses his identity and become a slave of the state, the sooner he will get out of prison.

There’s more – but that’s for our next post.

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Prison Bars

Photo by Vectorportal via Flickr

Slavery. Fathers, mothers ripped from their children. People thrown in the bottom of slave ships where many of them died. Transported from Africa to America. Prodded and displayed for sale in markets.

Today we look in horror at what our ancestors did. How could human beings do those things to other people?

I fear, however, that our descendents will look back at our era and say the same things:

They put their law-breakers in cages? They had these things called prisons, fenced in spaces where there weren’t any trees. They ripped the identity out of the people, told them in countless ways that they were evil. Some of the law-breakers they executed. And these people of the 21st century claimed to be educated.

I can hear it now. A descendent of mine. She studies my history. What did he do? Did he support this evil by paying for it? Yes he did. He paid his taxes.

So I take a very small step. I’m going to write a blog on prison reform. Who am I? I’ve been teaching creative writing in prison for 23 years. My heart aches with what I see.

What do I believe? Yes, a very small minority of those currently locked up in prison have to stay there, at least until they change. But most men and women need something besides prison. They need rehabilitation. Our current prisons are warehouses for human beings – and they are crime schools.

I don’t know all the answers. I’d like to hear your views. But we must start. Our descendents are watching.

What do you think about prison?