Archive for April, 2012

Writing Has Changed My Life

Posted: April 6, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
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A headline in a Vancouver newspaper read Writing Has Changed My Life. It was the story of I.M GreNada, (his pen newspapername), one of my students. The paper was initiating a weekly series of columns by this inmate. I was very proud.

He had come to me the year before and said, “Ed, make me a writer. I want you to critique me and don’t pull any punches.”

red pencilI sharpened my red pencil. A week later he gave me his first column. Even though I mixed my suggestions with praise, I did what I. M. had asked and let him have it. The column had more red pencil than black ink.

“What’s the idea?” he asked. “That’s a good column.”

“Yes, it is, but it could be a lot better.”

A week later he resubmitted the column, much improved. This went on for a year. He was one of the best students I ever had.

He made a rule that he would not mention real names nor prison locations, and then he sent his columns to the paper. They bought them. We were very happy.

Two days later I was called into an administration office. I had never met the woman before and was unsure of what her role was. When I asked, she dodged my question by grilling me about my class. “What do you teach your students? What attitudes do you foster?”

Where was she going with all this? Her tone was that of an agent from the CIA or CSIS (The Canadian version of the CIA). spyMy eye caught a copy of the newspaper on a chair, with the headline, Writing Has Changed My Life.

“Who wrote that?” she demanded following my glance to the paper.

“The inmate prefers to be anonymous, to keep his family from any repercussions.”

“Who wrote it? Which inmate?”

I repeated myself.

“We want to supervise what material goes out of here,” she said. In my mind, I replaced the word ‘supervise’ with the word ‘censor.’

My grilling went on for forty-five minutes. It felt like two hours. Over and over, “Who wrote this?”

I tried to call her attention to how wonderful it was that writing had changed his life. That was like selling dandelions to the weed-killer company.

Finally, I asked to leave, if she had no more questions.

“Who wrote that?” she asked and I stood up and left.

Why? Why didn’t she rejoice that writing had made a difference for a man? After all, she worked for Corrections.

See for yourself. Check his columns out.    Is he a positive influence or a negative one? Should I have given this authority figure his name?


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I had a real pleasure this morning. Jack (name changed) called me at 9:30 this morning.

“Hey, Buddy, you home?”

I heard excitement in his voice.

“Yeah, what’s happening?”

I’ve known Jack for eight years. I first met him in PreTrial. The first week he came down to writing class, he asked me for one copybook – the kind that we had in school to keep notes. The next week he asked for two books and every week thereafter. He let me read his writing. He wrote how he missed his girlfriend, how he worried that he hadn’t heard from his mother and how angry he was at a man who had mistreated her. He wrote about how he first got into crime and how he ended up with a reputation for stealing a thousand cars.

His sister called him. “Mom is missing. She hasn’t been in her apartment in over a week.”

The local paper ran a story, “Car thief’s mother missing.” Jack wrote an angry letter to the paper. The point was that a woman was missing, not who her son was.

When his trial came, he pleaded guilty to car theft and was sentenced to federal thief

A few months later he showed up in my prison writing class with more for me to read. His style was simple, but there was a poetry and drama to it. He wrote about his childhood, about his father leaving the family, about his mom’s drinking and his own trouble with the law in his teen years.

Then one day the news came – his mother’s body had been found. He swore that day that drugs or alcohol would never take another member of his family, a promise he’s kept despite the ready availability of drugs in prison.

changing diapers  When Jack finished his sentence, he was not allowed to drive or own a car for three years. He had a baby girl with a woman, who decided to leave him with the baby. He got a job as a painter so he had to get up at 5 AM, prepare the baby and take her by bus to the day care. Then the bus to work and the reverse at night. I will never forget the sight of this one thousand-car thief changing the baby’s diaper.

He often gave talks to young people about drugs and car theft

And so back to this morning. Jack drove to my house to show me his car, which he’d purchased with his own money. He got out and jumped up and down and then slapped me on the back. “I’m driving, old man, I’m driving again. And it’s all legal.”

I enjoy his playful “old man.” (Anyway, it’s true.)

I played a small part in his success. I don’t know if he’ll ever publish his life story, but I know writing it has taught him who he is.

Success story. I felt good all day.

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