Archive for August, 2013

intensityThe writing that comes from people in prison is the same as the writing that comes from people on the outside – and it’s totally different. It’s the same in that every writer leaves holes in his writing and so do the people in prison. I submit manuscripts to my writing group, perfect novel chapters that reveal character and keep the action moving. Of course, the members of the group point out the holes in my story, holes big enough to back a semi through.

There is an intensity about writing that comes from prison. Maybe I’m reading into the stories, but it seems to me that there is more feeling in prison writing, be it humor or a novel chapter.

I remember the writing of a man that the authorities said had a very low IQ. He turned in stories about lions and tigers every week. It was clear that he liked these animals, but I felt it went deeper. Maybe he was living through those stories, maybe the animals did what he couldn’t, or maybe he wanted to write something for someone who took him seriously.

Another man writes about a man and a woman as they get to know each other. Yes, it’s like every other story in this genre, but no, the reader feels the deep intensity of the people and the situation.

I admit my analysis might be over the top. Perhaps I’m happy to see inmate writers, because I know they no longer ‘live’ in prison and because they are discovering themselves as they write.

When the government ordered that all prisons, including pretrials – remand centers – had to have schools, the principal I worked for sent me off to start a school at our local pretrial.

“What do you mean ‘start a school,’ I asked.

“You’re good at getting people to write,” he said. “Get them to write.”

For this principal, writing was the key to education and, he shared the intensity I’ve identified.

Image courtesy of  Scientific American

For years I have tried to convince inmates that those men in protective custody (PC) were just like them.

“Listen, teacher, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Those guys are all sex offenders or rats who squeal on other cons.”

I knew that to be untrue. An inmate I know was beaten in his cell before anyone else was awake. Three guys jumped him with homemade clubs and weapons while he was still in bed. What did the prison system do? They moved the man to a PC prison.

This was often done when there were fights – the people in the fights were moved to PC prisons. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince people that the guys in PC were human beings. I even pointed out that every group in society seemed to need a group to be lower than them. Society considers inmates to be the lowest of the low, but inmates can say, “At least we’re not PC.”

Recently the Canadian prison system has come up with an answer to this problem. They put general population men and PC inmates in minimum security together. And they let it be known, that if there are any fights or any bullying, people will be sent back to higher security.

I couldn’t accomplish this by talking, but the system did it by mixing the two populations.

When my daughter suggests I watch a TV show, I take her seriously.  A while back she suggested my wife and I watch House of Cards on Netflix. We’ve finished the first season, and we doubt if we’ll watch another.

But my daughter also mentioned a show called Orange is the New Black on Netflix. I had trouble getting my head around that title, but I gave it a try. My daughter said she liked it because the show was really about women, so unusual for TV.



The story revolves around Piper Chapman, a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to fifteen months in prison, after she is convicted of a decade old crime of transporting money for her drug dealing girlfriend.

It’s based on the 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. She wrote the book about her thirteen months at a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.

I worked for four years as a teacher in a remand center, where I taught female inmates as well as male. I was impressed by how the show portrayed a woman’s prison. Some things were overdone, but Darcy Bullock on the Internet characterizes the show this way: 8 Ways ‘Orange is the New Black’ is Breaking TV Barriers

  1. The main character doesn’t monopolize the show.
  2. There are characters of color …
  3. Ladies of all sexual preferences.
  4. Female friendship, portrayed as it is.
  5. Portrayal of class divides.
  6. They can say the word abortion.
  7. They reference the Kinsey scale.
  8. A structure so, so suitable for binge watching

Take a look at her whole article,

Men and women in prison forget that there is a world outside. The only reality for them is what goes on inside the bars. Piper forgets an important call about her start-up business on the outside, because the inmates are chasing an almost mystical chicken inside the

If you have Netflix, don’t miss it.

Images courtesy of:


While I was writing this morning, I got a call from Matt. He’s doing a long, long bit. Inmates can call people from the outside if they get the person approved. I’m approved on Matt’s phone list.

I’ve known him for a long time. After his wild oats had been sown and sown and sown, he settled down to help his fellow inmates. “What do I gotta do to become a writer?” he asked me one day.

Writer in Prison

Writer in Prison

“Write. Write every day,” I said.

“Come on, Ed.”

“That’s the secret. Everyday. At least fifteen minutes a day.”


“Come to class every week. And read books about writing. And read books once as a reader, and then read them again as a writer. Find out why the writer did what he did.”

“If I turn in some writing, will you critique it hard?”


“Come on now, Ed. I’ve seen your comments on some of the guys’ stuff. Super. Very good. Keep it up.”

“Some guys need that. I’ll give it to you hard if that’s the way you want it.”

The next week Matt turned in a paper, and I pulled out my red pen.

red pen After class the next week, he argued with me about all the red markings. We went over them one by one.

Matt kept writing. He earned his diploma in creative writing and now writes under a pen name. He didn’t want anything special this morning. He just called to see how I was. It’s rare that a teacher has a student like Matt, one who stays in touch and really appreciates the work we did together.

Was their a teacher in your life who made a difference? Say hi to him or her.