Recently I made a teaching decision which led to some controversy. I’ve been a volunteer teacher of creative writing in prison for twenty years.

I had a student who was doing very well in the class. I felt he needed something more, so I brought in the draft of my own novel for him to edit and critique. As a teacher, I felt I had every right to do this. In fact, I never gave it a thought.

My draft novel is called Delaney’s Hope. It’s the story of a man who feels guilty after getting a good salary from the prison system for years without doing very much. He decides to set up a prison that really works, that changes men and women instead of just warehousing them. After much effort, he gets his chance. The government gives him a minimum prison with only five inmates and three staff for one year. One inmate is a master drug dealer, another defrauds an insurance company and shoots a company executive. Two of the inmates are violent offenders and the last is a sex offender, who has killed a 14 year old girl in an attempt to rape her.

I tried to portray each of these offenders as best I could. The challenge for this experimental prison was to see what would happen.

Somehow prison management got hold of the novel and decided that it was sexually oriented material involving children. Yes, I portrayed the sex offender as best I could, so that I could show the efforts to cure him. I wasn’t writing a how to manual, nor an endorsement of the man’s action.

The deputy warden called me a few days after my class and said I was out, not allowed to volunteer in the prison system anymore. I had no idea why at first, and when I found out, I appealed this decision.

Something else was going on here. The book I wrote is not pornography, rather it sickens the reader at such an action. Compared to the Bible where Lot offers his daughters to strangers, it’s mild. I wondered why the prison authorities ignored the drug dealer and the other criminals

At the appeal, the discussion reviewed these facts, and then the acting warden said, “And, you know, you write a blog every week called Prison Uncensored.”

“Wait,” I said, “I hope that’s not part of this discussion, is it?”

The warden replied, “We want all our employees to portray a positive image of the prison.”

“Don’t I have a right to free speech?”

“We’ll let you know our decision by mail in a few days.”

Of course the decision was negative. There was a further appeal available at the national level, but my daughter helped me think this through.

She said, “Fight if your heart tells you to, but I’m glad.”

“Glad?”

“Yes, I know you like teaching, but focus on teaching in the community and on your own writing. Forget people who do not appreciate you.

What is your opinion? Did I do wrong? Should I appeal further?

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Comments
  1. James Inglis says:

    Ed, if your health is up for it you should appeal. The people in your classes must most certainly appreciate you. Yes, the novel you gave for editing was probably not the best choice of material considering the prison environment, but I’d be curious as to what titles the prison’s library stocks. Keep up the good fight.

  2. WilderSoul says:

    I think it is probably more the content of the book that motivated their decision. And the blog was probably an added extra, which swung them to not consider a lighter ‘reprimand.’

    Good to see you have people to support you, who are ‘on your side’ so to speak. Without knowing you beyond a couple of views of your blog here, I would hazard to say that your focus was on the prisoners rather than the appreciation of your superiors.

    It sounds like a major life change, to lose your job in such a way. And yet perhaps this is where doors open for you to work in the environment which you believe in, and promote. Is there work in Restorative Justice for you? Or are you able to make a living from continuing to teach writing to those who need it the most, here on your blog within the global online community, or within your local community?

    I also believe in Restorative Justice as an alternative to the current prison system. I am interested in offering my colouring book pictures as an aid to therapy. And include people within the justice system in those who could benefit from it. Let me know if some sort of collaboration could be of help.

    Thanks for your reply! Sorry it was not under better circumstances, and I wish you all the best!
    I am curious also, from reading another post, whether you are affiliated with any particular religion?

    ~WilderSoul

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Hi WilderSoul, I used to be a Roman Catholic priest. I marched in Selma with Doctor King, but upon my return to my parish in Cleveland, Ohio, I learned what the church was really all about. I wrote all about this in my book, Once A Priest. I left the priesthood in 1968, but a lot of things I learned there did not leave me.
      I’m retired now, about to be 77. I agree with you about Restorative Justice. I think it is the way to go. I included a little bit of it in the novel the prison authorities found so objectionable. I need to study it more and to practice it and join with others. I don’t know your coloring books, but I’ll bet they would work.
      E
      http://edgriffin.net/

      • WilderSoul says:

        Hope all goes well with you, and that you find the people to join with, who are more in line with your beliefs. If the colouring is helpful in your future endeavours please feel free to download and print online, or there is a whole set of 365+ pics that can be downloaded and then printed offline, any time, many times. http://sbx.sk/AkD1 Wishing you all the best for your retirement years!

      • Ed Griffin says:

        Thank you, WilderSoul. I find myself busy with two classes in creative writing this fall. I’ll be 77 in a few weeks. The joke is that I need a good job to rest up from my retirement

  3. PennyD says:

    Well, Kiddo, I’d say the Monarchs that rule the prison don’t know much about pornography.
    You know, and We know, they don’t want you tampering with their reign. So now they play the black card.

    I agree with your daughter. Sit back and enjoy the easy times, well, as easy as it gets trying to pound the art of writing into us civilian/resident wannabe novelists.

    Sometimes it’s just easier to turn your back and give the illogical idiot rule makers the finger. They change the rules to suit their whims. It’s a no win situation. Time to stand down. You did good for a lot of guys. Just remember that.

  4. judith says:

    Because I think that your class is good for the men, I think that you have an obligation to continue the appeal. For you- it will be a lot easier if it is denied. You cannot live in all of the negativity of a ongoing suit that generates publicity; but the effort to continue to bring this class to the men is your commitment to humanity, and that is a positive gift to them. Prison is a military system, with little flexibility to allow for opinion or for the generation of discussion.I am sorry for the men at their loss, and your loss of the class.

  5. Catana says:

    Ed, I sent you an email rather than comment here.

  6. Hi Ed,
    Yes, I think you should appeal. And, if that doesn’t go well, wait until Toews is replaced and write to the new Minister and the media (that is very important if you wish to be successful). I’m sorry to hear that this has happened, and very sorry if my posts played a role. I expected something like this, though, because this the way CSC operates: as an absolute system, staff consider that they can, and should control everything, which is why they are so dishonest in their Annual Reports and other public statements. (Mind you, they have a lot of disgraceful and illegal conduct that they have to conceal.) The fundamental problem, though, is that you believed in the capacity of the prisoners to rehabilitate themselves and CSC doesn’t and, further, resents the suggestion that it is even possible because that would require them to do all the work stipulated in their legislation and CDs that they can’t be bothered with (and are incapable of, even if they wanted to). You had a real calling here. However, there is also the provincial jail system, which has certain advantages in that the prisoners are commonly younger with shorter criminal careers. I don’t know anything about BC, but they may have an administration that is actually interested in encouraging desistence. You could also campaign for reform of CSC, which all of its prisoners desperately need if their lives are to have any positive meaning.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thanks, Chris. I also anticipated this at some point in time. It’s sad to me to leave that group of guys that I worked with in my writing class. We were going strong. My thought now is to find other ways to work on my ultimate goal — prison reform. I’ve neglected a lot of good prison literature. And many of my students still write to me and ask me to edit their work.
      Ed
      http://edgriffin.net/

  7. Tarryn says:

    Hi Ed. Ive been following your blog a while and its the first time i am replying because i feel i should. YES,YOU SHOULD APPEAL. And not to disrespect your daughter but i think that your students in prison actually appreciates you more than any one in the community ever would. I think the Lord Jesus Christ chose you to be there for a reason, and those men see what you do for them. They know that society basically thinks that they are scum and that the prison authorities should throw away the keys and let them rot but here comes a ‘free worlder’ and atually wants to help them. Ed im telling you that they appreciate you and this is just a test for you. Dont stop what you doing, but if in your heart you want to then stop but if you wana fight this then i will be the first one to send my prayers up to ask our Lord to help you in this fight. God Bless and thank you for being you. Tarryn

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thank you very much, Tarryn. Your words are very encouraging. My problem is that everyone in the system protects everyone else. If I write to Ottawa, I know I will get the same answer I did in British Columbia. I still have contact with a lot of guys who send me their work in the mail. But you are right — I miss those guys.
      Ed
      http://edgriffin.net/

  8. hg says:

    How absurd that the prison authorities don’t seem to understand that a novel is a work of fiction — a story — one that’s been made up, imagined. And absolutely not a how-to manual for anything.

    As for the idea of appeal — for the men’s sake, of course you must appeal. For your own sanity (avoidance of beating your head against the wall), probably not. This sounds like one of those hard-to-get-your-head-around problems sometimes referred to as ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ — how apt.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thanks, Heidi. I suspect that the “powers that be” had been waiting for such an occasion. I have never made any secret of my opposition to prison as it is today. You state my dilemma well, but I fear that those in Ottawa would simply back those in BC. Better to find other ways of helping.
      Ed
      http://edgriffin.net/

  9. Heather says:

    Hi, Ed….
    I suspect they were only too happy to interpret your draft as sexually explicit material involving children.
    For some reason, the prison system seems to resent volunteers and they’ve probably been just biding their time until you made a wrong move. Your blog has come to their attention and no doubt you’ve been a thorn in their collective sides since it first appeared. In some ways, you’ve been a double agent – bringing the world of writing to prisoners, and bringing the world of prisoners to the world.

    What caught my eye was this statement from your daughter:
    “Yes, I know you like teaching, but focus on teaching in the community and on your own writing. Forget people who do not appreciate you. (missing closing quotation marks – ever your editor! heheh)
    But, kidding aside, the staff probably never appreciated you and you weren’t teaching them anyway. Did the inmates appreciate your guidance? Of course they did!!! Therefore, if your heart is in it, if your health is up to it – then go for it! It’s only an “interpretation” and therefore subjective.

    Quiet reflection will tell you what is in *your* heart…..and then follow it.
    Best wishes for whatever you choose….
    Heather

    • Ed Griffin says:

      We used to have some great weekends where 15 or so writers came into the prison and met with prison writers. You talked about this — bringing the world into the prison and showing the guys what the world was like. We ate with the men and spent the whole day with them. “I felt like I was not in prison for that weekend” one inmate said. “I learned so much,” an outsider said. Those weekends disappeared a couple of years ago. For some reason the system feared them. They really didn’t want the community in the prison, despite what their documents say.
      Ed
      http://edgriffin.net/

  10. Joanne says:

    Hi Ed,
    I am terribly upset by this news! Unfortunately, I am also unsurprised.

    I tend to agree with Heather. The novel was simply the excuse they jumped on. You were very likely a thorn in their side and this blog was one of the biggest problems. CSC does not like opposition.

    As for appealing. I say that if it is not emotionally too taxing for you, you should go for it. Whether you decide to go on if they allow you back in is a totally different question. People give into CSC way too easily and that is how they get away with the things they do. Appeal and then walk away. Chances are great that your appeal will go nowhere anyhow.

    I do hope though, that you do not give up on this blog because of this whole experience. It is very important.

  11. Catana says:

    I’ve thought of two things that you might want to consider as possibilities. One is a way to keep in touch with some of the men you’ve worked with in classes, and also possibly to expand that reach. I’ve recently started to use a website called Jpay. I don’t know if it’s available in Canada, but there might be something like it up there. It allows you to send money to prisoners for their commissary accounts and to use email to communicate with them. They don’t have access to email, of course, but your emails are translated to paper and given to the inmates. There are several features that make it easier to get mail back and forth than depending on the regular mails. Maybe you could use it or something like it to send compositions back and forth.

    The other just came off the top of my head, so it’s just an unformed idea. There are tons of books about creative writing, but they cost money, and aren’t necessarily useful for someone who has to work entirely on their own. And I doubt that prisoners would have any way of finding out about them or acquiring them. So I’m thinking about a book that would be oriented to their needs and that would be free. It’s possible to publish books through Amazon’s Createspace, but that’s expensive. Possibly a book could be sent out as a series of lessons, printed out or photocopied, one at a time to be sent through the mail. Maybe it could be financed with a Kickstarter campaign, if you’re familiar with that.
    Distribution would be by word of mouth, one prisoner letting others know about it and how to get the lessons.

    Or how about a web-based volunteer site to gather people who’d be willing to tutor one-on-one via the mail?

    I’m sure there are other ways to go about it. I suspect that there aren’t a whole lot of prisons that have volunteer writing programs, so a different approach that doesn’t require holding classes in the prisons might reach a lot more people.

  12. Ed Griffin says:

    Some great ideas here, Catana. Thanks very much. It’s clear to me that my ‘prison work’ isn’t finished.
    Ed
    http://edgriffin.net/

  13. James Inglis says:

    Ed, if you’ve decided not to appeal perhaps the time is right for you to go public? With your years of dedication in bettering the daily lives of the incarcerated only to be cut off from your good works with questionable cause might be of interest to the local or national media. With your history of service, marching with Dr. King, countless hours to help not just the incarcerated, but also the system by giving the men something to look forward to. I’m sure with you talents you’d be able to convince the media to cover the story. It would also make a great indepth print feature, don’t you think? There are endless possibilities in this tragic story, perhaps it won’t solve your problem, but it will make the public and the politicians aware of how those trying to help the system are treated. Perhaps even a question in the house for the Minister?

    • Joanne says:

      Certainly something to consider, Ed. I think James is onto something here. This is what often happens with the system (and anyone who tries to use punishment to control) they take everything away and leave people with nothing left to lose. If you believe you have nothing left to lose and have given up on direct contact with the people inside you worked with, then the media may not be a bad idea.
      –Just my thoughts…

    • Ed Griffin says:

      I haven’t thought of going to the media and you are the first to suggest it, James. I see the rightness of your argument
      Ed
      http://edgriffin.net/

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