Archive for October, 2013

Music often tells us about our world. Witness two songs from our era:

San Quentin, by Johnny Cash. A few significant lines from the song are:

San Quentin, I hate every inch of you…

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell

May all the world regret you did no good

And the Prison Trilogy Lyrics from Joan Baez:

And we’re gonna raze, raze the prisons
To the ground
Help us raze, raze the prisons
To the ground

I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. How about you?

On a Friday morning early in 1986 in Wisconsin’s maximum-security prison at Waupun, a new man fidgeted in the back row of my writing class. A white guy in his mid-twenties, he looked very uncomfortable. He said his name was Jim and he wanted to write about some funny things that had happened to him. Walter and Davey and some of the other guys said they liked humor, Brian, the thoughtful guy, just smiled.  I asked Jim if he had something he’d like to read.

“Well, I got this story about how me and some buddies blew up an outhouse.”

“All right, let’s hear it,” Walter said. “Was anybody in it?”

“You betcha.”

Jim started to read, tentatively at first, as if he wasn’t sure how he would be received, but in a few minutes we were all laughing. His facial muscles relaxed and he stopped fidgeting. The guys gave him a round of applause at the end and then he read a story about how his buddies dared him to jump from a high bridge near Madison.

He sat down and participated in the rest of the class with enthusiasm. I wondered at the dramatic change from nervous squirming to active participation. When class was over, I pulled him aside. “What do you do around here?  Your job? Your activities?”

“Nothing. I hate this place.”

“I mean what do you do all week?”

“Nothing. I sit in my cell. Sometimes I write.”

“You don’t leave your cell, even when you can?”


“Your family, do they come to see you?”


“Those stories you read – they were great. Ever think of writing about this place?”

Jim sneered. “I hate this place. I can’t wait to get out of it. I don’t want to even think about it, much less write about it. I write about happy times from my past life.”

Writing was important to Jim, but not politics and not prison reform. How did this fit into my crusade for prison reform?

The guard cleared the classroom and ended our conversation.

Jim came to class every week. At least he got out of his cell for that. He differed from Brian in most respects.  Brian approached everything seriously, while Jim loved fun.  Brian wrote essays, Jim wrote humor. Brian hid his inner feelings, Jim’s were right on the surface.

I started to visit Jim on occasional Sundays.  He was soon transferred to a medium security prison and I followed him there for a Sunday visit.  This institution provided a lunchroom inside – and a picnic ground outside – for visits. The atmosphere led to more relaxed visits than at the maximum prison at Waupun. My family joined me as well. My son, 14, and my daughter, 12, loved Jim’s stories and our visits flew by. I remember one Sunday my daughter was so entranced with Jim’s humor that she took out her retainer to eat a candy bar and left the retainer on the table. When we got back to our car, she reported it missing. I dreaded the thought of going back in to the guard house and explaining what had happened, but I did. Luckily the guards on duty understood and I didn’t have to sort through too much garbage to find the retainer.

Was it wise to take my children into prison?  I don’t know, but I know that today they both stand up to the mindless comments one often hears about crime and criminals.

Through my visits I learned a lot about Jim.  He, like Brian, came from a home where he was abused.  He felt a strong sense of shame about where he was, so much so that I began to suspect it was he who told his family not to visit him there.  I think he hated himself, too, and covered it up with his constant joking.

I never asked about his crime and he never volunteered the information, but he did tell me he had a cocaine addiction.

He continued to write humor and I encouraged him. I visited him on a few Sundays for about a year and then one day he was gone, sentence over. Like so many others, I never saw him or heard from him again. But I understood. Jim hated prison and anything to do with it. Unfortunately I was part of that past, a past he wanted to forget.

Do you think it was wise of me to take my children into a medium security prison?

I notice a big change in Canadian prisons – they are more regimented, as if they were an army. Inmates are only allowed to move between activities in fifteen minute blocks. Of course this gives administration greater control of them and takes away the freedom and responsibility of the inmate to move between places on time. This doesn’t seem to be the correct way to prepare someone to return to society.

In one small example, I started teaching creative writing in the nineties. I taught in a portable, and it was like a drop-in club every week. Guys could come in for the whole class or leave in the middle. It worked well. If they wanted to learn about writing, they came. But nowadays the inmates have to sign up a week in advance if they want to come to the class. They march in at a specified time and march out at the end.

What do all the staff do when nobody is moving anywhere? Who is getting corrected? And it seems wrong to me to shove someone back into the world when they’ve been marched around Army style for five, ten, twenty years.

On a different matter, can anyone steer me to a statistical site which would do for Canada what these people have done for the USA?

One day at a book club meeting in prison, Alex looked around at everyone in the room. Five outsiders and seven inmates crowded the tiny room. “I’m not going to make it on the outside,” he said. “I never do.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Alex was a ‘gentle’ man, a man who helped others, a man who would walk around the track on his hands to avoid a fight.

“You know, guys, I get out and I don’t know what to do. I can never find a good job, so I sleep all day in the halfway house, but they kick me out after three months because I wasn’t bad enough, I guess.”

I wondered if there was a Mrs. Alex and junior Alex people, but I didn’t ask.

“So after awhile, I miss prison and the routine, so I rob some store or other where I don’t hurt people. Since I’m still on parole they send me back here at least for six months or so.”

The inmates in the group tried to help him. They told him which halfway house would really help him and which ones were like outlet stores for the drug trade. One guy suggested a hobby, another said move to different area, a third gave him the name of contractor who hired ex-cons as laborers.

Institutionalization happening right in front of me. This prison system is sick, I thought.instituzionalied

What is the answer?