?A safe place? I had no safe place as a kid. If my stepfather wasn?t beating me, my mom was yelling at me and hitting me with a stick. My safe place was in the streets with my gang.
?One day when I was fourteen, she was drinking and we had a big fight. She hit me again and I walked out. I spent the night at some girls’ apartment and I never really went home after that. I ran with the gang and stole food and other stuff. Now I’m here.?
I had just given my class an assignment to write about a safe place they knew as a child, and that’s what Curtis wrote. He looked like a college kid, except for the tattoos on his arms. This was his first writing class at Matsqui Institution, a prison in the Fraser Valley.
Curtis came every week. He came at first because his buddy came, but then he came to listen to the stories and articles the guys wrote. He came because guys seemed to respect what other people wrote. They didn?t swear and beat on each other, as TV shows like Oz seem to indicate. Just the opposite. The men praised things that were read in class and only then made suggestions.
When the assignment was a poem, Curtis wrote a rap thing about how lonely prison was and how he had messed up his life. The poem got everybody talking and the discussion went on until the PA system announced, ?Five minutes to count.? As he hurried to his cell, I complimented Curtis. ?It?s a sign of a good poem,? I said, ?when we spent the whole class talking about it.? The lessons learned that day came not from institution staff, but from other cons.
Curtis gained a diploma in creative writing, but more ? writing helped him find himself, figure himself out, melt the bars around his soul. He?s out today, living in the community, free of crime ? and still writing.
There have been a lot of men like Curtis in my life since 1993 when I started teaching at Matsqui. I’ve volunteered for most of those years, except for a short time when the Surrey School District sponsored the classes.
Since last November a caring teacher, Michele, has joined me. She spends two hours with me at Matsqui and then teaches a two-hour class at Fraser Valley Institute, the federal prison for women. Carol, a third teacher will start soon at Pacific Institution, a prison for special programs. A schoolteacher at the maximum prison, Kent, has pleaded with me to start a class there, but I’m unable to find a teacher. Three other federal prisons and all the provincial ones could use a class in writing.
The first hour of class we get some instruction in. ?Show, don?t tell. Use strong verbs. Use the active voice. Writers write.? The usual things of creative writing. In the second hour, the men read their work. If it looks like there won?t be time for the readings and the instruction, we scrap the instruction. Learning comes from doing. If the men spend sixty hours in class, they gain a diploma from the Surrey Writers School. We have a round of noisy applause when a man receives his diploma, an accomplishment which the parole acknowledges.
Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul. That?s what Aristotle said three hundred years before Christ. Federal prisons in BC stress programs, such as anger management, cognitive skills, and violence prevention. The arts are not excluded from prison, but they aren?t stressed. Yet art therapy is well known to provide healing. Not just writing, but theater, music, painting, and the other arts. Art respects the individual and suggests that he or she has talent. That talent just needs to be developed. Programs, on the other hand, seem to indicate that the person is sick and needs curing. Both programs and art are necessary, but right now the score is Programs = 10, Art = 1.
We writers spend our lives writing, but often we?re not aware of what word we are writing with our lives. When we go into prison, we try to write the word respect. Respect for our students and respect for the institution and its rules. We have to leave a lot of attitudes at the front gate. The guards search us for drugs and cell phones, but the worst thing we can carry into a prison is an attitude that says, ?I?m better than you.? Our students are not dumb and they can spot a phony ? and a caring person ? in a second. We can?t take part in the terrible us and them that goes on in every prison. Guards against cons, cons against guards.
Teaching in a prison has its own series of rewards. I feel good that I?ve done something of value, but it?s more than that. For some reason every Friday when I leave prison, I go home and write up a storm. I?m not necessarily writing about prison, I?m just writing.
I?ve learned who I am teaching here. I’m not some great social reformer, rather I work one-on-one with guys who want to change their lives. I encourage them, work with them in the hope that they will see that they are somebody. Unfortunately, prison tears down a person’s self esteem. The PA system blares out ?Inmate Jones, report to health care.? Over and over, people are referred to as inmate. Many staff convey an attitude that they are better than the inmates. The very cement walls and steel bars say that they are dangerous animals that must be caged.
I started teaching with the vague idea that I was going to start a revolution. I felt that putting men in cages was a big mistake and prison was little more than a warehouse. If I could teach people to write, then maybe they would tell the world about the dystopia they lived in. I first taught in, the maximum-security prison in Waupun, Wisconsin where I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. A young lifer came to my class and worked intensely on his writing. He began to write articles for a Madison newspaper about prison. He wrote a story about a guard who ignored a man’s plea for medical help. The next day the man died. When the article appeared in the paper, my student was sentenced to a year in the hole. That meant twenty-three hours in a special cell, and one hour in a small outdoor cage. The sentence for punching a guard was three months in the hole, but writing about an incompetent guard was a year.
I know the prison system. It’s often vicious toward its critics. I begged my student to stop. Some revolutionary I turned out to be. When my student did just what I wanted, I tried to stop him. But he continued. An article about poor hearth care. Add another year in the hole. And a third article and another year.
My student had killed a man in a bar fight. Perhaps if he had had a good lawyer, it would have been self defense or manslaughter, but it was first-degree murder. After twenty-four years in prison, he’s out now, living and working in Wisconsin. He still writes articles about the prison system, even though life means life and he could be put back in prison at the whim of a prison official.
Another advantage I?ve found teaching in prison is that I found a friend. This was a surprise for me. I’m sort of a lone wolf, a bit on the arrogant side and, aside from my wife, I didn’t think I needed a personal friend.
Mike came into my class like a living exclamation point. Everything about him was drama. At first he tried to take over the class with his entertaining personality. He later told me he’d done this all through school and it often got him kicked out of class. I didn’t stop him and soon we were working together, teaching writing with set-up debates about whether we should ?show or tell? in a story.
When the class was over, Mike and I talked. We discussed everything and I found I could talk to him about my problems. When Mike came up for parole, he asked me to be his citizen spokesperson and I told the board I would be there for him. They granted him parole and Mike is a success today. He and I wrote a book about prison, called Dystopia. Mike’s in charge of group of community performers and he has signed up for film school.
I once had a clever student who wrote a short piece for my class. I praised the story and told him he was a good writer. He stared at me with those intelligent eyes of his and asked, ?Griffin, are you trying to blow sunshine up my ass??
I laughed and said, “No, it was a good story. Keep it up.”
That’s what’s missing from prison — sunshine.