FOR FORTY YEARS I have worked at the nexus where language intersects with the lives of prison inmates, and it has proven to be one of the most exciting intersections imaginable. Much of it involves unlearning. Unlearning the language of excuses and the refusal to accept responsibility for one’s acts. Unlearning outmoded and no longer effective literary devices and attitudes. Unlearning, in short, by means of the honest and creative use of language, one’s orientation toward oneself and the world. Then building—building a renewed awareness of the natural world—a kind of wonder, a kind of hope that one is not entirely alone, not entirely lost as long as the swallows come back each spring and can be seen even from the narrow slot called a window in a prison cell.
There seems to be no limit to the evil we are capable of doing to one another. This includes both the assailant waiting for his victim and the state treating an inmate with deprivation so severe it amounts to torture, including the ultimate version of it—sensory deprivation. Early American prisons were designed so that an inmate would have no contact with anyone else, not even his keeper. Each man (and there were no prison facilities for women then) was given work to do in a totally private cell, a cell designed in such a way that he could neither see nor hear any other humans. He could not, as well, have any contact with the natural world. He was deprived of rain, snow, birds, plants, sunsets, animals, insects—everything. The shadow of this early practice hangs over today’s prisons like a cloud, producing policies by prison administrators who are often completely unaware of the history of those policies.
In his book American Notes, Charles Dickens describes his visits to several American prisons in the early 1840s. He describes the solitary-conﬁnement prison model at some length, and then says, “It is my ﬁxed opinion that those who have undergone this punishment must pass into society again mortally unhealthy and diseased.” Dickens is suggesting that there is a relationship between humans and a natural environment, any natural environment—the starkest of deserts or polar regions, the heat and smothering humidity of the tropics—a relationship which, if sufﬁciently violated, will be not only punishing but permanently damaging to the human. And this, with the exception of capital punishment, is perhaps the greatest crime against humanity our penal system can inflict—and it is also one of the most common.
Since 1974 I have directed a number of prison writing workshops, all for male prisoners, in the Arizona State Prison. The writing that is collected in this issue of Orion was selected from that of the hundreds of writers who have participated in these programs. For me, reading the creative writing of the inmates I have worked with is often like listening to a man gasping for air while dying. The federal prison where I now work was obviously designed for the purpose of keeping inmates in a confined area, but also for keeping them from having any experience of the natural world, of substituting a sterile environment for the real one. An inmate in “the hole” experiences the ultimate in sensory deprivation, but the general prison population is also severely deprived and the cause is basically architectural. I am not talking about some ancient bastion or even a typical “modern” prison built in relatively recent times. This prison is new, and I have been told that all recently built maximum-security federal prisons are based on the same model. It is designed in such a way as to prevent contact between the inmates and any plant or animal life. Even the clouds, which hang over southern Arizona during our summer rainy season, can only be glimpsed from some of the cells or when inmates are crossing the bare prison yard where not a blade of grass grows or a bush intrudes. Perhaps this explains the many references to clouds in the work of these inmates. It has been years since some old-timers saw a tree, and they may never see one again.
Even those who live in the most densely populated cities have an incredible array of experiences of the natural world as compared to the inmates I work with. The city-dweller has some trees somewhere, if only in a park. There is grass, if only in small patches, and shrubs, maybe even ﬂowers. Maybe squirrels, and birds beyond the ubiquitous pigeons. I ask some of my incarcerated students, “How long has it been since you have seen or smelled a ﬂower?” Unless they are too far advanced in the process called “psychic death,” they can usually remember not only what kind of ﬂower it was and where it was they saw it but what it smelled like. When they quit remembering these things it’s usually too late.
“Psychic death” is a kind of giving up or giving in. I went into the cell of a normally active and intelligent young man who had been given a forty-year sentence. I couldn’t get him completely awake. He would mumble a few words and then relapse into a zombielike state. I have seen that condition more recently in someone who is very dear to me and for whom I am now a caregiver—my wife, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. The condition is a dreadful thing no matter what its cause. It can be slipped into gradually during years of sensory deprivation or brought on suddenly by a blow so strong the human spirit cannot bear it. It can be found among inmates in most prisons like the one I currently work in.
Others are able to withstand it—even those serving very long sentences. My life has been profoundly affected by these people. In many instances I have witnessed and been inﬂuenced by a morality much deeper and more meaningful than most of what I had encountered in church, in spite of the fact that those who gave me their trust, their counsel, and their support were felons, often drug addicts, and in some cases murderers. I am not making a case for all prison inmates. Some are guilty of deliberately heinous crimes. Some are insane and should be housed in secure mental facilities where they can receive treatment. Some are simply mean as hell and always dangerous. But there are the others, probably the majority. From them I have known only concern and care. Knowing them, I have witnessed acts of heroism and self-sacriﬁce that staggered me and left me gaping with admiration. They have protected me in times of danger; they have encouraged me when I fell into despair. They have given me insights into lives I would never have encountered otherwise. In short, I think, they have taught me humility over the years, and I sorely needed it.
So here they are with all their warts and calluses and their enormous creative drive—a drive that has helped keep them alive, saved them from “psychic death.” Some have been living productive lives in the free world for decades, and some will be in the workshop this Friday waiting to read their most recent work and possibly take a critical beating from me and their fellow workshop members. They welcome that criticism because they know it will push their writing toward improvement, possibly even publication. And publication changes lives. I have witnessed it again and again. There is something about seeing one’s name on the page with one’s creative work, perhaps alongside the work of highly established writers in the free world, that makes a difference in a person’s self-image. As one of the most successful of them (with a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, two books of published poetry, and a ﬁrst prize in the PEN prison writing contest) told me just before he was released, “I’m not going to be able to rob any more bars.” And if he had had some of that success when he was younger, he probably wouldn’t have robbed any bars in the ﬁrst place, because established writers do not rob bars. It’s as simple as that.
FROM A CELL IN CIMARRON
THE COYOTE GOT A SONG, they do. Starts a little like a dog but from there out it’s all their own. They loose their throats somewhere in the middle, then shake it at the top, bending the night with harmonies. They chase through washes and through rain-wet streets, daring a driver with that next set of eyes to run them down or just plain stop.
Their casualties are more’n a few, but I personally ain’t never seen a pack stopped quiet and sullen-like just padding around their dead. I think they figure there’s more where that came from, both a comin’ and a goin’, and a procession or formal burial would be silly. Seems like the kind of word they’d be apt to use is “silly,” and hell, they’ve got plenty of hiding to do—and been doing it so long, it’s not anymore a job to ’em, like a slow vice turned bad and then just necessary.
In the morning, early, after a night rain they’ll be with some of their own kind down roads where reflections in storm drains and gasoline-streaked pools of water are ignored. An old boy doing his morning walk can come upon one real easy like, and fact is never once would a fella get to feeling spooked, like the coyote’s hunting you yourself. After your food or time they ain’t.
Now rabbits, rabbits got something powerful to fear from the coyote. They’ll tear down a riverbed and up a rock-crossed slope to begin the kill, and on the way more will join and set their jaws to work, the long echoed yips and chattered bawl hoisted high upon masts of the becoming moon until it’s the rabbit itself bleating out a panicked sound far beneath that same moon.
The drift of a blood-let silence and the first ride up of them teeth, half-sharp and uneven from hard living and the chewin’ steady of rocks, garbage, and then again their song, as if trying to wake the very dead who still feed them. A celebration of their noise is kind of hacked-bone and fur-wishin’ for something to drink, I figure. Or hoping some dumb ol’ dog don’t throw out its lungs signaling sure porch lights and Henry rifles, which repeat into the ﬁrst morning star.
Coyote got no real truck with a dog less’n it bounds out ignorant, unattended and broke free of its leather, with fangs kept in their place of stayin’.
Now a cat, a cat’ll tree up sure, just causin’ the others to listen and come. Just to see that tail up and spine rolled back, spittin’ an’ a-hissin’, the peculiar arrogance of such a small creature, but the coyotes lose interest soon enough as another night admits defeat, and the sun will come sure with its dusty afflictions and the power of its order, steel, glass, and manacles. And me, I’ll watch ’em as they slip through the motion detectors and concertina wire, gone to a desert that has no further room for them.
—William B. Sedlmayr
IN THE ABSENCE OF THE MOON
The wind is cold and barbed
and the moon is buttering dreams
in another land.
A day of snow grays the night.
My breathing clouds the air
the wind refuses quickly to consider.
In the absence of the moon,
decisions of the wind are absolute.
A campﬁre burns perceptions
down to coals of truth—
the smoke is gone.
Beyond the edges of the ember light,
yellow pairs of eyes
stalk back and forth
testing the air for answers
to hunger and desire.
Tonight I choose to howl:
a song, a prayer
in the language of the lost.
There is a light in us.
a spirit that foams forth into the world
with our most powerful aspects
like a swollen ripe apple
its tight skin gleaming a soft phosphorescence
on the blue air bulging with light,
the apple like a medieval friar
bursting with energy
to toll those taste buds
like bells in the tower
groaning with masculine happiness
the rough joys of plucking apples from the orchard
and biting into one
with the feverish relish of a jaguar
licking water from a forest pond
after a night kill
The apple’s blood rings my lips
stains my ﬁngers—
all alone in the middle of the ﬁeld
spreads its branches of light
without prayer or forgiveness.
—Jimmy Santiago Baca
IT’S MONSOON SEASON in southern Arizona. A ﬂash of lightning sparks in the shadowy sky. Even through the cement walls I can taste the alkaline ﬂavor of electricity. I’m in “the hole” again, laid back on a hard mattress that smells faintly of mildew. Crackling thunder breaks what’s left of the calm out there. It starts out like several power transformers blowing at once and then rolls into a terriﬁc BOOM.
The smell of rain leaks in through poorly constructed Plexiglass seals. The sky quickly becomes a deep gray, and cool wind blows down. I cannot feel it but I can see the dust blowing across the bare exercise ﬁeld. The ferocity of the lightning and thunder is apocalyptic. More thunder. Then I realize that my mind has drifted off again as it sometimes does in here. I am actually hearing gunshots and thinking it is thunder. The booming in the distance is concussion grenades exploding. Another race riot must have kicked off out on the yard.
I’ve been in this stinking sweatbox for seven months now, with two more to go. I will never see the world the way I did before. Or actually, I will never not see it the way I did before. I will never willingly miss a sunset, and I will revel in the huge white clouds, which well up this time of year on the southern horizon promising rain. I will walk in the rain and feel its cold passionate fingers on my face.
My cage is on the second ﬂoor, wedged in the corner with a view of the “dry cells” where uncooperative inmates are placed until they “act right.” If there’s been a riot, the dry cell I can see will soon be occupied. Watching men get dragged in there is an ugly form of entertainment for the rest of us. I always feel guilty later.
Inside the prison fence, the land is barren—just dirt and barbed wire. Even the cactus has been cleared out. Something catches my attention. I look up to see a huge Cooper’s hawk with a wingspan like a B-52. It’s surfing the wind, focusing on a creosote bush outside the fence.
Commotion in the dry cell draws my eyes back down. It’s eight men in Bureau of Prison uniforms. Each of them is wearing gloves with black fiberglass knuckle pieces for beating prisoners into “compliance.” Billy clubs, SAPS, and pepper spray canisters swing from utility belts as they work. The officers are struggling with a naked black man. He has a fresh shiner. The eye is swollen shut and blood pours from a gash on his forehead. The power of the emotion in his wild, fearful eyes causes me to look away.
An aerial battle pulls my attention back to the sky. A flock of seemingly suicidal sparrows are diving at the hawk. There are ten or twelve of them. The hawk is screeching savagely at the hostile sparrows. When I look back down, the black man is being strapped to a concrete slab in the middle of the dry cell with thick canvas wrist and ankle restraints. The officers seem to be smothering the man, twisting and wrenching his limbs as they secure them one by one. They’ve got both arms and a leg, but the other leg kicks wildly.
In the sky the sparrows dive maniacally at the predator. The battle seems one-sided, but the sparrows have numbers, speed, and agility. They are fending the giant off. In the dry cell a lieutenant in the background is filming the event. A stone-faced observer, he could just as easily be watching a Jiffy Lube oil change on his Prius. Now the officers have all the inmate’s extremities pinned down. The man’s chest heaves with exertion, his foaming mouth hurling insults and hollow threats.
The hawk soon tires of being swooped upon and pecked at. It changes course and sails off toward the horizon. The officers are done. They stand back and admire their handiwork, patting asses and high-fiving each other on a job well done. The lieutenant gives a short sermon, then shrugs and they all head for the door, leaving the man futilely flexing and bucking against his restraints with nothing left in the room but the echoes of his screams.
In about ten years I’m due to return to the world. I pray I can leave the memory of the man in the dry cell behind me, as well as the memories of all the others I have seen beaten by officers or inmates. I’m not optimistic, but I will try to keep the sparrows in mind as I go.
It’s too easy
to describe: the match ﬂame
charring the spoon, the blown veins,
the ravenous ghost who throws stolen
gold and gems into a lake
of pain that ripples
out in circles to everything
it loves. I remember
now, in April, the old chapel
on a hill of mountain laurel, windy
maple and oak, grass
speckled white with dogwood blossom—
there, in the flickering red
scent of the votive cups,
my mother genuflects and turns to kneel
under the feet of the Virgin, slips
some coins in a box, and prays,
lighting a wick in my name, that I might ﬁnd
healing, keep healthy, have enough
to eat. That I know how much
she loves me. But that I never come home again.
WE REACHED one hundred degrees Fahrenheit at 1:58 p.m. today, which is right about on schedule for the end of May in the Sonoran Desert. Now, real heat begins, the dry, lip-splitting, nose-blistering, ear-ringing heat of foresummer. As sunlight talcums the landscape, shadows are reduced to thin anemic lines on the ground. They become territorial, slipping beneath their stones at noon and emerging late in the day to venture out tentatively across the sand. Shadows never go too far or stay away too long.
As if to celebrate the benchmark, the cicadas have begun to sing. Theirs is the quintessential sound of summer, of the energy held in the coming monsoons, concentrated into a squat gray insect and unloaded when the desert is empty of everything except faith.
With the heat comes both an absence and presence of birds. I have just learned to see warblers and now they are gone. But the season’s first turkey vultures have returned, and I’m expecting nighthawks, members of the weak-footed, dirt-sitting clan called goatsuckers, which should be returning from Mexico to nest on our abundant bare ground outside the perimeter fence, feeding after dark on insects drawn to the security lights.
I go looking for nighthawks as the sun touches the horizon, casting its longer, redder wavelengths into a reef of clouds. Mourning doves turn my head as they cross the sky on their way to find overnight roosts. It’s still too early. On my third circuit of the prison yard I think I see boomerang wings and the languid maneuvering of a nighthawk, but the bird is too far away. On my next lap I’m certain one drifts by Housing Unit Two, sculling through bug-rich cones of light. I need to get closer. Before I’m ready to quit, another one glides past directly in front of me. Three nighthawks in less than an hour, but the birds still seem ephemeral, theoretical.
This changes more than a month later following a monsoon thunderstorm with its windstain of wet creosote. In the evening’s poststorm quiet, crunching over washed gravel on my way back to my cell, I notice a low-flying nighthawk circling the area between Dorm Four and Housing Unit Two. The bird continues dipping between the buildings as I approach and cross into its airspace. It’s feeding on winged insects, protean clouds of them vibrating in the air. I sit on some concrete steps to watch and discover a termite hatch. As if gravity were unwinding, silken chutes spray out of the bare ground directly to my left. The nighthawk is insatiable. For ﬁfteen minutes I trail the owl-like bird with my eyes as it sifts the air with its wide-mouthed, whiskered beak. I’m participating in something intimate, silent yet potent: termite nuptials and nighthawk gluttony; the ecstasy of consummation and consumption.
THERE’S SOMETHING about being able to see in this place, to see the dimensions of prison so clearly. But there are also days when I don’t get it right, when my sight is dimmed, like the time a cactus wren chattered from a loop of razor wire next to East Gate. The cactus wren is our state bird, and I couldn’t help but think how appropriate. The scene should be on Arizona’s state seal. Ditat Deus lncarceratamus: God enriches, we incarcerate. The “Great Seal of the State of Arizona” features mountains and sunset, valley farmland, a cow, a miner with a shovel (or is it a convict with a shovel?)—all symbols relating to the once-important economic activities of mining, ranching, and agriculture. The three C’s: copper, cattle, and cotton. Since the decline of these industries, and the curious subsequent boom in crime legislation, prisons have become the ore and livestock and crops to stimulate the economies of dustbowl towns like Douglas and Globe (mining), Florence, Yuma, Safford, Perryville, Buckeye, and Picacho (farming). Altogether, more than fifty prison units in ten major complexes crisscross Arizona, creating ten thousand jobs and making the Arizona Department of Corrections one of the largest state employers. Arizona should revise its state seal of 1912. It’s outdated. Today the three C’s really mean “crime, convicts, and corrections.”
This was all wrong. How was it that I couldn’t see the wren for all the wire? If I wasn’t paying attention, my reality could easily erase the wonderful, particularly because my reality has Orwellian overtones. But isn’t wilderness here as much a reality as prison walls? If I wasn’t going to accept prison as only a time of confinement, I had to strive to constantly cobble nature on to concrete and steel, focusing on the transgressions of birds and weeds and weather. I couldn’t allow the place to form a patina over my view of the world or I would ﬁnd it impossible to re-enter the world and see the wonder of the simplest things, like ratchet-voiced cactus wrens bright in the sun. It’s not so much what you look at but what you see.
I MAKE DARK LAPS around the prison yard this quiet, hot evening. The moon turns away from the horizon as if snubbed, and I walk a course along my northern perimeter and its frayed hem of chainlink and razor wire. Suddenly, something out of place catches my eye. A brown pelican traces the fence. The bird is huge, prehistoric, reptilian, with bent wings that lean into a Cretaceous sky as it drifts, circles, and slips out of view. It could be an animal cobbled to my imagination, this desert misﬁt with webbed feet and gular pouch, but it is real. And more.
Here, in a place that scours you down to the essences of appetite and hope, the moon and stars are excesses. Sprays of termites and nighthawk ballets and even an abandoned feather holding a slip of sky against its vane are extravagances.
More prison writing and visual art is in the print edition of this issue of Orion; click here to subscribe. Listen to a three-way conversation between Richard Shelton, Ken Lamberton, and Orion editor-in-chief H. Emerson Blake here.
Richard Shelton’s probing dissertation on prison writers and the transformative process they undergo through self-examination reveals as much about society’s ills as those being worked on, or not, by individuals incarcerated. A contagion of awareness will hopefully spread so that other educators and prison officials will open their minds and pocketbooks to meaningful changes in the penal system’s approach to rehabilitation, which has usually been no approach at all. Actions begin with thoughts so addressing the way inmates think is crucial in them making meaningful changes. Reading and writing are elemental tools in how we learn and express ideas. How we edit our writing can help anyone develop the skills necessary to change the way we think and act, leading to positive changes which are long overdue, for individuals and the institutions which profit from their presence.
Powerful stories written by these inmates….thank you for this important work to bring forward their voices about nature from inside prison walls.
William Aberg’s piece sent me straight into tears. Good tears. But tears of cleansing that still needs to finish.
Thank you for helping to give a voice to those who are so often without one. Our own country’s ‘forgotten’ or vanished.
Yes, the continuum of humanity and barbarism runs the full spectrum in a place where so many on the Outside assume all are worthless, and wish them gone forever… even their mothers, sometimes.
Heartaches that last forever, and tears that know no end; for the victims, for the perpetrators, and for those who remain outside who knew them both.
So this is where our bards and philosophers have gone; this is where we’ve put them, and keep them.
I too, was brought to tears as I read the article and work of the inmates. As a mother of a former inmate, I’m well aware of the abuses of the American prison system. The US claims to be the beacon of human rights, but privatizing prisons, incarcerating humans in tortuous conditions for mass profit, is one of the worst human wrongs there is. The punitive, patriarchal mentality that runs the “corrections” system doesn’t correct a thing except the wallets of their owners.
Profiting from the torture of human beings is every bit as immoral as any of the acts that brought those human beings to the torture chambers in the first place.
Thanks, Richard Shelton, for being an advocate for those most of society would like to forget. God forbid it should happen to them. But with private prisons lobbying Congress to make more laws so prisons can remain profitable at a 90% fill rate, the odds are not in any citizen’s favor, (especially darker shaded citizens).
Ken Lamberton’s piece should be published in every newspaper in the state.
I’m writing a prisoner at the Blair County Prison and need comfortable ideas to write about as both parents have died of drug overdose and he has four children but his exwife placed a PFA on him, so he can’t communicate with his children , which I think will perpetuate the cycle with our children, of going to prison. I have given him my name and address , but need more topics to communicate with him. Brian Gates
I have been teaching weekly poetry writing classes at Folsom State Prison, outside of Sacramento, for more than two years. Every week I feel privileged to be doing such worthwhile work, following in the footsteps of other Sacramento poets such as Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Alexa Mergen, Traci Gourdine and others. Now when I am invited to read my own poems, I also include a few poems by my inmate students. Even the most sophisticated audiences are often shocked by the depth of subject matter, exploration, and expression.
For about 20 years I have been volunteering with the inmates in several of Nebraska’s state prisons–particularly with the Native American inmate “club,” Native American Spiritual and Cultural Awareness (NASCA). We write, read, produce plays, produce poetry slams. Yes–I have learned more of human worth from my inmate friends than anywhere else in my life, and I am incomparably blessed by their friendships and courtesy. Thanks to Richard Shelton and all who have walked this path. Nebraska is undergoing a complete revision of its penal system–so far more in potential than in actual new approaches. If anyone has had experience in influencing legislators and prison administrators to respect inmate self-betterment efforts, I would be very grateful to hear what has worked for them.
Wonderful — powerful — and even offers a breath of hope for the legions of fellow human beings locked away from families, friends, work, freedom . I have worked in the prison system and often enough despaired .
I hope this is a spark that takes root and grows.
Without hope , what else makes any sense?
I will pass this along to all whom I know will care –and hope many other will as well.
Concrete always cracks, and the cracks collect what little rainfall there is. They become havens for life even in a dry climate, and when the right kind of seed—like say that of a drought-tolerant shrub that can make its own fertility from the air—comes to rest in the crack, it will start the work of breaking up the concrete, slowly but surely. That’s what these poems and stories make me think of. The seeds that will smash the concrete. (Anyone know of a Seeds to Prisoners program?)
Psychoanalyst Masud Khan says that people today should learn how to remain “fallow” in a world that is saturated with the ways and means, especially via the computer and the smartphone, to distract ourselves with all sorts of often mindless, hardly enlightening, information and entertainment, and alas very little knowledge which in turn requires a receptive mind, real thinking, and time to meditate and sit in silence.
These prisoners are indirectly saying that we, the liberated, are missing this core of existence. That nature and the world of open air and other sentient beings, including our loved ones, are being ignored by our obsession with entertaining ourselves and having fun. They are saying that we don’t know how lucky we are to decide for ourselves what sort of elevated life we have the freedom to choose to live out.
After months of gripping chemo, deeply touching writing becomes the profound renewal. Simply…Thank you!
I feel sincerely privileged to have had the opportunity of such a deep glimpse of Life Being Lived, in the Raw and the Real.
With it’s Ricocheting Pain,
Mirror looking with unflinching eyes,
Reality understood. Accepted.
Wow! Thank you Richard Shelton!
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