WRITING AND RAZORWIRE

(courtesy of Envie!- A Magazine for the Literary Curious)

After being strip-searched and sitting naked in solitary, I was afforded some time to ponder exactly what I was doing in prison. Over time, having spoken to numerous fellow inmates, the majority of us never expected to be here.  Some of us were victims of sheer hubris, while the vast majority had exercised exceedingly poor judgment at some point. I was no different.  

Luckily for many of us, a day of reckoning dawns affording us some level of progressive insight. One thing prison affords you is significant time with your own thoughts. Outstanding author and formerly “justice impaired individual” Piper Kerman has talked at length about her prison experience, brought to life in Orange is The New Black. She has often stated that prison isn’t exactly a bastion of “silver linings.” It is, however, a place for you to reconsider life choices, and ideally, find a new direction. 

A prison library is the closest you will get to achieving freedom of any sort while incarcerated. Books are an integral part of your existence. In many instances, they become a form of currency, with selective books disappearing from the library and being “locked away” in private collections in cells. Given the difficulty in acclimating to the new environment, books, and on a deeper level, writing, was the most legitimate form of escape.  

They were also lifelines to the outside world, as well as a way of providing an identity or sense of self. At first, it would seem masochistic to read books which were first-account narratives of other incarcerated individuals. But it was about the shared experience and the ability to re late to a common existence.  I learned this more and more as I talked with my fellow in mates. One common theme was repeated; everyone had a story inside of them that they needed to share. 

While I can’t say I found my purpose, I did find my voice.  There were many stories I  felt trapped inside of me that  I ached to put down on paper  when I was on the outside, yet  the “real world” interfered  with my endeavors. Now I had nothing BUT time, along with notebooks and Bic pens. Even if the equivalent mental masturbation was akin to throwing spaghetti at the walls and seeing what stuck, I threw myself into my writing. Eventually, every free moment that wasn’t spent in the gym’s Gladiator academy, was spent writing. 

Specific, repetitive behaviors attract attention from fellow inmates. Between teaching G.E.D. classes, and constantly scribbling in my notebooks, they referred to me as, “Professor.” This lit something inside of me. Awkwardly, I asked a few of the guys in my G.E.D. classes who had taken an interest in my writing, if they wanted to hear a short story.  

Receiving approval for anything in prison is a status/ cred builder. It means as transitory as life is on the inside, it may get a bit easier. The more I read my stories, the more invigorated and enthused I became. At the same time, guys shyly hinted they had stories as well. It wasn’t the true “epiphany” moment I had prayed for. That suddenly I found my purpose and could rebuild my life. But it was a start. 

I petitioned the Prison Education Officer, and they granted my request to begin teaching a creative writing class. The initial uptake was slow; anything seen as showing vulnerability or exposing yourself in some manner in prison was frowned upon and set you up for bullying. Within weeks, I had roughly a dozen regulars, which grew over time. 

Without any formal training, I drew upon my now worthless $250k liberal arts degree and began “teaching.” The approach was simple; just get guys writing. The focus was on my favorite format, “flash fiction.” Prison life revolves around structure and strict rules. It was something that they could relate to. You are given a theme, an object or two, and a strict word count.  This was easily relatable. Initially, we would open it to the class like a modified improv group, with guys shouting out story ideas, and me acting as the scribe and pushing along the narrative. Getting them comfortable was all I wanted. 

We then turned the focus to individual stories. The themes initially involved present-day, readily available objects or locations on the prison compound so it would be easily relatable. As comfort levels built, stories became more personalized.  Longings for previous lives and the outside world. Untethered life lines were at once being reconnected. This was when I saw the true power of the written word, and the ability to find some path to redemption. On paper, old neighborhood beefs were settled. Abusive fathers were either forgiven or called out.  A consistent yearning to see life in technicolor once again, anything beyond the drab khakis and institutional-grey colored walls was a recurring theme.  

Above all else, there was hope. There were sparks of life. Both of these can be extraordinarily dangerous drugs in prison, especially when a calendar is the only true harbinger of progress. The universal truth was every man had something inside, a voice they needed to get out. Many of these folks are the disappeared herd, the voiceless. It needed to be aired without judgment or condemnation, and once the constraints were lifted, there was a release.

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