It began with a poem

Richard Shelton was a young English professor in 1970 when an incarcerated man named Charles Schmid—convicted of multiple murders and dubbed the “Pied Piper of Tucson” in national magazines—sent Shelton his brooding verse and asked for feedback. The exchange began what would become for Shelton a life-long commitment to helping prisoners express themselves.

That same year, Shelton began directing his first prison creative writing workshop in Florence, Arizona. Decades later and with support from the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Lannan Foundation, the program has thrived. Many of Shelton’s students have gone on to publish the works they created while incarcerated. Gillian Haines now leads two Shelton workshops in the Tucson Arizona State Prison Complex and serves as a consultant for inmates who submit their work for publication in the Rain Shadow Review.

A literary journal to give inmates a voice

In 1989, Shelton produced the first issue of Walking Rain Review, giving voice to scores of previously unknown important writers like Jimmy Santiago Baca, Michael Hogan, William Aberg, and Ken Lamberton. Many of these writers have won prestigious awards, establishing themselves within a greater literary community. For the majority of these contributors who are not allowed access to typewriters or computers, the Rain Shadow Review is the first time they see their work in print.

Walking Rain Review was renamed Rain Shadow Review in 2011—and remains a free literary journal showcasing the creative talents of current or former inmates of Arizona state prisons. Featured work ranges from new fledgling writers to successful, widely-recognized authors and poets.

The Shelton Creative Writing Workshops and Rain Shadow Review are made possible by Patrick Lannan and members of the board of directors and staff of the Lannan Foundation in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

We are proud to have played some small part in the writing careers that these current and former inmates have carried with them beyond prison.

Go behind the scenes in Crossing the Yard

Read about the journey in Richard Shelton’s book Crossing the Yard: 30 Years as a Prison Volunteer.

In this gritty memoir, Shelton offers up a chronicle of reaching out to forgotten men and women—and of creativity blossoming in a repressive environment. He tells of published students such as Michael Hogan, Billy Sedlmayr, Greg Forker, Ken Lamberton, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, who have made names for themselves through their writing instead of their crimes.

Shelton also recounts the bittersweet triumph of seeing work published by men who later met with agonizing deaths and the despair of seeing the creative strides of inmates broken by politically motivated transfers to private prisons. And his memoir bristles with hard-edged experiences, ranging from inside knowledge of prison breaks to a workshop conducted while a riot raged outside a barricaded door.

Reflecting on his decision to tutor Schmid, Shelton sees that the choice “has led me through bloody tragedies and terrible disappointments to a better understanding of what it means to be human.Crossing the Yard is a rare story of professional fulfillment—and a testament to the transformative power of writing.

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