It began with a poem
Richard Shelton was a young English professor in 1970 when a convict named Charles Schmid—a serial killer dubbed the “Pied Piper of Tucson” in national magazines—sent Shelton his brooding verse and asked for feedback on his poetry. 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, with many of Shelton’s students going on to publish the works they created while incarcerated. What began as a single workshop in the Arizona State Prison has now expanded to four workshops, with the added help of instructor Dr. Erec Toso, including new workshops for inmates in maximum security Federal Prison.
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 and poets, like Jimmy Santiago Baca and Michael Hogan, William Aberg, and Ken Lamberton. Many of these poets and writers have gone on to write books and win prestigious awards and establishing themselves within a greater literary community. For the majority of these contributors, who are not allowed access to typewriters or computers, Review is the first time they see their work typed 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. Rain Shadow Review continues to be a product of the Creative Writing Workshops directed by poet and writer Richard Shelton, and now also directed by Dr. Eric Toso, at the Arizona State Prison Complex and the United States Penitentiary, in Tucson, Arizona.
The 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.