On the last day of February, the thought of conducting my prison writing workshops made the little zigzagged vein on my left temple throb. The pounding wasn’t about confronting a prisoner who insisted he wrote my friend’s daughter’s published poem even after I told him he would have been nine years old when it first appeared in Rattle. It wasn’t about taking a man out to a lonely corridor to tell him that his defensiveness in response to committing a gory murder didn’t read well. Nor was it about finding a way to tell grown men that their ardent love poems were mawkish. Those things had made me nervous. But this was worse. Coronavirus was killing people, prisons in other states were epicenters, and the virus had spread to Tucson.
At sixty-five, I was in the vulnerable age group and had decided to stay home. Even if that meant quitting Trader Joe’s imported double Gloucester cheese with chives, take-out fish and chips, and conversations on my friend’s tweed sofa. But many prisoners had told me that our creative writing workshops were the highlight of their week. So, if the prison was still open to volunteers, I would go.
The prison website advised that visits were prohibited but it didn’t mention workshops. When I telephoned, the male officer who answered didn’t know, but he checked with a supervisor. “We can go,” I told my assistant, Dora. “I’m game if you are.”
I stuffed Clorox wipes into a clear plastic Ziploc, threw them on top of a plastic box filled with lined paper tablets, pocket notebooks, books, pens, my folder of poems and exercises, my prison badge, and hand sanitizer. Just before I reached for the front door handle, I looked down to double-check my clothes. Once, I’d driven twenty-nine miles to the complex before realizing that I was wearing jeans. I had to dash home to change, or I wouldn’t be allowed in.
In the prison parking lot, a flurry of wind swirled grit to my eyes from acres of bladed ground that weeps for its kidnapped mesquite trees. My temple continued to throb, but despite the heavy box I lugged on my hip, I picked up the pace. I’d often told workshop participants that I was delighted to see them, but I wasn’t sure whether they knew I meant it. The time spent with the prisoners was a weekly highlight for me. What might sound like a four-hour endurance test was a joy. It’s not hard to understand why. The participants listen with the same attention of men whose cheeks have just been slapped. They crave life to the extent that Maurice Roberts, who never had a cellphone, imagines in his poem “Fully Charged Smartphone,” that ownership would confer “a reclusive confidence.” Jasper Jones, removed from love for years, ignites tenderness in “The orchard of your adoration/ submerged my cement and rebar.” The men in my workshops live on life’s breadcrumbs, so they participate fiercely, unafraid of blunders when I pose timed exercises that would set this writer whimpering.
My first stop at the prison gate was always the public bathroom. It was grubby. Ceramic tiles were missing from the floor and walls, and one stall had no door. Straw-like fibers exuded from the edges of a ceiling vent. I was so focused on raising my trouser legs so they wouldn’t sop liquid from the floor, so focused on wondering about the state of the prisoners’ bathrooms, I discovered the absence of toilet paper too late. A printed sign in a plastic sleeve above the commode exhorted me not to use the brown paper hand towels because they clog the plumbing. I care about community and the proper flow of shared plumbing, so I complied. A similar sign advised me to request extra paper from the officer on duty outside. But if I pulled up my clothing to exit the stall and request a blotter, the damage would have been done, so I didn’t do that either.
Dora met me at the front gate wearing a short-sleeved, blue regulation-length dress with a bright green paisley scarf and sensible flat sandals. We placed our earrings and shoes on the long stainless-steel tables for inspection, cleared the metal detectors and the sally-port, and stepped onto the bus. We were the only passengers on its hard plastic, slippery seats. I gripped a stainless-steel grab bar as the driver sped through acres of sandy
wasteland, ignoring stop signs and careening around corners. We talked excitedly about David Peterson’s much improved revisions to his poem and told ourselves that we had to remember to collect it that day to type.
On foot at the next checkpoint, we peered through thick glass so fogged with scratches that we couldn’t tell if our favorite friendly and efficient guard was on duty until she spoke. She gave us a radio, clicked open two gates, and assured us she had called our men out.
Dora always carried our box of supplies. It weighed nineteen pounds, but she carried it away from her body to impose maximum stress on arms toned for climbing rock overhangs. She delights in many things I find arduous, but when a stranger dressed in orange joined us on the cement path that skirts the caged recreation yard, and asked if he could carry it, she hid her sigh and handed it to him.
Finally, through another locked gate, we entered a classroom with brightly colored grade-school math and grammar posters. The room’s plastic garden chairs and large laminated tables were arranged in rows, facing the teacher’s desk and padded swivel chair. We hefted and joined four tables to form a large square, and I Cloroxed every surface and edge that I could think of as the men dribbled in.
We propped open the door and got straight to work in a classroom heated to what felt like a hundred degrees but was probably only eighty-nine. Men read their poems and stories aloud and jotted notes on the group’s reactions and comments.
By design, Dora and I never offer critique until everyone else has done so. We want the men to become adept at noticing flabby verbs and vague nouns, to notice when opportunities for tension and metaphor have been squandered.
While Carr-Satchell read, another workshop member vied for my attention, pointing at an officer standing in the doorway. At first I thought the officer’s presence was routine and that he wanted to escort men outside for their medication. But the officer beckoned me to the hallway. “You’re not authorized to be here,” he said. “You need to pack up now.”
The men groaned. But I distributed my supplies, prompt sheets, and copies of a Jane Hirschfield poem, all the while wishing them well, promising that we would be back as soon as permitted. More officers appeared in the doorway, telling us to hurry, inching closer. In the rush, we forgot to collect David’s poem. But we assumed a few weeks of strict quarantine would stymie the virus and we would see everyone again within a month.
Weeks later, with the state’s Covid cases surging, I rang the state Volunteer Coordinator to ask if we could conduct our two workshops via Zoom. “No.” I requested permission to email participants. “No.” We turned to snail mail.
Rain Shadow Review already forbade its volunteers to write personal letters to prisoners. But we tightened our procedures to ensure that our business correspondence was above reproach.
All correspondence was directed to the Review’s P.O. Box. Our Managing Editor, Ken, kept the only key and he opened and inspected all mail for impropriety. While Dora and I provided critical feedback on the prisoner’s work, it was Ken who sent our suggested edits to the individual prisoners in terse, impersonal letters that were signed from “The Editors.” The men who sent us their work sometimes used Dora’s and my name on the envelopes, so we asked them not to. It felt terrible to distance ourselves when we knew that the prison’s Covid-19 safeguards had increased the men’s isolation and boredom. We were delighted when one man’s response to our request was to address us as “Dear Team.”
A few months later, I received a group email to all volunteers (12-step programs, educational programs, etc.) from the Chaplain’s Office. It reminded us not to write letters to prisoners. It prompted a flurry of back and forth emails between myself, Ken, and Dora as we worried.
Hoping that the prison administration distinguished between personal letters and business correspondence between publisher and authors, we sought clarification. We also forwarded a copy of a letter that we had sent to a prisoner (with the name redacted) to show that our feedback did not pander to egos nor mollycoddle.
Thankfully, the Chaplain’s Office replied that our correspondence was fine.
I kept the prison schedule on my phone. Each Saturday, a beep sounds thirty minutes before I should be loading my tub to the car and setting off. Instead, I think about the men, I look up the prison’s Covid numbers, and worry when men don’t send letters.
Our creative writing program encourages men with poker faces to celebrate tiny details in their writing. Men in orange hoist messages like Tibetan prayer flags strung in clean Himalayan air. On red, yellow, blue, and green rectangular cloths, Carr-Satchell, who is not blind, celebrates the heightened compensatory senses of blindness in his story “Child’s Play.” In “The Sum of All Theories,” Michael South honors the ineffable, “when the moon/ collects her thoughts/And hides them in her craters from Eternity.” Schlicker pokes fun at Star Wars in “Dysfunctional Families.” Jeffrey Link in his poem “Sun Sparks Off Barbed Wire” describes a cactus wren that flutters at his feet. It is small and unafraid, “its pupil so dark/The message on its dirt-caked eye reinvents me.”
The men’s work reinvents us all. It connects us to fleeting moments of joy that make life sing. It connects us to the humanity of men locked in prison. And when men dressed in orange celebrate tiny details, they preserve the tender parts of their hearts for when they are released. And since most men in prison will be released, this is good for us all.