“Conway” Reflects on Writing and Mentoring in Prison

My prison pen pal “Conway” writes in his July 17 letter that he has begun reading Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings:

A very good book. It was a manuscript found in his house in New York after he died. Sort of a diary. Very poignant thoughts….

I wrote two poems inspired so far by his words. I’m sendin’ them along — “Sacrifice” and “Interrogation” — plus a couple more. But I would like to share a quote from this book…

Having breathed a atmosphere filled with the products of his own spiritual combustion, he remembers reading somewhere that, in the neighborhood of a sulfur works, even a sparse vegetation can only survive if it is sheltered from the wind — ‘When did this happen?’ he asks himself — ‘and through how many generations will the effects still be traceable?’

–And then what will all earthly joys be, compared to the promise: ‘Where I am, there ye may be also’ (John 14:3)?

In an early July letter to Conway, I had confided in him about a difficult family situation, and my struggle to believe that my personality was not permanently warped by past choices and relationships. I think that’s what moved him to send me this tender story of the vegetation in need of shelter — as if to say, the need for support and consolation is not a weakness to be ashamed of, but a universal precondition of being alive, like sunlight and oxygen. And even where that precondition wasn’t always present, what God has in store for us will ultimately outshine our past deprivations.

Conway has been mentoring at-risk youth in the EDGE Program, which pairs delinquent teens with older prisoners who can de-glamorize the criminal life and guide them to better choices. He shares this story of one youth who was difficult to reach until they started talking about books:

In our last session (EDGE), I had this 15 year old kid, and he never knew his pops, and his mom was a crankster gangster, and lost him to the State. Then when he was 12, she got custody back, for about a year. Then she overdosed. 🙁

The young man is very withdrawn, and the “Group Home” he’s at, there is some chump who’s been harassing him and the rest of the young men in his charge. So, he’s been “Boning out” with one of his “Home boys” and they got caught smokin’ weed. So, they got in trouble for running off.

Bottom line The kid’s just trying to survive and retain some freedom & sense of self.

I got him to open up & he told me that he liked to read, or used to, until Dude started making his life miserable. I convinced him that reading was more rewarding than smokin’ weed, and asked him, and found out, that he had written a few short-short stories to escape his boredom. (cool)

He was last reading Harry Potter, but hadn’t finished. I convinced him that he could benefit by reading more, and maybe writing some more stories, and he agreed that he enjoyed writing them, even if “they were goofy”

Any rage, I sent him a letter last weekend, and sent him some Raymond Feist books. Three in the “Riftwar Sagas” series, good wizards stuff, and I had one of the c/o sponsors drop the letter & books off, to him….

I hope he’s doin’ better, it just sucks to see the kids, making mistakes, and getting passed around, with no real direction or trustworthy guidance from his adult supervisors.

Conway’s letter has gotten me thinking about resilience. Why do some people seem to have more of it, and what (like sickle-cell anemia) might be the hidden benefits of having less? I feel ashamed to dwell on my own early wounds from childhood bullies and flawed authority figures, when I always had the basics (food, shelter, education, life with parents instead of strangers) that Conway’s friend and so many others are growing up without. And yet these middle-class grievances have marked me so deeply (and, I fear, so visibly) that sometimes I feel like the circus child in Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit.

Yes, I know, sensitivity is the price of being an artist, blah blah. I’d feel better making that claim if I could finish my !#$*%&! novel(s) instead of waking up at 5 a.m. with palpitations more often than not, to pray the rosary for two hours as a way to stop obsessing about enemies who haven’t thought of me in thirty years. Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving? If Margaret still “spares a sigh” for those “worlds of wanwood” when she grows up, is she a prophet or a case of arrested development?

I’ll end with some poems from Conway’s letter:

Wring Your Wrists

Over the Earth
under that mud
where the earth rescinds
then turns to blood
when back from earth

For what I am, for what we trust
the difference claims
disturbs the unjust
like the past
shall we be dust

So, don’t become
so mortified
the destruction timed
was fortified
in stone

Destruction brings
the domination
construction sings
as does
Abomination, alone

Children declined
treated unkind
living in dread, of Laws’ so blind
too many bad deeds
too good, but a few

counting the past
what could they do
and what of you?

I live in a box
covered by locks
held steadfast
stumbling over the past

All these sands’
alone to kill
if I saved but one
a beach would spill
a million…



As July’ sky
Blaze Hot & High
Bright sunlight blended
where the concrete ended
with barbedwire
Imprisoned souls on fire..

Not one cloud
dared to shadow this crowd
Stretched out, laid bare.
Naked heat, waves in the air
embraced by torsos’ of stone,
an endless chain to atone…

3 comments on ““Conway” Reflects on Writing and Mentoring in Prison

  1. Patricia Henry says:

    When my brother & I were children,we didn’t have much,Conway (my brother) got into a lot of trouble and I didn’t.What keeps one sibling from getting into trouble,and the other gets ”steps into it”on a regular basis is matter of perspective and the same goes for those outside our family.We can show others our past mistakes and hope they can learn from them,but some learning from somebody else comes too late.

  2. zhenimsja says:

    I have got to post something looking like this text on my blog and you gave me a good thought. Thanks!

  3. Vlora says:

    Glad I’ve finally found smotheing I agree with!

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