Videos from the PEN Prison Writing Program

The PEN American Center mentors incarcerated writers and publishes the best of their work in the annual Voices From Inside series. On this page, you can view video clips of notable writers such as Marie Ponsot and Patricia Smith reading prisoners’ work at a November 2009 presentation in New York City.

In this five-minute video, Patricia Smith reads Christina MacNaughton’s “Just Another Death,” first-place winner for memoir in PEN’s 2007 Prison Writing Contest.

On a related note, the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Books & Culture contains Jason Byassee’s article “Prisons and the Body of Christ”. Byassee surveys several new books concerning conditions on the inside, and calls on Christians to spend more time ministering to prisoners. I’m not sure if the article is available to non-subscribers, but here’s an excerpt (boldface emphasis mine):

…In Crossing the Yard, Richard Shelton writes about prison from the perspective of a volunteer teacher of creative writing over a period of thirty years. (Ken Lamberton was one of his students.) Shelton, a prizewinning poet and professor at the University of Arizona, says that much of what he knows about teaching was learned behind bars. When asked why he goes into the prisons, he replies that he’s selfish. The men teach him too much to stop. When asked if he’s not ever in danger there he replies affirmatively—from the guards, one of whom passed him a basket full of drugs by mistake once, while others have harassed, menaced, and generally thumped their chests around him, while trying to exterminate his massively successful writing program. The prisoners have protected him.

Shelton’s initial motive for volunteering, he recalls, was hardly noble. An infamous kidnapper and serial murderer, Charles Schmid, wanted to send him poetry. Shelton the writer sniffed promising material. He wanted to be a “voyeur,” looking in on a “monster.” But as Schmid learned about metaphor and went to war on sentimentality, harnessing the rage inside him, he began to change. He wrote to Shelton, “Something’s happened to me. Something wonderful and frightening. I can’t explain it. But I feel like somebody else.” Shelton concurred. “My God,” he thought. “He even looks different.”

Shelton has witnessed many such transformations. One writer won a National Endowment for the Arts grant—for which his entry was judged blind. Another, Lamberton, won that Burroughs Prize. Another took a PhD in history and became a college professor. Another designed a system to store solar energy while still in prison. Another became a preacher. Another, Calvin, grew so adept at speaking on the prisons’ “scared straight” circuit that he won his pardon and opened a rehab program.

You don’t have to be a cynic to recall the counter-examples over the years, of prison writers championed by celebrated outsiders (as Norman Mailer, for example, took up the cause of Jack Henry Abbott), with a bleak end to the story. But the point isn’t to add up literary honors or highlight the most dramatic instances of change, set against the most publicized failures. Rather, Shelton’s account of his writing classes should remind us of the humanity of the prisoners, whether talented or not. When a student would publish a poem or chapbook, the entire class would share in that success. Charles Schmid wrote his teacher on his first publication, “I have a kind of dignity.” Even more impressive, in a place that is strictly racially policed by gangs such that races do not mix in the chow hall, writing class turns inmates into friends. Perhaps it is the quasi-liturgical effect of being left breathless together by the beauty of words. Or of sharing unspeakable pain in words that point beyond words: in poetry. Or perhaps it is the bootcamp-like atmosphere of Shelton’s workshop—he pushes them hard. “I suppose it is caused by the fact that you can’t discuss and criticize someone’s most cherished ideas and creations without coming to feel some empathy with that person …. Actually I don’t know what causes it, but I know it happens and it violates the established norm of any prison.” It’s a bit like church is supposed to be, isn’t it?

Yes, all too often, inspiring success can be followed hard by devastating failure. Would-be successes re-offend upon release. The rate of recidivism for sexual predators is particularly discouraging (and this is equally true of those who are routed into the mental health system rather than to prison). Statistically speaking, Ken Lamberton is a very bad risk.

Some reformed prisoners aren’t even given a chance to fail on the outside. Charles Schmid was jumped and stabbed repeatedly by fellow inmates. After struggling in intensive care for a week, he died. Shelton blamed himself—perhaps his literary conversion left Charles (who’d changed his name to Paul) soft, inattentive, vulnerable. Another student, a Latino, refused an order from the Mexican mafia to leave the integrated class. He was also murdered. Another died due to neglect. The prison’s medical officer neglected to treat his hepatitis C, and instead tied him to his bunk. The talented young poet died in agony, with plentiful men behind bars as helpless witnesses. “Each death is less shocking,” Shelton writes. And after death? Prisoners were buried in a trash-filled, unmown yard with only their prison number over their heads.

Of course, victims of crime, or their surviving relatives, will reply that criminals have taken away their or their loved ones’ identity. And they would most certainly be right. One cannot talk about the barbarity of our prisons without talking also of the barbarities many prisoners committed to get in. Shelton reflects on the fact that Charles Schmid had become like a son to him. Then he has a start as he remembers that other parents lost their children at Schmid’s hands.

And Shelton assigns blame for violence in the prison more evenly than does Lamberton, seeing inmates’ culpability as well as the guards’. One comes away from his book with a greater sense of the depravity of those in prison than Lamberton’s account provides. Not that the two books don’t agree on much. Both argue that cynical prison administrators stir racial animosity, even hoping for occasional riots, so they can appeal to state legislatures for more weaponry and funding. Both compare our prison system to slavery—a massive, profitable system that depends on the conveyor belt of bodies into its maw. Both see subversion as the way to survive and writing as the way to thrive. Shelton pontificates more loudly. Lamberton prefers to show the quotidian.

Shelton spares no quarter for those who defend what T.S. Eliot called “Death’s other kingdom.” Prison holds up a mirror to our society, and what it shows is ugly. We are a violent and fearful people, on our way “toward the point where half of our society will be spending most of its money to keep the other half in prison.” Shelton marvels at the claim of one prisoner that life inside isn’t so bad: “For the first time in my life I have a bed to sleep in and three meals a day and we all sit down to eat together.” Prison has become a surrogate family for millions of people—a place with greater community than back home. (Would it be more punishment to release them, then?) Reflecting on Karen Lamberton’s heroic effort to stay with Ken, Shelton writes, “Incarceration is probably the quickest and most effective way to destroy a family permanently. And mass incarceration, as it is practiced in this country, is the quickest and most effective way to destroy the social fabric of entire communities, especially poor and minority communities.”

What is Shelton’s proposed solution? Dogged, committed volunteerism. Millions of volunteers could make prison more transparent, ease the transition from jail to free life, and leave, he thinks, “only a fraction of the present number of inmates incarcerated.” The more people who know the inanity of our current system, the more will see the wisdom of counter-proposals—like electronic monitoring. Shelton’s own work has born enormous fruit. We can only hope others will follow….

Maybe we should do what Jesus said, and visit those in prison. When I first did, I was struck how ordinary prisoners are. I don’t know if I’d been habituated into expecting them all to be snarling monsters bent on my destruction. But they seemed like guys I might play basketball with, or go to church or school with, or share a bus or sidewalk with (not likely a neighborhood—people in my social class rarely wind up in prison). On a later prison visit I met with my friend Jens Soering, a convict who writes that, if every Christian congregation would adopt two former inmates a year, we could greatly reduce recidivism. And if we flooded prisons with visits of the sort the Bible commands, the abuse to which many prisoners are subject would largely dry up.

17 comments on “Videos from the PEN Prison Writing Program

  1. Geoff M. says:

    You seem like an interesting person! I just read the Books and Culture review (I love that magazine, but it’s in financial trouble), and googled Ken Lambertson, which led me to your page. Not sure I’d go along with the GLBT stuff, but we’d have an interesting conversation. I too am a Christian, and I like the fact that you’re both a poet AND an ex-New Yorker! Take care

  2. Dear Jendi,

    I saw that you have a chapbook out with Cervena Barva. I’ll have a book with them next year. I was so delighted to have found you. I am an intern with the PEN prison writing program and it’s so nice to see someone who cares about what we’re doing — and about prisoner’s writing. Also, congrats on your book. Can’t wait to read it.

  3. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks, and congrats on your book as well! Check out the Prison Letters category on my blog to read great poems by my prison pen pal “Conway”, who drew the cover art for both of my chapbooks, and will have a book of his own out from Amsterdam Press soon.

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