What Teaching in Prison is Teaching Me

Every Thursday from 5:30 to 7:00 PM I join author Kent Zimmerman in teaching a class on writing at the California Men’s Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, California.

We cover fiction, memoir, poetry, even screenplays—whatever the men submit. Most of the manuscripts show a need for basic grammar, spelling, and syntax skills, while a few are as accomplished in style as anything I get from students outside, with stories that hands-down, in subject matter if nothing else, beat anything I’ve ever seen from an MFA candidate.

Friend of the Miss Demeanors David Corbett, who Donald Maas calls “[T]he grand master of character development.” His latest non-fiction title, Compass of Character, is out November 19. See more about David’s books at https://www.davidcorbett.com/

As Joe Loya, himself an ex-con (he served eight years in federal stir for bank robbery, and the author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell), once remarked: Every convict has at least one great story—the story of his arrest.

The most surprising element of the writing, though, across the board?

Honesty. The men in my class have highly tuned BS meters, and have little patience for self-serving piety or glad-handing, from each other or from Kent or me. It’s made me far more aware of when I’m holding something back, or shading something to make it sound more interesting than it really was. And that in turn has taught me to listen more carefully, and not to judge.

But that’s only one lesson I’ve learned. There’s more.

A little background: Kent’s a long veteran of teaching in prison. He and his twin brother, Keith, taught at San Quentin for nearly a decade before submitting a grant proposal to expand their program to other prisons. Just as this effort was bearing fruit, Keith’s Scottish wife desperately wanted to return home to Glasgow, and so Kent was suddenly not only deprived of his lifelong sidekick and co-writer (working together, they’ve written a number of books on the music business, Hells Angels, the Chicago mob, and more), he lacked someone to help him teach some of these now far-flung classes, ranging geographically from Folsom to Chowchilla, 150 miles apart. Vacaville’s not far from where I live, he asked if I’d like to come aboard, and I said yes.

That was two years ago. Some of the men in the class have moved on, either through release or transfer, including a car thief nicknamed Sideshow who wrote some of the funniest, craziest, most interesting stories it’s ever been my pleasure as a teacher to read.

Several others, especially a core group of particularly strong and insightful writers, remain. At least six of them are serving sentences for murder.

What can you learn from a murderer? How one moment of your life can change it for the worst forever. 

Two of the men convicted of homicide in my class committed their crimes in the grip of a rage they could not control. Several others did so when either blind drunk or high on drugs. (There too is a lesson: yes, drugs are a scourge, a fact that the War on Drugs has done virtually nothing to change.

Every one of these men has taught me that, despite what cynics and ideologues—and far too many jurors, judges, and law enforcement officers—want all of us to believe, people can change. Yes, for each of these men it took a horrifying moment they could not take back—but who changes absent some crisis?

We in the writing biz call it the “change-or-die moment” for a reason.

Blake Synder, in his writing guide Save the Cat, refers to the “whiff of death” as the pivotal moment late in the story when the protagonist makes a fundamental change, usually because the threat—or reality—of death has become inescapable.

Those of us who have made major changes in our lives can most likely point to a moment when death or mortality made an indelible, inescapable impression on how we thought about ourselves and our lives. Basically, we found ourselves saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be this person anymore.”

The most essential necessity for such a moment is the capacity for honest, unsparing insight. Each of these men have shown me that.

One, a former general contractor who built high-end homes in northern California, beat his wife to death when he was blind drunk; she had confided to a woman friend that she was going to confront him and lay down the law: either he gave up drinking or she was leaving. One of the most affecting pieces I have ever read anywhere was his account of regaining consciousness in an isolation cell, confined within a straightjacket, growing increasingly aware that something terrible had happened, having the gnawing sense he was responsible, but not clearly remembering what it was. He tried to ask the medical attendants who came to check in on him what had happened, and they routinely responded, “Don’t worry about that now. Right now you need to focus on getting better.” (He’s written some other wonderful things, especially about his childhood, but this particular piece raised the bar for the whole class in terms of focusing a pitiless eye on the worst thing you’ve done.)

This inmate is now clean and sober (both alcohol and drugs are readily available in prison, incidentally). He has learned Braille and become an expert in transcribing science and math textbooks for the blind. He also volunteers for the hospice unit. (CMF has the only hospice unit in the California prison system; inmates too sick or too old to recover from their illnesses before release go there to die.) I asked this inmate why he volunteered. He responded, “I like helping the guys make a peaceful transition from this life to whatever comes after. I denied that to somebody once, and I’d like to make up for that somehow if I can.”

He recently petitioned the court for early release under new state guidelines. He was the first inmate in California to do so, setting a high bar for those who follow given his model inmate status. The judge, however, somewhat sloppily and disingenuously denied the motion for a hearing—despite a glowing letter not just from the CMF warden but the inmate’s brother-in-law, the sibling of the murdered wife (and numerous others, including me). 

I could tell you that this has taught me: Never set your hopes too high, or put your faith in the system. Both are legitimate takeaways. 

Instead, it’s taught me the importance of forgiveness.

Another of my best writers was a star student with the prospect of early entrance to college at the age of 16—only to fall into methamphetamine addiction. He routinely went to an older man who paid him for sex so he could feed his habit. One day, when blisteringly high, he decided to steal one of the older man’s cars. He knew the man worked until 1 AM, so he broke in a few hours before that with the plan of stealing any money or ATM codes he could find, then heading off in the car. But as he ransacked the house, unable to find any money, he looked into the room where he and the older man had sex, and his rage began to build—not just at the man but himself. He hated who he was, hated who he’d become. Meanwhile his thoughts churned obsessively, his whole body hummed from speed and his skin itched with the tiny imaginary creatures meth addicts feel bursting through their skin. The older man came home. The 18-year old hid behind the door, picked up a heavy rock used for a doorstop, and beat the older man to death when he entered.

The description of that episode is another of the most compelling and most searingly honest pieces of writing I have ever read. The 18-year-old is now nearing 50. He has been in prison for over thirty years. He continued using drugs when first incarcerated and embraced the hellish atmosphere of prison, girding himself with magazines, taping them to his torso and arms and legs to protect against knife wounds during the gladiatorial battles that sometimes took place on the tiers. It took over a decade for him to wake up, stop surrendering to his despair and self-loathing, and begin to find a way to live.

Which brings up another lesson learned: whether you rise up or give up, it’s your choice.

Not all of my murderers were high when they committed their crimes. One killed the man who raped and tortured his niece, and he has candidly admitted he would do it again. He broke his back in prison in a fall a decade ago and is confined to a wheelchair. Recently the prison doctor took his morphine away, claiming he didn’t need it. The pain is so severe he can barely get his thoughts straight, which brings up one more crucial lesson.

It’s something I’ve seen several inmates express in their writing. Far too often, prison has nothing to do with rehabilitation, or even punishment. What the men learn is that they are there to be hated. The goal of their incarceration is to convince them that they are not truly human. If they die in prison, regardless of their crime, who cares? It will put an end to the mess they’ve made of their lives, and the state will have one less mouth to feed. Win-win.

The fact that this only breeds even more violent criminals seems beyond the capacity for some guards and administrators to fathom. Hearing this firsthand from some of my students has taught me the truth to the following quotes from A Place to Stand, the excellent prison memoir by Jimmy Santiago Baca.

In one, he recounts being told by a fellow inmate of how he once had plans for a better life, hoping to do right, but the time when he felt that way passed while he was still in prison. Instead there was just the continuing punishment of incarceration past any time that was justified:

“[A]nd the hurt in your heart turns to bitterness, freedom turns to vengeance, and you look forward to getting out, not to resume your life but to hurt people the way they hurt you, for punishment that made no sense, for the hurting and hurting, for the day when you couldn’t take it anymore but you had to and you lost your humanity.”

Not everyone has the capacity to turn it around like the inmate I mentioned above who finally chose to live. Sometimes the crushing contempt and humiliation is too much to bear. And the lesson there? Again, from A Place to Stand:

The rage that came out of him was the kind of rage that can only be created in prison. The seeds of that rage are nourished by prison brutality and fertilized by fear and the law of survival of the fittest. It grows and grows, hidden deep in souls that have died from too many beatings, too many jail cells, and bottomless despair, contained like a ticking bomb. And this kind of firestorm wrath…once a man has it in him, the man, when the rage comes out, becomes a god.

I don’t want to end on such a harsh note, so let me wrap up instead with this: In our training, we are constantly cautioned against getting too close to the prisoners, feeling too sympathetic, or disclosing personal information about ourselves. The inmates are considered intrinsically manipulative, constantly seeking out human weakness in order to exploit it. 

Part of the training in this regard includes a film about a prison guard in Southern California named Felix who started by being friendly with one inmate in particular, then doing favors for the inmate’s family, and eventually buying drugs and bringing them into the prison. Felix is now incarcerated himself, and the training film ended with this stern admonition: Don’t be a Felix!

I relayed this to my class, telling them I’d been warned about just how devious and manipulative they are. One of them—another murderer, who writes wonderfully about growing up black in Sacramento during the 1980s—responded, “Damn straight. And I’m not just manipulative—I’m patient. Give me about 20 years? I’m gonna hit you up for a cigarette.”

And that’s one last thing I’m learning. These guys are funny. They almost have to be.

But the most important takeaway of all? I have it every Thursday evening right around 7:00 PM.

I get to leave.

Is there any activity that you’re engaged in that is creating a deeper understanding of the world, or a more profound compassion for people considered marginal in some way? How is that influencing your writing? If it isn’t, why do you think that is?M

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