Dispatches | September 20, 2013

litOnLockdown (2)

Welcome to the launch of our brand new blog series, “Literature on Lockdown.”  In this series, we hope to shed light on a group of writers and teachers who are working or living in our correctional institutions. We hope to showcase honest narratives from people who teach literature and the craft of writing, and from those who are currently or have been incarcerated.

The seed for this series began back at AWP 2012, when my fiancé suggested that we attend the panels that discussed teaching in prison. They were encouraging writers and teachers to give back to their communities, as well as share a love of the craft with a group of people who are often misunderstood or forgotten. I had always considered doing it myself, but a fear of my height, my gender, and a fear of staying up late watching marathon sessions of Lock Up: Raw kept me from pursuing it with any seriousness.

When I pitched the idea in our weekly editor’s meeting, the staff seemed to like it. Quite a number of people in our community have performed this service. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our own Editor-in-Chief, Speer Morgan, was one of those who had previously volunteered his time. He shared with me some of his experiences:

“This was the seventies. I was 30-something living in San Francisco, and I tried to teach in the county jail. It was an intriguing prison that had been built in the 1920’s or 30’s south of the city. It was in the foothills not far from the ocean and moaning from the ocean wind. In the past it had been an agricultural prison where they grew their own food. The person in charge very gently directed me away from volunteering because he could tell how inexperienced and naïve I was.   So while I was turned down from my first prison teaching request, I then came back to Missouri and got a job at the Moberly Area Correctional Institute.

It is medium security, and many of the inmates are there for drug-related offenses. It’s an example of how misguided we are in our prison policy and how much money and time we waste putting people in prison, for example, for selling marijuana. The year that I spent teaching there was wonderful. I liked the students. They were all serious about learning how to write, whereas I had to learn a lot from them. They were all very much into the course. As much as any beginning writing class.

I did have some amusing experiences there–like the first day, when I went into class and one of the men asked me, “It says here you a doctor. What kind of doctor are you?

“I’m a doctor of literature. Just a doctor of literary studies.”

“Oh, okay,” he said dubiously.  “Doctor of literature., hmmm!”

One afternoon, I took a walk in the yard with one of the men during break and he told me very honestly and sincerely that he really wanted to write, but he had a real weakness. He was just now realizing how profound that weakness was. He really only knew about one area of knowledge–drugs. He was thinking very hard about how limiting that was.

I told him, ’You’ve got your voice and there is nothing more powerful than the human voice.  If you develop that voice through reading other works and through practicing your writing, there is nothing that can empower you more quickly than that.’

In the course of the semester he became one of the best writers in the class.

They were all serious writers, and they were very serious about reading as well. I am really delighted that we are doing this series.”

If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.