One gate closes behind us and there is a moment when we are locked between two sets of high chain link fence in the walkway. Another gate opens and we walk forward into a yard of gravel, sun-bleached white sidewalk and high white walls. I am reminded of my army brat childhood. Checkpoint Charlie. Nothing grows here in no man’s land. There are guards in the towers above us and no one anywhere in the yard. A few putt-putt golf carts to motor visitors around, carrying those who come to the prison to work, those who are neither inmates or guards, from one remote yard to another. It’s silent except for the occasional mocking of sea gulls, a five-hour drive inland from the sea. At the beginning of the Great Basin, the one thing that strikes me every Monday as I make the trek there from my home in the neighboring county is the sky. Clear powdery blue like prison uniforms and dotted with billowy white clouds. Other than the white walls, that’s all they see.
I wasn’t at my prison today, I was at the neighboring one. My first time there. I’d been reluctant to teach there. Scared, really. But another artist invited me to her classroom to do a workshop and it was a good way to make my introduction.
I made copies of the assignment and poems we’d be working our way through. We were supposed to have twenty students in the first class and twenty in the next. My fellow teacher doesn’t have a classroom anymore, but a dining hall that looks like an abandoned seating area in a closed amusement park. We had eight students show up. There are two narratives to that—inmates say the guards didn’t let them out for programming, and guards say inmates didn’t come when they were called.
They file in, singular and by twos, and the two instructors I’m with shake each of their hands and call them by their first name. I do the same. It hadn’t occurred to me to shake hands with the class I’ve been running down the road at the other prison, but I always make it a point to say inmates names, especially the Spanish surnames that often seem to be mispronounced purposefully. Today one of the instructors is giving out dictionaries. That’s it, just dictionaries, and it’s almost like Christmas. No one, it seems, has ever given some of these men such a thing before. There’s unbelievable excitement. We almost lose the class to the immediacy of the dictionary in hand.
“The last word in the dictionary is zygote,” one of them says. “We start a zygote and our words end there.”
I was never particularly interested in teaching in prisons. FRC had a program to do so, but I didn’t choose it. We often offered students in prison classes that were not available on campus, but I felt like I owed it to my students to be on campus, owed it to those first-generation-college students, be they from immigrant families or meth trailer families, who had kept it together despite the odds and not committed any crimes. But three years ago? A student in a night class, high on something, threatened to hurt me and a fellow student, and got within six inches of my face. He played basketball for the college, and the college did nothing to reprimand him. I filed a restraining order and he spent the rest of the semester taking a class online from someone else. Later, he went to jail for domestic violence, but I never felt safe teaching there at night again. I’d only teach daytime classes. But then there was the overwhelming sense of entitlement, the vibe I kept getting from the majority of the students: rodeo students claiming poor when they drove trucks I could never afford, baseball and football players wanting “A” grades for just showing up. I felt it was a good time to leave the adjunct life.
Two years later, I heard about artists teaching in prison, about a program where the emphasis is on the artist who happens to teach, rather than the teacher who happens to teach the arts. Where the emphasis on the inmates’ rehabilitation and cultivation of– though I’m sure the prison doesn’t couch it in this word—the soul. I contracted to do two creative writing classes because I realized I still love teaching, and freelancing is a little touch and go.
Now every Monday morning I spend an hour on the road to get to the “Men in Blue,” as they prefer to be called, and each evening I return with a million thoughts in my head. One class is mostly men who will be released in 18 months or less; some will go on to fire camps and become fire fighters during fire season. Some are there on their third to fifth DUI, and the lower camp seems to be largely drug related offenses—or so their memoir pieces inform me. Addiction runs heavily alongside stupid life choices. Sometimes there’s an inmate who has made it to this less stringent yard from one of the more secure yards above him. For good behavior. A willingness to do rehab. A willingness to take arts classes rather than get involved in the drama of the dorms.
And then there’s the second class, in another yard, inmates with longer sentences. I’ve had the same students in that one all year. They’ve made zines, written scenes for a play. They write poems, and memoir. I have a couple of men in here that have life sentences, but a couple have transferred to a lower yard and two have been released.
You have to move beyond what they did to get here, in order to do this work. You cannot judge the past. It is live-in-the-moment work. The goal of the institution these days is to find new definitions for the word “rehabilitation.” For us that means bringing the arts.
I wonder sometimes if my student inmates, who all came of age during No Child Left Behind, when arts funding was cut and nonfiction replaced fiction and poetry in the classroom, would be here now if they’d had the lifeline of arts-as-therapy and as joy. If the medium of their self-expression had been music and painting instead of drugs, drinking, pimping, and robbery. Would California have such a huge prison industrial complex?
You can’t give memoir assignments in here and dance around the harsh reality of where we are. Nor can you pretend reading assignments of American novels with white protagonists contemplating privileged life will fly, no matter how well they’re written. I try to find them something relatable that will also pass guard muster.
They tell me they want to plagiarize Neruda for the women who are corresponding with them, because he ‘knows how to say what women want to hear.’ They liked Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Junot Diaz too—and they mourned when they found out about him. They’d just met him and then…
Like me, they thought Nathanael West was spot on with his take on mobs of “white people from the Midwest,” as one of them declared. One guy told me that my giving him Zora Neale Hurston and other women writers has made him a feminist. I’ve searched out reading material tailored to each of them. The Hmong students were visibly ecstatic when I came in with Hmong-American short stories from a recently published anthology.
There is something that seems to be working between us. We write together; we share work. They ask me to describe the world outside; I ask them to describe whatever they need to—the past narrative that landed them here, that elusive crossroad they are hunting down in prose. I ask them to describe life now, behind bars. They describe the blue sky and the white clouds and the seagulls like I do. They ask me sometimes what the woman’s perspective is on various things. I remind them that I have a feminist perspective.
When I was being interviewed for the job, the supervisor wanted to know if I thought I could relate well to “urban” inmates. A coded question. We live in rural California, in counties that are 90% white. I’m a fair-skinned Latina from Los Angeles. At least four of my student inmates hail from the same 15-mile stretch of southeast Los Angeles county that I’m from. I know the slim choices some of them had. They try to give me sob stories, and I know those stories. I have them too. One time they asked me if I had any regrets as they were writing about theirs. Yes. I shouldn’t have gone to graduate school and taken out a student loan I can’t afford. “Mrs. G,” they say. ‘You could do a couple of “jobs” and pay that off in no time. “I know,” I say. “But I choose not to do that.” That’s a hard one. Many of my students are eldest children of half-orphaned families. They took to the streets to provide for the siblings left behind by divorce, poverty, or incarceration of their parents.
There’s a fine mix of rehabilitation and restoration of humanity that goes on in the classroom, and later when they are reading and writing in their cells. But the Men in Blue are never that far away from their reality. The California Three Strikes Law (three felonies = a life sentence) has many here permanently. Stuck. I came in thinking murder and rape were the big life felonies, but really it’s using a gun to commit a crime, or a repeated offense, like being caught with or selling drugs. One guy is in for having a firearm in his house as a felon. I asked why he took the risk. He said in his neighborhood it was necessary. His family’s house had been broken into too many times not to have protection.
Most of my students have been to prison more than once. Half were parole violations; hard to stay on the straight and narrow when released into neighborhoods full of the challenges that sent them there in the first place. And then there are others who’ve been in long enough to change direction. Long enough to hardly recognize the young men they were. My self-proclaimed feminist student is in for many things, among them sexual assault. Another student was a pimp. After readings by female authors one student says things like, “It never occurred to me before that women also thought like men.”
“Thought like people,” I say. He nods.
Sometimes I share my work with them. Like a story recently published in a noir anthology where the two murdered bodies are decomposed in an inventive way. I enter the classroom the week after a few have shared the book. One student who tends to write romances offers this observation: “Mrs. G? Your mind is a little disturbing. You actually think of things like this? We don’t know about you sometimes…”
I cannot pinpoint how cathartic teaching in prison has been for me. Perhaps because identity is so laid bare. Perhaps because there is no pretense. I am given an alarm and a set of keys. We have specific roles to play. There’s no privilege anywhere for long. When I’d been there six months, I told my students about the kid who attacked me at the college and how no one did anything, and how it made me fearful to get in front of a class. After that they started sharing more too. I’ve seen them be protective of me when a new student comes in and tries to press boundaries. I’ve asked about their children, their mothers. You can only do this sort of work if you can find common ground. In 18 years of teaching, I finally have a group of American students who really want to learn. Before now I only found that when teaching English as a Second Language.
They acknowledge in their old neighborhoods, there’s always a girl like me who goes to college while the boys in her family go to gangs. We are all part of the same system. We write together. We critique each other, heaping on the praise and the encouragement as well as the criticism. We are not afraid of each other now.
Last week we held a mini-reading. Everyone had to bring the best thing he was working on to share. In another arts class, there was a concert. Two of my inmate students are also in the choir. The instructor said they did a good deal of picking the songs she arranged, among them “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail, and “Those Were the Days.” I thought about the new context of hearing those songs in prison. It was all surreal but fitting. I thought of the bright clear blue sky over the prison and its white clouds. I now think of my students and that 45 minute drive to see them whenever its blue like this.
One of my students, who’d spent six weeks in solitary for going a bit crazy one Sunday after church, sang a solo in “Amazing Grace.” I couldn’t hold back the tears and I was in the front row. I looked around me at the prisoners in the audience who were feeling it too. After the concert, he thanked me for coming. He’s serving a life sentence. Unlike some of the inmates whose enrollment in courses can mitigate less grievous sentences, his won’t. I asked him once why he did all these things now, why he sings, writes, studies his Bible, and reads more than any student I’ve ever seen, knowing it won’t help his situation.
“It is helping. I know who I am now.”
Another student in the same predicament wrote about what he was grateful for one day. “I’m grateful for this life sentence,” he wrote, “it’s what finally set me free.”
Margaret Elysia Garcia is the co-founder of Pachuca Productions—a Latina microtheatre where she writes, directs, acts and produces original and vintage vaudeville shows. She is the author two short story collections: Sad Girls & Other Stories and Mary of the Chance Encounters as well as six poetry chapbook collections. She is a reporter for Feather River Publishing. She has taught in prison since August 2017.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.