Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment
University of Arizona Press, 2007
208 pp., $19.95
Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer
University of Arizona Press, 2007
238 pp., $19.95
Beyond Bars: Looking inside the inside story
Day One Publications, 2007
144 pp., $14.00
Prisons and the Body of Christ
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.