Sunday, December 10, 2017


Attrition has struck the workshops at the Rincon Unit. Handpoet, Sonny, Champ, Bell, Psycho and others have all been moved off the yard, leaving the workshops thin and sparse. Where before fifteen to twenty men sat in the circle, now there are four. These transitions take a toll in terms of adjusting to the chemistry of the new men. Lovett and Stilo are still coming, so there is that continuity. But the pages of writing left by the men who have moved on still speak their voices. Yesterday I stood and read a piece by Handopoet, he who began the tradition of standing to read. The new guys just looked at me and listened, a little amused. This is an awkward time, but the personalities of the men in the workshops will fill in the gaps left by those who have moved on. The spirit of poetry carries on as long as we show up and invite it in.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

What's in a Cell?

Some say that a man (or woman) in a cell needs to be contained. Others say punished; hard time will keep him from coming back. Labels like predator, sociopath, felon, criminal, or worse often fall into the mix. The story then reveals what we think we should do about these people out there, locked up. Policy dictates deprivation, humiliation, degradation, dehumanization. Don't let them have books, tools, classes, rights, or any kind of opportunity. Or, given another scenario, they might be human beings who committed a crime, made mistakes, stupid decisions. If they have to do the time, why not make the time count for something? Why not work on changing whatever it was that contributed to their being in prison in the first place? Most inmates are where they are, in part, because of trauma of some kind. Poverty, violence, broken families, and drug abuse all contribute to time spent in prison. If inmates experience more trauma in prison, then they will likely return to what they already know when they get out. The worse we treat them, the more likely they will be back. That doesn't work. What's in a cell is a work in progress, a malleable human being, that can learn.  We could send them to school, give them job and business training, opportunities for creative expression, chances to learn how to cooperate and work together, or connect with families. Respect, trust, and skills can all contribute to men giving all that back and more if they get to practice. Practice makes better, if not perfect, no? 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Starting Over

It looks like the prison book isn't working. Publishers have passed on it; reviewers have offered up a big "eh," and it sits there, interesting only to yours truly. Now, I could just drop it and move on. But that would make too much sense. The path of the upper Midwest worker boy too dumb to quit is one of persistence to the finish line, even if that line keeps getting pushed back. Either I will get there or I will expire. So, back to the drawing board. Time to begin again (after all the grading and paperwork of the semester, of course). Time to drop the resistance and re-imagine the project, think as a reader, find the story waiting in the mess of it all.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Before Gravity Takes Hold

Things are winding down for the semester. Classes are over; students are writing final papers; the days are short and nights are long. For all of that, I am grateful. I need a break to mull over what is going to happen over the next year. Let's just say the next chapter of this crazy life has not been drafted and has no plot line, no setting, and an unclear theme. I don't know if this is about realizing life-long dreams of writing or if it is a slow fade into darkness. Maybe a bit of both. I do know that I have stepped off the cliff of work, like Wile E. Coyote in the moment before he plummets into the abyss after realizing he is standing on thin air. The is no there there anymore. Just the facts. If my future is one of a fade into fog, some big decisions need to me made. But that will have to wait for now. I just need to get through the grading of this semester and survive the spring. Then it's all about looking down for something to hang onto. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dream Day

The morning promised rain by afternoon, though none was in the forecast. I stood on the corner watching for lost students. Our class was going to meet at the Little Chapel, a special place, a sweet setting, one that would put them on stage, in front of an audience, where students would present their community projects; those projects will address some issue related to incarceration. We had read memoirs: A Place to Stand, Writing My Wrongs, Beyond Desert Walls: Essays From Prison, Crossing the Yard, A Case For Freedom, and others. We had written, workshopped, reflected, argued, and laughed. It had been a wild, confusing semester, one in which I did not know sometimes what I was going to do in class until I stood there in front of living, curious, beautiful people. This assignment to write a proposal for a community project had stretched me in new ways. So there I was, standing on a corner, looking for my lost students, waiting for rain, feeling the cool December Arizona breeze, nervous about how it would go -- this new thing. When it was time, I turned and went to our room, the one where I would listen to what these lovely young people had dreamed up, what they imagined as a new possibility. It was time to enjoy. The first drops fell, tentative at first, then steadily, with a smell of water, of creosote.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

It's up to Art

A line of corrections officers marched across the yard, shotguns and automatic rifles held at the ready while I waited in no man's land for the lock to snap and the gate to swing open. This was a drill, but the ammo was live and the riot gear ready. Bad food, price gouging of commissary goods, exploitative pay for prison work, and the big stuff like loss of voting rights and social invisibility have all contributed to inmate anger. It builds up to a boiling point. A man in the workshops assaulted an officer. The details, as told by inmate witnesses, involved an argument over hanging up a phone call. The inmate was talking to his mother and had some minutes left on the call. The officer wanted him to hang up. The inmate asked to use up his allotted time. The officer pressed his order and took the phone. The inmate then cursed at the officer, a struggle over the phone followed, a radio was smashed, and the inmate was sent to the hole. The phone hung on its cord, transmitting the sounds of struggle to the mother. The trigger for the assault was the phone call, but years of disrespect and humiliation had been subjects of this inmate's writing. He saw his place in the web of inequalities clearly. The spark has been struck.Tension fills the yard, and the workshops are under scrutiny. The men want to write. They want to write stories, letters, editorials; they want to bear witness. It seems up to art to turn the machine of a the prison system out of control toward something that corrects and rehabilitates rather than deprives and punishes. If not art, then what?

Saturday, December 2, 2017


This November was the warmest on record, a month in the warmest year, which was one of the three warmest years, all of them in the last four years. No pattern there if you listen to the deniers. And the polluters need more more freedom to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, tax cuts too. And rich people need more money. And people of color need to be less uppity. And poor people should just take care of their health without insurance. Oh, and resources will last forever. If you have anything to say you should just tweet. Don't listen or read or compromise. That's all loser behavior. Shortcuts, deal making, and getting more and more and more is the way to go, for sure. If you feel somehow uneasy about this, get a comb-over and beat up anyone who says otherwise. That'll work. We're good.