An inmate in the prison workshops sat in the back for months before speaking. When he finally spoke, it was to challenge my take on one of the stories we were discussing. The story, to me, was a dead-end event of violence and the comforts of drugs. He disagreed, with thinly veiled contempt, with my recommendation that the writer consider an audience bigger than a prison audience, other inmates.
He said he didn't care what the "free world" thought or understood of prison life. He did not care if the story never incorporated some larger significance, went beyond the mere incident. Further, he called into question my authority to make any judgment about prison writing. I, after all, knew nothing of prison life.
He scared me, and that was the first time, doing the workshops, I had felt that way.
He was a "brother" in the AB, the Aryan Brotherhood, and had the tattoos to broadcast his status. He was also an imposing figure, a wrestler with the crushing hands, bulk, and neck of someone to steer clear of.
One time, during a lock-down, as chance would have it, he and I were the only two in the workshop. Face to face for two hours. I told him he scared me, the only inmate ever to do so. He smiled, and let down his guard a bit. He said he had a reputation to maintain and that he could not afford to be seen with me, or as anything like a teacher's pet, or even someone interested in something as effete as writing.
I got it, and we began to play out our roles as nerdy teacher and tough-guy disruptor with a little more humor. He began to write in ways that defied the AB code. He even wrote a piece about a Jewish guard saving the life of a skin-head. That piece was published recently in the The Sun, A Magazine of Ideas.
He was transferred after about two years in the workshop, and I was sad to see him go. I missed the energy he brought to our meetings, the incentive he gave me to stay alert and on my teaching toes.
After the piece in The Sun came out, I heard that he was beaten nearly to death, and had many bones in his face broken. The last news I heard was that he was under protective custody. I don't know the motive behind the assault, or who the perpetrators were, but doubt and disloyalty in certain groups is not tolerated.
I also do not know it he ever saw the pieces I published in our inmate magazine or if he ever received his copies of The Sun. I do know that he had the guts to speak words that might get him shunned or worse, that he found a way transmute some of his hate into a harsh and beautiful truth.
I will take copies of his story in to workshop this week and will see how the inmates respond. I will let the truth speak for itself.
Here is a short version of the piece: