Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chapter One -- James

He bends down to light his cigarette on the electric coil atop a steel post outside the Programs Building in the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison, Tucson Complex. The coil and post are beneath a hulking monster of a cottonwood tree. It doesn't look so good. Cottonwoods are thirsty trees and need hundreds of gallons on water on a day like today. I doubt the Department of Corrections sees watering a cottonwood as a high priority.

He takes a long drag before standing up and meeting my eyes with the question of whether or not I am coming in next Saturday. I tell him I am, and that seems to satisfy him for a minute. Only later will I understand just how important this simple act will be, for both of us.

His eyes are grey, narrow, intelligent. He is one of the regulars in the workshop. He is also one of the published writers and has won the Pen Prison Writing Contest not once, but twice. He knows I could use his help to energize the circle now that Richard has lost his clearance. He and the other men had been led to believe the workshops were history, and that kind of bad news travels fast in prison.

Richard had been faithful to the writers, meeting them famously on Christmas after a rare desert blizzard. James and the other men were less than optimistic about my chances of filling Richard’s large shoes.

We are on our way out, or rather, I am on my way out.  James is heading back to his “house,” his cell, and another afternoon waiting for chow, the next distraction in the grinding boredom of prison life.

There are the violent flashes, the race riots, the endless politicking and negotiations with the gangs, but mostly the days are dull.

"You know," he says, looking at me over his smoke, "the guys think you're too soft, that the workshops need more pressure, mas animo, you know." He said "animo" in clipped, fluent Spanish. His black stubble and tattoos told the story of gang affiliation, but I don’t speak that language and couldn’t give more detail than that. "And they think your hair is fake. Look, I know it's not, because I know you, but you need to know word isn't all good."

I don't know how to take this. Is he conning me, looking for my reaction? I see that my being here is, in part, a high stakes game, that trust isn’t given easily. In order for the workshops to thrive, I’m going to have to engage more of my passions than I am used to, will have to meet on level ground, as much as possible. That means opening up, not playing a phony role, trying to be something I’m not.

"I'm not Richard," I said. "The workshops are going to be different.... I can't do what Richard did, but I am going to do what I do."

We walk along the sidewalk to where it splits –  James’ path to the houses, mine to the control room, the other side of two locked gates, the sally port, the main yard gate, and the bus that runs between the yards.

"We'll see," he says. "See you next week," his tone making the statement almost a question.  

I found the “see you” interesting. It was exactly what I was thinking, but in a different sense. James was in a class of men that had been invisible to me. Like most people out here in the free world, I thought next to nothing about the men at down here at the end of prison row (or the women in their prisons). They had been expunged from my little mental map by omission and lack of looking as anything.

As I walked, it dawned on me that I might have to become visible to him and the others as well. I would be asked to bring my “A Game,” in that I could not ask them to do more than I was willing to do. James must have been reading my mind.

“And bring in some of your writing. I’d like to hear what you’re working on, if you know what I mean,” he said over his shoulder as he walked down the sidewalk to his house and the cell that waited for him there.

“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ve got a series going on lunacy.”

He liked that and chuckled. “You don’t look like the crazy type.”

“You might be surprised. Even us teacher nerds have stories.”

“Made up or real?”

“Mostly real, some made up.”

“I bet the real ones don’t include prison.”

“No, you got that.”

“Oh well… doesn’t matter, as long as it works. You know Louis Armstrong says ‘you just have to have the music in you.’”

He was too far down the walk to keep talking, and it was “count,” time to be in the cell.

I hefted the plastic tub and buzzed the gate. It clicked and I passed through, showed my badge at the window and turned in the radio.

“Any keys?” the officer asked.

“No. Just words,” I said.

He gave me a screwed up face and then “OK then.”


James, as much as any of the inmates I have worked with, embodied a deep respect for language, for creative work, for music, and the value of expression. He told me that without the purpose he gained from working on his writing, he would die in a way. He had a deep need to be seen, and was acutely aware of the obstacles to finding someone to see or hear him. 

Incarceration, and a social awareness of the men and women who live behind the wires, I would soon see, is only brought into public view when there is a race riot, an escape, or some lurid case of abuse of staff or other sensational news story. As men, as human beings, those we lock up in our prisons are all but forgotten.

There have been some television series about prison lately, but the human faces are mostly omitted from social awareness. There is far too little contact, too little dialogue, to little caring.

It would take a while, but I would begin to see the humanity behind the masks of tattoos, hear the voice behind the armored persona.

Yes, I would see James and hundreds of others. And I would find in them more than I could ever have imagined.

There is a city here, I say, like some amazed explorer, a small ocean of humanity, hungry to compose a meaningful life, at the end of Wilmot, just down that prison road.

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