fun afternoon in prison

Spent yesterday afternoon writing poems with a group of men at New Folsom – aka California State Prison: Sacramento. The Arts in Corrections room at this prison is small and stifling, but filled with paintings, books, musical instruments, and men doing serious work to make the next steps on their journey more in line with their hearts and souls than previous steps may have been.

When we walked out of the prison after class, Jim Carlson (who puts the arts program together at New Folsom) wondered again, perhaps for the hundredth time in the 23 years we’ve worked together, why people in prison are the absolute best students. Most everyone who teaches in prison notes that while students in high school, and often in college, might or might not pay attention and be involved, students in prison are always engaged, willing to try the exercise, and bring their whole selves to discussions and making art. I’ve done a lot of prison-arts teaching, and I’ve heard over and over from others doing similar work that prison students are the best group of students ever. Jim was asking, again: Why? Is it that there’s so little else positive to do? Is it because doing time is in fact doing time, and time slows down in a way that allows one to focus? Is it because the prisoners who choose to come to art classes have already self-selected? We contemplated this reason and that, but underlying all the reasons is this: the men in the arts room are human beings who have struggled with the wrong done in their lives (wrong done to them as children, wrong done by them as adults) and now want to explore what “right” might be in their lives.

Yesterday afternoon, after two hours of writing, I brought out cardboard, construction paper, glue sticks, and images from magazines. I showed the men Kenneth Patchen’s picture poems and we spent an hour making some of our own. At one point I looked up to see 15 men absorbed in cutting-and-pasting. These big guys, men half-the-world seems afraid of, looked like the 5 year olds they once were. Play was the mood in the room, fun -- and the intense concentration inherent in fun. I asked if any of them remembered playing like this when they were little, and except for one who went to a church group once-a-week, they all said no.

Which reminded me of another time I was at New Folsom and Rick said, “If anyone had ever asked me to put my feelings on paper when I was a kid, who knows how my life might have turned out?”

Having spent my work life sharing poetry with kids and with prisoners – and working now primarily with youth in San Francisco – the path (an intentional one as far as I’m concerned) between some of our kids and prison is obvious. (The path between other of our kids and power is equally obvious.) I don’t think we can even talk about prison without talking about our children.

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2 Responses
  1. Becky :

    Date: June 30, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    I am so glad there are people like you out there in the world, Judith. Someone who sees beyond the criminal and sees the human being within.

    Gives me hope.

  2. Liz Irwin :

    Date: July 8, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    I have a friend–a pen friend, whom you have taught and given so much. i admire you and envy you and am grateful for him.

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