TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — "How the f— is this going to affect my life at all?"
was on the first day of class at the Idaho State Correctional Center
that creative writing instructor Shane Brown was confronted with this
question from an inmate.
As the class of 25 quickly thinned out,
the answer was clear: for some prisoners, not much. Inmates who
questioned the importance of writing and art were quickly weeded out.
Most were just trying to find a distraction, trying to find some way to
escape the boredom that they found in the routines they repeated
hundreds, possibly thousands, of times.
was a class for the people who wanted to learn. This was for the
inmates who really wanted to change. But the question still remained:
What would they get out of this?
Brown initially planned to visit
the Boise prison just four times. He prepared to teach the class and
coax out strong writing so the inmates' pieces could be performed by
professional actors for the College of Southern Idaho's "Stage Door"
series put on by the school's fine arts department.
Brown teamed up with Camille Barigar, the director of community enrichment, to put the program together.
didn't start out as a way to let prisoners find their voices. The plan
wasn't to get them in front of a crowd to perform their pieces.
But after the first day of class, the trio did some soul searching. What started as a pet project turned into a mission.
almost a year later, Brown, Barigar and Sakolsky-Basquill make the
drive to the Idaho State Correctional Center every two weeks on their
own time and gas. The trip, they said, was always worth it. They had
grown protective of their students, and they couldn't let them down.
"I don't know when this project will end," Brown said. "I want writing to reinforce the fact that they are human."
creative writing class is the first partnership between the Idaho State
Correctional Center and CSI. The results have been universally
positive, said David Mehlhaff, education program manager at the prison.
inmate once told Mehlhaff that the workshop is more than just writing —
it gives him the rare opportunity to interact with people from outside
The creative writing class encourages reflection on
who the prisoners are, what their existence means and why they committed
the acts that landed them in prison. There is often a shift in how they
view life, Mehlhaff said.
"This isn't a traditional class," Mehlhaff said. "It gives them a voice for their soul."
highest level of traditional schooling offered in Idaho state prisons
is a GED diploma. According to Idaho Department of Correction data,
almost half of Idaho inmates enter prison without a high school diploma
or GED certificate.
"I've worked with the department for 24
years," said Julie Oye-Johnson, director of education services at the
prison. "The change that comes with inmates after education is
incredible. They learn to have different views of themselves."
participate in extracurricular classes, inmates must have at least a GED
diploma and must be free of disciplinary offenses. Oye-Johnson said
it's a rare opportunity for higher-level classes to come into prison, so
most participating inmates take it seriously.
"You've got a place
where these guys are outside, figuratively, of the barbed wire," said
Marla Archibald, the prison's academic instructor.
A benefit with
the creative writing class, Archibald said, is that the students have to
be vulnerable in front of their fellow inmates. Brown's class offers
them a unique chance to get outside of their cliques and coexist.
Through writing, they can share their pasts and their fears.
Under normal prison circumstances, Archibald said, "Guys who are vulnerable here are chewed up and spit out."
April 6, there are six days left until the prisoners perform. Brown,
Barigar and Sakolsky-Basquill make their bi-weekly trek to Boise to help
the students practice.
The inmates, sitting at their desks before class starts, joke about what they'll wear to their performance.
"I'm thinking of wearing my greens," says Daniel Alonzo, Prisoner No. 115560.
"That'll be embarrassing if we wear the same thing," says Jacob Dumars, No. 97876.
the trio of class instructors arrives, Brown stands at the front of the
class and delivers an impromptu speech. He encourages the class not to
be intimidated by the audience. He says to perform successfully, they
must trust one another.
Before beginning rehearsals, they must first address the elephant in the room: the absence of Michael Wright, No. 66753.
was a prominent figure in the prison's black and Islamic communities
but had recently been moved to Karnes County Correctional Center in
Texas because of a lack of space and mattresses in Boise. He was one of
four students in the class transferred to Karnes County.
the prison's public information officer, said county jails typically
handle overflow prisoners from the state correctional center. But
Idaho's swelling incarcerated population left no room for Wright and the
others in county jails, Ray said, so they had to be moved to Texas.
absence was felt that day. The inmates wanted Wright's friend to come
in to perform his pieces, but the three Twin Falls instructors were
adamant that the other inmates perform them instead.
"I'm not talking about getting the voice. I'm talking about the representation," said Jason Burdett, No. 56361.
is a large man with a layer of tattoos covering his body. He has been
in prison for more than 20 years, and he'll be there for the rest of his
life. He said he's seen a lot of people break down in prison, but he's
one of the fortunate ones who found a purpose.
In 2011, he started
doing some heavy self-reflection on who he was. He learned to crochet,
learned braille, and took every class he possibly could. Burdett became a
positive force within the prison walls.
Aside from the occasional
teasing at one another's expense, there is a real sense of camaraderie
in the class. Everyone is on the same level. No one is exempt from
criticism, but there is an unquestioned star among them.
Byron Sanchez, No. 112101, has a dark, thick beard, and tired eyes that belie his razor-sharp wit. And can he ever write.
high school he had a scholarship to study English at the University of
Rochester. He passed on the full ride, however, because of the death of
his mother. Nothing sounded worse than trying to play the part of a
happy college student.
The class buzzes when it's Sanchez' turn to
read his newest work. He writes droll stories about saloons, hilarious
odes to his favorite tobacco brands and heartbreaking stories from his
past. His selected pieces for the performance are a sampling of all
'A NIGHT OF SUNSHINE'
The audience files into the
meeting area on April 12. Rows of chairs are lined up, facing a podium
and a row of chairs where the inmates sit. Alfredo Roman, No. 20279,
plays guitar in the back corner. As a jazz musician, he appreciates
getting back into his comfort zone.
Brown heads up to the lectern first. He tells the audience he'll keep it short; brevity is the soul of wit, after all.
so proud of these guys. They wanted to have a voice," Brown says. "In
class, we talked about writing for your audience. Gentlemen, this is
your audience, and this is your purpose."
The audience applauds, but Brown bristles.
"Before we start, can we hold applause until the end of the show?" Brown says.
the first reader finishes, someone in the back of the room claps a few
times before trailing off, remembering Brown's strict instruction. For
the second reading, Jason Burdett reads his piece, "The Challenge of
Writing," about his begrudging relationship with writing and facing
himself. When he finishes, a woman in a bright pink jacket claps
thunderously and unapologetically.
Brown, turning to face the audience, gives in. "What the hell. Clap," he says.
The room erupts into applause.
King, No. 69192, shares his insecurities with the audience. Byron
Sanchez reveals that he is the next great American western writer.
Michael Wright's classmates read his story about holding onto his first
memory of his father.
Christopher Shanahan, No. 51937, with bright
eyes and a wide smile, reads his piece titled "Stars," about how
thankful he is for finding a semblance of redemption and for finding his
voice. As he shares his story, the only sound in the room is the dull
hum of nearby vending machines.
been with him during this journey," Dave Shanahan, Chris' father, said
after the show. "It's amazing to see where Chris is now."
Alonzo is the final performer of the night. As the youngest member in
the class, he writes with a raw honesty that makes his piece ideal for
punctuating the show's message.
"I've been in and out of jail since I was old enough," Alonzo stares at the audience. "But I'm tired of it."
When Alonzo finishes, the crowd offers a resounding ovation.
gather around the inmates, swarming the most popular people in the
room. The inmates share thoughts about their lives, their writing
processes and who they think they are. For some, this is largest outside
community they've seen in decades.
"I hope they do it again," said Janice King, Joshua's mother. "People tend to forget them in here."
"If it gives them a night of sunshine then it's worth it," said Sue Reneau, Joshua's aunt.
April 19, Magic Valley actors performed their version of the prisoners'
writings at the College of Southern Idaho. This was the show Shane
Brown had been preparing for since the inception of the project, before
the plan was hatched to have prisoners read their own works in Boise.
time, Camille Barigar gave a short speech before the show. She said
working with the inmates has been the most compelling intellectual
experience she's ever had, and she and Brown consider the inmates
"We couldn't spring them every night to perform," she said. "So we've got these guys from Twin Falls reading for them."
set was designed just like the one in the prison. The audience stared
down the performers, but behind the performers was a screen showing the
authors' prison identification numbers. The inmates said they wanted to
own their identities, so the screen showed their numbers while the
program provided their names.
The writings were grittier than at
the prison show because of prison rules on writing involving swearing or
any sort of seedier side of prison life. The CSI show featured the
unedited writings that included men defecating in the shower, dealing
with gang violence and not being able to send letters to their families.
'THIS IS WHAT'S REAL TO ME'
On April 27, the group met in the chapel.
The decision was in: Brown planned to continue the class. He would bring in more teachers and try to grow the performances.
"Before this class, I barely spoke," Roman, the jazz musician, said. "But you have awoken something in me."
took the class a while to gain its focus as the inmates reflected on
the surreal experience from 16 days prior. For a brief moment that
night, they were a part of the world again. The next moment, they
returned to their cells and played hours of dominoes.
"That wasn't real," Burdett said. "I've been here so long, this is what's real to me."
said his wife called him the day after the performance, absolutely
beaming. She thought the experience would be freeing for him. But it's
easier to feel free when you can leave after the show.
the chapel, Roman read a piece about his time with Keith Wells, the
first person to receive the death penalty in Idaho since the punishment
was reinstated in 1976. In the weeks leading up to his death, there was
speculation in the prison about whether music would be played on the
speakers in the moments before his death. It wasn't. Roman's piece
pondered life in prison and whether they were fortunate to be alive.
"What a penalty," Roman read, "to die in slow motion."
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com