Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing & Prison - What they have in Common

By Ed Griffin

I started writing at the same time I went to prison as a volunteer teacher. This was in a maximum security prison in Wisconsin. I still had a lot to learn about writing, and a lot to learn about prison.  
            The main thing I did in prison was listen. The guys wrote little things and I praised them for their effort and made little suggestions. The men were happy that a teacher seemed to think what they did was worthwhile. After every class, one by one they said “Thanks for coming, Ed”
            One day a man stood up in class and started babbling about how it was the rocks on the shore of Lake Michigan that caused him all this trouble. It was their fault he was in prison.
The other guys said things like, “Come on, Rocco, we’ve heard this before. I was getting a little nervous. Rocco kept on and addressed the seven men in the class as if they were hundreds.
A young man in the back stood up and walked to the front. I knew his name was Brian. He took Rocco by the arm, and said, “Come on, man, I’m going to help you.” Rocco grumbled a bit, but sat down and was quiet. Brian sat right next to him. I knew that if I had trouble, these guys would help me out.
In 1988 my family and I moved to Surrey in British Columbia. I offered to teach in prison there. “Thank you for your offer, Mr. Griffin, but we have a complete college program in our prison.”
I was impressed. I knew that education was the true way out of crime and here was a prison that went beyond high school completion and offered men and women a change for a college degree. I thanked the official and said I would stay in touch.
A few years later the university program ended. What killed it? Complaints from some people said, “These convicts are getting a free college education and I have to pay a lot of money for my daughter’s education.”
One official I talked to claimed that the university was teaching things like history and writing when they should have had courses in welding and the like.
I called and volunteered again. This time they accepted my offer. I started teaching in Matsqui prison in 1991.
I always had a good size class. I knew that I wasn’t creating a lot of writers, but I was giving men a chance to do something creative. There was a saying, “When I write, I’m not in prison.” In other words they were carried into lands of mystery, fantasy, science fiction and so forth.
One man was a real writer, Mike Oulton. He was a person who gets a few ideas from a teacher and then takes off on his own. Mike was doing eight years in Canada for importing cocaine. He had already done two years in a Mexican prison. He, himself, was not a user. In fact he told you could never trust a junkie.
Mike and I decided to write a book about prison. I, the outsider, would be totally against prison, while he, the insider, would say that prison helped some guys. Our book would be called Inside-Out, the Story of Prison.
We were half finished with the book when Mike came up for parole. Everything looked okay until the morning of the hearing. His case worker reported that a cellphone was found in his part of a double cell. “It was hidden in a sock and Mr. Oulton used the cellphone to make drug deals.”
“It wasn’t even my sock,” Mike said. He didn’t say anymore because that would be against the con code of not telling on another person. However, everyone knew that Mike’s roommate was not to be trusted. Mike’s caseworker opposed his early release. Then something unusual happened. Mike’s previous caseworker stood up. “I know it’s impolite for me to comment on another caseworker, but this is a mistake. Mike has completed all his programs and has everything lined up for release, a job, a half-way house, and contact with a parole officer. We all know who the real guilty person is, but Mike will never say his name.”
The parole board rejected his early release and gave him a year and a half more in prison, at a cost to taxpayers of 50,000 dollars.
Mike said to me, “I’m rewriting my part of the book. I want to call the book Dystopia, the opposite of Utopia. Prison is a place where men are torn down but not put back together.”
What did I learn in my twenty-four years as a teacher of creative writing? That writing helps some people find out who they are. Writing brings hope to a place where there is no hope.
I went to prison every Friday morning. It was like I was standing by a river and men were floating past me. Occasionally I reached in and grabbed one man and worked with him but many more floated by. I knew in my heart that I should go upstream and find out why these men were floating down the river.

I never did that, but I know I made a difference for some guys. 

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