Prison Writing

Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Rachel

The following is taken from an email that I just sent to my grandmother in Arizona. About a month ago, she mailed me Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer by Richard Shelton. I enjoyed this book and definitely think it’s worth reading.


I’ve been familiar with prison writing for some time now, but this book brought me an extensive glance into the prison world. I had some colleagues at NAU who taught classes at the local prison. Here at Georgia College, as part of our Arts & Letters journal staff, I read submissions and I received several from inmates in prison. Though I’ve heard several of my colleagues make offhand remarks about the writing and I never received anything that I deemed worthy of passing up to the Poetry editor, I always made sure to return the original poems (usually handwritten on notebook paper) in the included self-addressed stamp envelope along with the rejection notification. It broke my heart that people would send off their only copy of poems. I’m sure many prisoners don’t receive their work back.


I tried to enroll in the PEN Mentoring Program, serving as an anonymous mentor who corresponds with a prisoner through mail, but they have “enough” volunteers for 2011, and they “may” need more help in 2012. I don’t see how you can ever have too many volunteers, when it seems as though there are many, many prisoners out there who want to write and have others see/critique their writing, but for some reason they’ve got a cap on it.



Crossing the Yard brought me many familiar names of poets, including Barbara Anderson, my advisor at NAU. I thought the book was well-written, informative, and interestingly structured, considering Shelton is covering 30 years of working as a prison volunteer. For me, the most moving part of the book was the relationship between Shelton and Charles Schmid, since Schmid was the catalyst for Shelton getting into all of the volunteering. I will definitely be checking out texts from Shelton’s Suggested Work list at the back, so I can continue to inform myself on prison writing.


However, I thought the book’s conclusion and the idea that the solution to these problems is just to “go volunteer ourselves, teaching whatever field we specialize in” fell flat. The prison issues (from riots to race relations to rape) are far too complicated to be corrected simply by education. It seems as though we need to start much higher up with the law makers and law enforcers, decriminalizing most (if not all) drugs, decriminalizing white collar crime, etc.


By decriminalizing these lesser crimes, perhaps police will be able to spend more time focused on the important crimes— the murders, the rapes, violence against children. I certainly wish that the death of my Uncle TJ had been given the amount of attention it deserved by investigators, but I bet if I checked the city arrest logs and prison admission logs, we would find people who had vandalized a building or racked up too many speeding tickets. Our priorities are completely out of whack, and, though I appreciate all that teaching creative writing can offer on an individual level, I don’t think educating those within the prison can solve things from the inside-out.

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