What I learned while teaching inmates to write
First published in the Sept. 4, 2016 (Eugene, Ore.) Register-Guard Lifestyle section.
SALEM — An hour before I’m to present a three-hour writers workshop at the maximum security facility of the Oregon State Penitentiary, I’m having breakfast at a restaurant when my phone buzzes.
Brett Gilchrist, the senior pastor at University Fellowship Church in Eugene, has CC’d me with an email message he has sent to Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein, a chaplain at OSP. Gilchrist, a friend, is the one who asked if I would put on a workshop to inmates; he and a group from UFC meet with inmates every Sunday night and he’d learned a number are interested in writing. Would I be interested?
“Avrohom,” says Brett’s message, “I’m just confirming that the shutdown does not affect Bob’s class. If it does I assume he knows this.”
I stop chewing my eggs in midbite. Shutdown?
I searched “Oregon State Penitentiary” and “shutdown.”
“155 inmates fighting prompts Oregon State Penitentiary lockdown,” reads the headline
It happened five days earlier, a riot that started on a Friday night and continued into Saturday morning. Five inmates needed medical attention. More than 150 were placed in solitary confinement.
“So your numbers are going to be down a bit,” says Perlstein after I arrive.
On this early August morning, that’s the first thing I learn about life inside the prison walls: Outside, you’re not likely to lose a chunk of your students because they’ve been sent to solitary confinement for fighting. The second is this: These students in prison blues have hearts and hopes and stories — and a gob of guilt and shame and regret.
“In 1994, at age 16, I shattered peoples’ lives before I knew the value of life,” writes Sterling, a 37-year-old prisoner.
I had met him a few weeks before, when I’d come with Gilchrist and a handful of others from his church, to speak. And I liked him immediately. Upbeat. Outgoing. Affable. A self-described “mixed mulatto” with country-fair dreadlocks, an easy spirit and a warm smile.
Not at all like the image you’d expect of a man who had killed, in cold blood as part of a carjacking, an about-to-be-married couple who were saying good night to each other outside an apartment building 22 years ago.
Perlstein meets me in the check-in area. I fill out a release that I read fast, the only words that I recall being “hostage” and “possible death.”
No cellphones. No laptop. No pens. No wearing anything blue, a color reserved for the inmates. All I can take with me is a thumb drive on which I have a PowerPoint presentation. And a few books on writing.
After going through three security checks and three steel-barred doors, I’m in.
Perlstein escorts me to an upstairs room, sets up a projector and bids me farewell; he’s meeting with Jewish prisoners in the room next door.
Students begin arriving: Gabriel, who ran an ad agency. Allen, who says, “I just wanna tell my story.” A Portland executive who tried to asphyxiate his family.
“Thanks for being here,” says one man.
“Yeah, this is cool,” says another.
We shake hands. Joke about a laptop computer I’ll be using that’s so old it might as well be running on floppy disks.
“Hey, I used to read your column in The Register-Guard,” says one man.
Sterling, the prisoner who helped organize the workshop, takes me aside. “Hey, between 1:30 and 2, if a few guys get up and leave, don’t take it personally,” he says. “They need to leave for the shower line.”
We begin, 40 guys packed into a room with Mac Court tightness, a little over half white. Median age maybe 35. Some with tattooed faces, ear to ear; others who wouldn’t be out of place in a TV commercial.
The ice breaks faster than in a lot of college classes I’ve taught, particularly when we talk about the challenges of writing.
“My wife was an English lit major,” says one man. “She knew her stuff. I didn’t.”
For the next three hours, we talk metaphors and similes, beginnings and ending, humor and heart.
A Native American prisoner talks about seeking a grant to write about the Hidatsa Indians. Another man wants information on self-publishing.
“I want to learn how to write a letter to the parole board,” says another. “I got one chance. I need to make it good.”
When I give them short assignments, they’re quick to do them and eager to share what they’ve written aloud. I’m quick with praise, not just to blow smoke but because these guys can write.
And I think: When was the last time they were affirmed by anyone for anything? Most of the corrections officers I’ve seen are vanilla in expression, but the vibe of one toward the prisoners is decidedly: I’m special, you’re scum.
I don’t think these men are scum. I think that if, instead of having a “Wonder Years” upbringing, I’d been essentially orphaned at age 12 and sent off to live with an uncle who was deep into the street-drug scene, I might be a student today in this class and not the teacher.
That’s how it was for Sterling, who killed the couple at age 16. Does it excuse what he did? Not in the least. But if writing does anything, it offers context and understanding, pixels of gray for pictures that we too often see only in black and white. Gets us beyond the good guys-bad guys stereotypes, the righteous and unrighteous. Gets us to a semblance of empathy that these walls don’t often promote.
“Remorse,” writes Sterling, who is serving a life sentence, “tortures the soul with shame and regret as a continuous ache.”
The workshop ends. We talk of my returning. Say our goodbyes.
I leave with the same feeling I have after the two times I’ve been to Haiti, a confusing blend of hope, hopelessness, guilt and grace.
“So,” I say to Perlstein on the way out, “what have you learned from these guys?”
“That if you interact with them as humans — if you treat them with respect, you’ll get that back,” he says. “They’re more than the last bad thing they did.”
And, as I think of the beauty of Sterling’s words, they’re more than a continuous ache because of a past they can’t undo.
Welch writes books, teaches classes and gives inspirational talks. He can be reached at email@example.com. He will head up “Bob Welch & Friends at the Hult” on Oct. 22-23.
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