Working with Prisoners on the Path to Repentance
Twenty men sit in a circle of pews rearranged to face each other, Quaker-style. One very small gray-haired lady, wearing a favorite purple tunic, floats through the sea of gray prison garb and greets each man with a smile and a handshake. I am that lady, and I ask each man his name and introduce myself over and over, “Hi, I’m Ruth,” as I hand out composition books and cheap pens. No one really knows what to expect. Some are eager, some skeptical; a few sport mocking grins while others share shy smiles, and others look down at their feet and wonder why they even came to the chapel, a space usually reserved by prison culture for born-again Christians and sex offenders. Some men just lean back and enjoy the air conditioning on this humid summer afternoon, oblivious to the other men or the volunteer.
“What’s your name? Your first name. Not your last name. Not your DOC [Department of Corrections] number. Not even your nickname. Names are important. What’s your name?” I smile and make my way around the circle. The chaplain comes out of his office to announce, “Yard is closed for count. No one else is coming.”
I introduce myself one more time, smile, and ask each man to close his eyes, breathe in through his nose, and sigh that breath out through his mouth. “Do this three times,” I say and proceed to do just that myself. Though I don’t know for sure because my own eyes are shut, I suspect that the men are eyeing each other and marveling at a woman who closes her eyes so easily sitting in a circle of convicted felons. First lesson of the day: trust is crucial.
“Some of you may know me; I taught some of the college classes over in education. I noticed when I was teaching public speaking that there is a lot of creativity in this place.” I nod as knowing smiles and manly chuckles respond to my praise, then continue:
I asked the chaplain if I could tap into that creativity and offer a class where the students would be encouraged to express their creativity in positive ways. Though we are holding class here in the chapel, this is not a religious class. I maintain that we are never closer to God than when we are creating, so I guess I could say this class is spiritual, though not necessarily religious. You may be a born-again believer, a relapsed believer, pagan, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, or someone confused about it all. I myself was raised a devout Southern Baptist, dabbled in Buddhism, and became a convinced Quaker ten years ago. We will respect what you have to say. The purpose of the class is to give you a way to say what you want to say, not to approve or disapprove of what you want to say. Now, I have 20 years experience as an acting teacher and have also taught creative writing. What’ll it be, gentlemen? You tell me. What should we work on?
Side-long glances and low whispers. Finally a big guy with shoulder-length hair and tattoos down both arms speaks up. “Let’s try writing, Miss Ruth. Most of us have been acting all our lives.” Second lesson: choices count.
Photo by Lightfield Studios
That’s what we do for two hours every Monday afternoon; the men and I look at each other with “soft eyes” through the lens of their writing. They forgive themselves and the world a little bit while “writing themselves sane.” Their memories, poems, and stories reveal their humanity to each other and—sometimes—to themselves.
That’s how it all began: creative writing at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, a minimum security facility just outside the aged walls of Oklahoma State Penitentiary, a notorious maximum security prison located on the outskirts of McAlester, Oklahoma and site of one of the worst prison riots in the United States in July 1973. We met for two hours every Thursday until a rash of scheduled executions at “Big Mac” prompted the chaplain to suggest we change our meeting day to Monday— because executions are rarely scheduled for Mondays. Prisons all across the state go into lockdown when there is a scheduled execution. It seems that murder, especially state-sanctioned murder, can elicit strong responses from those who know, firsthand, what it feels like to live in a cell, to walk down a hall in shackles, to be deprived of control in one’s life, to lose all hope.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, I drove 50 miles to Jackie Brannon and gave out notebooks and pens to whoever showed up every Monday for ten years. It’s a very fluid yard, the last stop for many men before they go home or to a work release center. There are “short-timers,” men who received relatively short sentences for nonviolent crimes. And there are men who have been in prison for 30 years or more. There are many men who have been convicted of drug crimes and a substantial number of sex offenders. There are elderly men who will die in prison before their sentences are fully served.
Keeping gangs separated is always a challenge at a facility where there is relative freedom to move around. The men are housed in pods, not cells, in three buildings. There are no walls. It is a privilege to be at a minimum security prison, and men who can’t handle that privilege are shipped to medium-security facilities: “back behind barbed wire,” the men lament.
A creative writing student may use the class as an opportunity to trace his choices throughout his life. One of the writing cues is “How did I get here?” A man may utilize the class as an opportunity to get honest with himself, perhaps for the very first time. Most men do write, but some do not. Most men share what they write; some do not. Some men just come to listen. Some men practice their sermons; some read the letters they want to write to their wives or kids or mothers, but dare not because they fear rejection. Some come because it is a quiet, safe place: an oasis in a crowded, noisy, temperamental, sometimes violent environment. Some just come for the notebook and pen, bartering these items on the pod when they return to their units. I’m fine with that, knowing that many of these men have no support from the outside, no money on their accounts for the coveted ramen noodles or candy bars they can purchase through the weekly canteen.
Tyrell declared one day that he and the other guys in the class were “writing ourselves sane.” Until he started writing his story, Tyrell believed that the anger which had resulted in his incarceration was always justified. “I never start a fight,” this small town, freckle-faced Oklahoma boy declared. “But I never lose one either.” The rest of us waited expectantly for Tyrell to bring in his weekly account of the crime spree that had seemed justified to him— until he saw it in black and white and recognized the pattern of violence in his life. After his release Tyrell emailed me, “Still doing good, Miss Ruth. Staying out of trouble. Using that breathing exercise you taught us. Got my boy with me. Don’t have much free time anymore, but I still write a poem once in a while.”
Vance had been a visual artist in the free world. Sullen and silent for the first several weeks he attended the creative writing class, this Creek/Muskogee Indian eventually began to share long narrative poems eloquently describing his experiences in what he labeled the “halls of perdition”:
On the island of calm that is our creative writing class I have found shelter from the storm, a safe harbor from life’s unforgiving seas. In the chapel of ruined yesterdays, I found an outlet for my angry thoughts using just a pen and a notebook.
Vet prefers the spoken word to the written; however, he jotted down these lines in response to the cue “Isolation”:
On some nights all I can hear are the screams, The silent ones that echo from the inside
In this place we call Hell. In the cold, deep silence Dreams don’t survive But I still wish . . .
I wish Hell wasn’t as hot as this . . .
I wish I could retract and take it all back,
Rewind time and put the bullet back in the barrel of that gun. I wish I could save two mothers’ sons’ lives.
We were both in such a hurry, Two black men in a death race,
One to the cemetery and one to the maximum security mortuary.
Photo by slexp880
It’s kind of like a little island of grace: just two hours of not needing nor expecting anything, not proving nor forcing anything. We just allow our eyes to see what is really there. Unfocusing our eyes and expectations broadens our focus beyond judgement.
People sometimes ask me, “How can you sit with those men and not feel afraid? How can you forgive them for the things they’ve done? You must be a saint not to judge drug dealers and sex offenders.” I am no saint and not particularly brave. I just know that it is not up to me to forgive them. The people they have hurt; the children they haven’t raised; the women they have used; the men whose addictions they have fed; the survivors of their selfishness; the men themselves—these are the only ones who can offer forgiveness.
Penance is required by law, and may last for years and years in our punitive society, but each man must repent on his own. And, contrary to the image portrayed in much popular culture, the men I work with know that forgiveness requires repentance. Writing seems to help.
I am reminded of a birdwatching technique. When in the woods, the successful bird watcher, or animal tracker, must “look with soft eyes.” One of my students at Jackie Brannon defined it as “splatter vision.” He advised, “let your eyes unfocus, then you will see whatever moves when it moves. You unfocus so that you can have a broader focus.”
That’s what we do for two hours every Monday afternoon; the men and I look at each other with “soft eyes” through the lens of their writing. They forgive themselves and the world a little bit while “writing themselves sane.” Their memories, poems, and stories reveal their humanity to each other and—sometimes—to themselves. We have no way to make copies so each writer must read his work aloud to the rest of us. He becomes Story Teller and then, in turn, Listener, completing that ancient circle that is as old as language, cave paintings, fire. The dealer listens to the addict. The White supremacist covered in tattoos listens to the toothless Black poet.
The man struggling with the abuses he has forced into his own subconscious sits with the pedophile. The “redneck” sits with the undocumented.
We don’t focus on charges or race or talent or DOC or grammar. There are no gang affiliations or write-ups or power struggles or prison games. It’s kind of like a little island of grace: just two hours of not needing nor expecting anything, not proving nor forcing anything. We just allow our eyes to see what is really there. Unfocusing our eyes and expectations broadens our focus beyond judgement. I would call that grace. I would call that art. I would call it worship sharing. They call it creative writing with Miss Ruth.