Poetry Program Gives Prisoners Unexpected Voice

June 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
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For more than 30 years, poet and professor Richard Shelton has traveled to a high security prison in Arizona to run a program that encourages prisoners to write and read poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: In some ways, it was a writing workshop like any other.

RICHARD SHELTON, Poet, University of Arizona: Pens? You’ve got the pens going? I’ve got to get the roll sheet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Poems were read.

JAMES GASTELUM, Prison Inmate: The vibration of a thousand hooves echoed like thunder through the valley.

JEFFREY BROWN: Critiques were offered.

ANDREW JAICKS, Prison Inmate: The details really make a difference, you know, because you’re talking about specific things and specific people. And I think that that, in a strange way, makes it more universal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Techniques for better writing were discussed.

RICHARD SHELTON: It’s always a trade-off, that is, a trade-off between the way you want the poem to look as an object on the page and your directions to the reader as to how to read it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the participants here, clad in orange prison garb, are inmates at the high-security Rincon Unit, part of the Arizona State Prison Complex outside Tucson.

The man in charge, Richard Shelton, a poet and professor at the University of Arizona, has been coming into prisons as a volunteer most every week since the early ’70s, when a convicted murderer on death row wrote to ask for feedback on his poems.

Did you know what you were getting into?

RICHARD SHELTON: No. I had no idea. I started out just with curiosity, and probably of the wrong kind, titillation, “This is a monster. I want to meet a monster.”

As I got to know him, I began to realize that he was real, and that he was complex, and he was in trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a new memoir, “Crossing the Yard,” Shelton writes of that and many other extraordinary experiences, inmates who turn their lives around, some even achieving literacy success, others who’ve ended in despair and violence.

RICHARD SHELTON: Work on a more direct statement. Don’t worry about the rhyme.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the workshop, Shelton is patient but tough. He insists above all on direct, honest language, as he told me when we talk later at the University of Arizona’s brand new Poetry Center.

RICHARD SHELTON: I’m not a therapist, and I don’t run a support group. I don’t have a background for that sort of thing. I teach them writing.

Anything that they get out of it beyond that is gravy, and it’s great. They do, I think, get a lot of things out of it.

And one of those things is the attitude toward language, that if you can learn to use language honestly, then you can apply it to yourself honestly. And I think you can see yourself in a different light than you did before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of the inmates have never written before. When they start out, Shelton says, their poetry tends to be overly sentimental.

PRISON INMATE: Forget my name. Forget my face. Forget my warm and sweet embrace.

JEFFREY BROWN: One poem in the session we attended led to a discussion about the use and abuse of rhyme.

PRISON INMATE: The second to the last line, you used inverted language. And that’s something that Richard talks about all the time about don’t use the inverted language. It’s 19th century.

RICHARD SHELTON: Would you give that example? Would you read that section?

PRISON INMATE: Where you said, “Forget I said I’ll leave you never”?

RICHARD SHELTON: What would the normal word order be?

PRISON INMATE: “I’ll never leave you.”

RICHARD SHELTON: OK, “I’ll never leave you.” That would be the normal word order. Why did he invert it?

PRISON INMATE: So it would rhyme.

RICHARD SHELTON: So it would rhyme. Of course. In other words, he’s allowing the rhyme to run him.

Inmates take to poetry

JEFFREY BROWN: With men like this, I assume it's hard to tell them the truth. It must be tough to say no to them or to tell them that they're wrong or that they're not writing well.

RICHARD SHELTON: Absolutely. However, prison is the human garbage dump, so it seems to me that, if they could live with that and survive with that knowledge, that they're strong enough to take whatever I have to tell them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some turn out sophisticated and carefully crafted work. Fifty-seven-year-old Andrew Jaicks read a poem in the form of a monologue.

ANDREW JAICKS: I am glad so many of you who knew my son are here today, here today to hear me as I stand before you. The folded flag is in my wife's lap. That is something; that is what treasure we now can touch, forever now.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the session, I talked to Jaicks and two other inmates.

ANDREW JAICKS: I could not live without the reading and the writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jaicks has been writing much of his life. A former heroin addict, he's serving time for armed robbery.

ANDREW JAICKS: One of the worst things about being in prison is not just the helplessness and the powerlessness; it's the fact that you feel like you're living a purposeless existence.

And one of the things that writing does for me is give me purpose, serious purpose.

JAMES GASTELUM: Slot machines ring, collecting buffalo nickels and devastating snow birds and the Sioux warrior and double-wide teepees.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-eight-year-old James Gastelum had never written before joining the workshop. In and out of prison since he was 18, James is serving 14 1/2 years for armed robbery.

JAMES GASTELUM: This place isn't very conducive to truth, you know? There's odd things. There's a lot of walls up. I know that Mr. Shelton, he'll tell you like it is. He'll tell you, "OK, you know, that stinks. You need to do this and you need to do that."

It's constructive. And that's on that level. And then the other level is seeing some of the men in here that are also pouring out their hearts. And so you see who they truly are without their walls up.

JAMIE OMAR MEZA, Prison Inmate: Mom came around the outside shower house breathing steam from her clotheslines. Her arms wrapped a beige basket of muddy shirts, jeans and sheets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thirty-year-old Jamie Omar Meza has been in prison since he was 17, when he was given a 104-year sentence for armed robbery, assault, and murder.

JAMIE OMAR MEZA: It gives me an avenue. It gives me direction. For the first time, I know what I want to do with myself. I'm self-taught.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mesa now works in the prison library and spends several hours a day painting, as well as writing.

JAMIE OMAR MEZA: I don't write about prison poems, because I don't think that our families should know what prison life is. That's something...

JEFFREY BROWN: You don't want them to know?

JAMIE OMAR MEZA: No. They shouldn't know. This is our life. People out there have their lives, and they should live them. They shouldn't know what our life is. So when I...




JAMIE OMAR MEZA: Because it's not a pretty world that we've put ourselves in.

A way to understand people

JEFFREY BROWN: There's going to be people at home watching this that are going to be wondering, "A poetry class for guys who committed crimes with real victims."

ANDREW JAICKS: It's not a matter of giving something to the convicts. It's a matter of opening up people's lives so that they do have an avenue for understanding compassion, through the things that we read and hearing other people read, and learning how to take criticism, and have that be for some other reason than just to degrade you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, I asked Richard Shelton whether he thinks about the crimes his students have committed.

RICHARD SHELTON: Not usually. I was surprised today when you asked them the question about what their crime was, and they were very honest about it and very frank. I was not surprised that they were frank about it; I was surprised at the severity of some of their crimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I'm surprised that you didn't even know that.

RICHARD SHELTON: I don't want to know.


RICHARD SHELTON: I don't mind knowing, but I don't seek -- this is not information I seek. I've often said I can work with people who've done horrible things unless they brag about it. And then I can't deal with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write that you've learned more from these men than you ever taught them. What have you learned?

RICHARD SHELTON: I learned -- let's see -- to respect them. I learned not to judge them on the basis of their crime. Treat each one as an individual.

I learned myself to be patient, I think. I learned certain things about humanity. I learned probably more about teaching in the prison than I did at the university.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Shelton, now turning 75, is hoping new volunteers will step forward to continue the work he started more than 35 years ago.

RICHARD SHELTON: And take the books you want, and we'll see you next week. Thank you very much.

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