Monday, August 20, 2012


TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2012

Although I can’t mail any letters until this illegal mail restriction is lifted that doesn’t mean I can’t write, so this latest “prison diary” project, documenting my inability to send out letters to my family and friends, serves as a good safety valve to release the incredible tensions and channel my energies in a positive direction, rather than lapse into a depressed state.

Another ironic instance: I’ve been meaning to write about the creative writing class at Wakulla Annex. I taught short story writing in the first one, from November, 2011, to January, 2012. I was dissatisfied with the curriculum they’d set up, put together by non-writers without any English study credentials or writing chops, not to mention they were devoid of effective teaching experience, and had never had anything published.

Despite all that, and a lack of materials (PEN was going to help us with materials and supplies in the next class, before I was transferred to Siberia, Florida), we had 169 men on the creative writing class waiting list. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking, “Can I get in the next class?”

I began teaching poetry classes in prison in 1995 at Sumter C. I. in conjunction with the “R.I.T.E. Program” teacher training run by Sister Ann Raymond Wood of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

Everyone was amazed at the response. Hard core convicts focused and struggled to find the right words for their haikus. I published a two-page sheet of twenty-four haikus written by twenty-three convicted felons and one Catholic nun. The question was, which one was written by the nun?

No one knew. They couldn’t tell the difference between murderers, rapists, robbers, burglars, thieves, and a nun. That drew some interesting observations from my literary mentors, Fielding Dawson and James J. Kilpatrick, who publicized and shared that fact. That was then. Back to Wakulla “faith-based” programs.

I wasn’t real happy with how they were managing the creative writing class, something that was in great demand and that had a powerful rehabilitative effect on prisoners, not only improving their ability to write and express themselves, but also developing “critical thinking skills,” something most prisoners lack. Although the prison, Wakulla Annex, was classified as a “faith-and-character-based” institution, the “business” classes and the creative writing classes were separate from the religious-oriented chapel programs, and held in the education building.

There is much more to “creative writing” than writing short stories. I am of the belief that students should be exposed to all aspects of creative writing, non-fiction as well as fiction, essays, journals, diaries, poetry and more. There are many talented people in prison who aren’t aware of their talents until they are mined and revealed to the light.

Poetry is one of those talents. I had discovered my own talent and desire to write poetry through the encouragement of a great teacher, Mrs. Vivian Barnard, in the 1980’s, at Zephyrhills, and I felt it was part of my personal mission to help others discover their hidden abilities. Over the years we had poetry classes, poetry readings of both prisoners’ works and classic poems from the masters, all of which were well attended. And there was never any talk of poetry not being “manly,” or only for “sissies.” Some of the baddest, toughest prisoners would come to me and say, “Charlie, I’m trying to write this poem for my mom. Would you read it, and tell me what you think?” And I would.

With all that background, at Wakulla I began asking prisoners if they would be interested in attending a poetry workshop. The answers were resoundingly positive. Through word-of-mouth only, in a month over one hundred men had signed up on a waiting list.

I contacted Hettie Jones, a fine lady and the most talented poet I know, who has taught poetry to women prisoners in New York for many years, for guidance, not only for advice on a curriculum, but also for philosophical insight so I could present a proposal to justify such a class. She recommended textbooks and shared her experiences of how poetry helped prisoners become rehabilitated and lead law-abiding lives upon their release. Poetry classes have been a highly cost-effective means of reducing recidivism. So what’s not to like about teaching poetry to prisoners? Nothing. It is a win-win for everyone ─ taxpayers and prisoners.

I put together an eight-week introductory poetry workshop, at no cost to the state. Then I got punitively transferred again, on March 28, 2012, here to Okaloosa, Florida. Siberia. So here we are. We are in an intellectual wasteland inhabited by clueless people who think the song, “Summertime,” (as in …”and the livin’ is easy…”), is a poem an inmate wrote and is trying to sell, and has obviously never heard of “Porgy and Bess,” or Broadway, for that matter, an whose only knowledge of New York is “that place where them damned Yankees” come from.

Every day men approach me and ask, “Are you gonna teach a writing class here?” I shake my head no, as much as they need such a class. The field is full and ripe, yet there are no pickers allowed to work. It would be like having Bible study in Hell. The Devil is against it.

In the meantime I plumb the depths of my own soul and reveal thoughts and feelings I didn’t realize were there. I put them on paper with the hope that my friend, Hettie, will read one day and say, “This one I like.” It will not matter that some small-minded, hateful person doesn’t like what I write. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and some others said I could write, and I will.


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