Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blast or slow decline
Our social comforts drop away.
—Samuel Johnson, “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet”
In March of 2014, I emailed Paul McCarthy, one of two educational coordinators at Lemon Creek Correctional Center (the other being Kris Weixelman, known to most as “Wax”), to offer a writing class for inmates. Responding enthusiastically, Paul arranged for me to spend a morning introducing inmates to the basics of writing well.
My first morning there, while I was talking with Wax in the computer lab near the cafeteria, a fight broke out in the dining area. My first thought was that they can’t pay the staff here enough, and I began to think maybe I should stick to teaching bureaucrats and college students.
But the class went great, and Paul and I decided to do it once a month, which evolved into twice a month and, lately, once a week. In addition to becoming friends with Paul and his wife Kay, I developed a rapport with the guys that seemed uncommon in a writing class. “I feel a real affinity with these guys,” I told my wife. “And I can use all the four-letter words I want.”
“That’s wonderful, hon,” Michelle said, “but don’t push that affinity thing too far. I like you unincarcerated.”
Attendance has always varied from class to class. Lemon Creek is a short-term intake facility — a local drunk tank, as it were — and a long-term correctional institute for sentenced felons. Many inmates are in transition, waiting for sentencing, and sometimes even long-time inmates are transferred without notice and without explanation.
So some guys show up for just a few classes. Some faces I see only once or twice. But I have three students who show up faithfully — I call them my “Repeat Offenders”: Byron Benedict, Lowell Ford, and Victor Morris:Stern.
Victor Morris:Stern. That’s how Victor writes his name, joining his last two names with an unidiomatic colon instead of a hyphen. It makes his name sound more like a declaration: Victor Morris is stern.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how he means it. Serving a life sentence for murder, he has been at Lemon Creek for years. Like Byron and Lowell, Victor is a serious guy, but he has a sharp edge.
In class we sit around the conference table in the prison library and talk about writing. I’m often at the whiteboard scribbling examples. The conversation is animated, our discussions of writing punctuated with ribald jokes and laughter. Byron reads a new piece he has written, which contains phrases such as “a plethora of dubious amenities,” and the guys howl at Byron’s high diction. But Byron is being deliberately playful, facetious, and it makes his prose fun to read.
Paul understands good writing and is as much the teacher here as I am. At times, I’ll be making a point, and Paul will challenge what I say. And this transforms the class. Lowell will jump in to take a side, and then the other guys jump in and take sides, and the class ends up being more of a conversation — increasingly so as the guys get a better grasp of the elements of writing and become better writers. And that’s what a classroom should be: learning by conversation.
As much as anyone else, Victor has been a good-humored and engaged presence in the class from the first day. But what I’ve seen of his writing makes me wonder if he’s serious about writing well. His writings are convoluted legalistic motions arguing that the court’s jurisdiction over him is unconstitutional and his incarceration illegal. They are written in an impenetrable language that seems designed to elude clarity and precision. In the end, Victor’s prose seems like a dodge — as if it’s trying to avoid being clear.
Maybe it is. There’s a danger in clarity. It makes us risk facing our delusions head-on — for Victor, the hopeful delusion that he can get himself out of prison. I had no idea how to get Victor to write beyond that hope — or even whether I should.
At one point, he decided to submit his legal arguments to the Alaska legislature. After arguing with him strenuously over the point, I finally got him to concede that if he were determined to harangue legislators with this stuff, he needed at least to write a cover letter that explained in simple terms both his argument and what he was asking of the legislature.
He began writing that letter. It had the same problems as his other writings, but it was a step forward, and we began working through some of its issues in class.
Around the same time, Amy Fletcher, Managing Editor at the Capital City Weekly, suggested that I do a piece on teaching at the prison, and I began thinking of ways to let Lowell, Byron, and Victor write it themselves, make the piece their own: their voices, not mine.
Paul, Victor, Lowell, Byron, and I — and some guys who attend the class but haven’t yet written anything (I’m looking at you, Billy) — we began talking about how to write this article. I suggested they write not about the class but about their experiences at Lemon Creek, which Lowell and Byron had been already writing eloquently about.
Then Lowell raised a good point. He noted the possibility that the prison administration might not approve of some of what they have to say. He speculated further that if I publish something not approved by administrators, they could shut down the writing class altogether.
Victor, who usually sat at the far end of the table opposite me, was sitting in the seat next to me for a change and chimed in: “This is THEIR house. This is not MY house. This is their house, and I know that. They can do what they want. But they cannot f--- with my stuff, my writing, my legal material.”
And then he made some observations about prison life that were as smart as they were indignant. I turned to him and said, “F---! Victor, you have to write this.” I could see in his eyes some glimmer of recognition, and he nodded.
That was three weeks ago. Then, last week, Paul emailed to tell me that Victor was unexpectedly transferred to a prison up north. I was upset by the news. I really thought that Victor was on the verge of writing about his experience at Lemon Creek. I thought he might be ready to look at writing differently.
Paul thinks not. At our next class he ribs me about it, joking with the guys, “Jim is delusional; he thinks Victor was going to actually write something.” The guys laugh and agree. Paul may be right; he certainly knows these guys better than I do. Maybe Victor would never have written anything other than the usual screeds. But I was hopeful.
American philosopher Cornel West distinguishes between optimism and hope: optimism and pessimism are outlooks based on the past, but hope looks forward to the future. One can be pessimistic and yet hopeful. None of Victor’s past writings suggested that he would be able to escape that legalistic mindset and produce something different. But I was hopeful. And that, finally, is why I’m there.
And that is why, for the next month, Amy Fletcher is letting me turn this column over to Lowell and Byron, the two men who have been writing consistently and earnestly in the class.
Lowell was born and raised in Wrangell (and wonders whether that makes him a Wrangellian or a Wrangellite). He seems to have found his muse in essays we read by the sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Like Montaigne, Lowell has a knack for extrapolating serious commentary from the most mundane of details.
Byron was born in Tennessee and raised on a farm in Georgia until his family moved to Alaska when he was 9. Byron’s writing is playful and sardonic. Watch out for those plethoras of dubious amenities.
They will be my guest columnists for the next two “On Writing” columns, writing about their experiences as inmates at Lemon Creek.
• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com.