Reimagining prison from inside
One evening a student in my poetry class asks if I would be interested in accepting the donation of a dollhouse he’s constructed out of scrap drywall in his vocational education class. He wants to send it home to his daughter, he says, but they won’t let him. I’ve learned a few things in the eight months I’ve been on the job and I know that inmates cannot own anything made from state materials. The state owns everything except what inmates can purchase at the Canteen. That’s why prison artists — in the absence of a program like Arts in Corrections — use candy wrappers to create jewelry and handkerchiefs as miniature canvases. Candy and handkerchiefs are available at the Canteen, the inmate mini-mart.
“Sure,” I say, “we’ll take it.” The next day I take my work crew of three inmates over to Vocational Drywall and we put the thing on a dolly and wheel it back to our building. More than a few correctional officers are amused at the sight. It barely fits through the back door of our building. It’s a big, boxy affair with a cutaway roof. It doesn’t look like any dollhouse I’ve seen, including my favorite “Debbie’s Dream House,” which my Grandma Tobola bought me the Christmas before we moved to Florida. I didn’t really play with dolls — I just wanted my own house. My dream house required batteries: for the chiming doorbell, light-up fireplace and living room lamp. My favorite features were the turquoise sink and tub in the bathroom.
“This looks more like an institutional building than a dollhouse,” I tell my workers.
Urkel sighs. “Waste of time,” he mutters. “What are we gonna do with this?”
Smiley just smiles.
I look at Opie, who is assisting me in the poetry class, and say, “Dream Prison.” Perhaps that gift from my grandmother when I was eight years old imprinted on me. Why have a house when you could have a “dream house” or a prison when you could have a “dream prison?”
When I introduced the concept in poetry class, one student observes, “A dream prison is no prison at all.”
“Of course,” I counter. “But since our society has decided that we have to have prisons, how could we make them better? Can we design a model prison? What would it look like? How would it function?”
I challenge the poets in my class to come up with a better alternative to the institution they are housed in. I’m thinking of the Dream Prison as a figment of collective imagination.
Soon, ideas abound: the prison would grow food and livestock, making it self-sufficient (and getting rid of the objectionable institutional fare); officers would be trained as teachers or social workers, and carry no weapons; there would be living units with separate bedrooms and a communal kitchen and living space; college courses would be offered; meditation groups would meet each morning; acupuncture would be on the medical menu; an IT center would train inmates in emerging technologies.
Actually, we don’t need to imagine this because this Dream Prison has already been designed, built, and is up and running in other countries — notably in Scandinavian countries. Prisons there look like luxury hotels compared to prisons here. And Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland have far lower incarceration rates — and recidivism rates — than the United States. The Nordic philosophy is much different from the American lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mindset.
In Norway, there are no life sentences — twenty-one years is the max. Rehabilitation, not punishment, is the emphasis. Prison staff encourages introspection and interaction (even between staff and inmates). They want inmates to learn new skills that will enable them to stay out of prison. Many inmates leave daily for work or study. They see their families, they just can’t live with them. The Nordic sensibility aims to make prison as comfortable as possible, and to employ staff who are as helpful as possible. In the end, there is not much to complain about — except what you did to get there.
Unfortunately, it’s nothing like that here. We are in a war zone. The Prison Industrial Complex needs more and more bodies to keep growing. It’s paying the salaries, not only of correctional staff, but of a lot of associated industries, including food supply, telephone, health care, clothing and transportation. And my program, Arts in Corrections.
The officers have nothing personal against most inmates. They are just CDC numbers, not really people. The officers’ mantra is, You got nothin’ comin’, meaning whatever you did to end up here, you deserve what you’re getting. You are persona non grata. Paroling inmates are often told, “Bring a friend when you come back.”
This is not an atmosphere that encourages inmates to take stock of their lives, to make amends, to embark on self-improvement. I want Arts in Corrections to provide a space for imagination, which is necessary for transformation to occur. And transformation is the desired outcome, isn’t it? I want Arts in Corrections to provide a place for men to imagine a different future. Imaging a different future is something I have experience with.
Merritt Island, Florida is a paradise: you can walk to water from anywhere. We were surrounded by vivid names: the Banana River, Cocoa Beach, Cape Canaveral. Even the stores had wonderful names. Instead of going to the 7-Eleven, we loaded up on candy at the neighborhood U-Tote-Em. We bought ice cream cones at Dipper Dan’s and went grocery shopping at the Winn-Dixie.
Cocoa Beach was the most glamorous of our neighboring communities, because it was the television home of the popular I Dream of Jeannie show. Jeannie both fascinated and repelled me. She was a genie who lived in a bottle with plush pillows inside. She had enough magic to get herself in and out of the bottle by crossing her arms in front of her, snapping her head, and blinking her eyes. But she didn’t have enough magic to make the astronaut, Tony, marry her, which seemed to be her fondest desire. Because Tony had found the bottle, he was her master. “Master, master . . . “ Jeannie was always saying, and, “Oh, master!”
I loved her clothes: pantaloons made of scarves, a velvet vest and a matching velvet hat with scarves flowing from it. I loved her home in the bottle and the magic she possessed. I hated the way she wasted all her magic on the astronaut, though, and especially the way she waited on him and called him master. She also pouted and threw tantrums when she didn’t get what she wanted. Even I’d outgrown that, and I was only nine.
If Jeannie married Tony, then what would happen? Would she have a bunch of kids, like Mom did? Would he stay out drinking every night and golfing on weekends and fight with her when he came home? Would she ever get mad at him and hit him with a wooden spoon while he’s on the phone, long-distance to his father? And would Tony say, “Just a minute, Dad,” put down the phone and put his fist through the wall, right when the Beatles are singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show? Would Jeannie then cover the hole with a calendar, until Tony got around to spackling it?
As a kid, I was in the habit of narrating my life inside my head in third person, like I was a character in a book. I did this on the way to school sometimes. The kids on the turquoise bus that took us from the Manor House apartments to school thought I was funny- looking. My deep-set eyes peered out of a face still round with baby fat; my white-blonde hair was bowl-cut. “Eskimo girl, Eskimo girl,” they chanted. She ignored them, pretending they were talking about somebody else.
I wasn’t sure what an Eskimo girl looked like exactly until I opened a book called Children From Other Lands, which showed a dark-haired, dark-skinned girl sucking on a peppermint stick that matched her peppermint-striped white parka. I looked nothing like her. I also looked nothing like the girls at school who were thought to be pretty. They had round eyes, never slanted ones.
If I were Jeannie, I could blink myself out of the bus every time the kids started teasing me. If I were Jeannie, I would also have to live in a bottle and say master. If I were my mother, I wouldn’t have any magic, just a hole in the wall.
I imagined a different future. If I were an Eskimo girl, I’d have a beautiful parka and live in other lands, lands where nobody has a T.V. or a telephone or even a wooden spoon. And she held that thought, sucking on her peppermint stick, warm inside her parka.
One student in my prison poetry class is clearly gifted. Emily sent Alejandro to me after she discovered him working on a poem in her class for under-twenty-one inmates. He had started writing in juvenile hall. The very people who took my life away gave it back to me when they put a tablet and pen into my hands, he’d written about that experience. Since then, he’s read every book he could get his hands on.
He’s just twenty and still has baby fat. He has a round, soulful face. I can’t imagine him committing any crime at all. His poems are marvelous — simple yet profound, with a sense of wonder not extinguished by his years in the system. I tell him he is a natural-born poet.
Opie will be paroling in a few months and I urge Alejandro to apply for the job when it comes open. “You belong here,” I tell him.
“But I need to learn a trade. So I can support my family when I get out,” he says. He is thinking of taking a job at Vocational Auto Body.
“I don’t know, Miss Tobola,” he says. “I would love to work here, but I have kids. Why should I come to work here when I could learn a skill that I could support my family with?”
I can’t answer him right away. Instead I write a poem and give it to him.
To a Poet in Prison
The craft of poetry is not unlike auto body repair after all.
With the right tools — torches, words — you can transform
a rusted wreck of a world into a shiny new ride.
Get you some paint, glass and chrome and make it real.
The craft is not the question: It’s the art that matters.
What separates the poet from the guy who slaps
a new coat of paint on an idea is more mysterious,
more urgent. The art of poetry has nothing to do
with making a living; it has do with making a soul
and making the world soul larger. It’s a calling
and an answering. The poet is a poet no matter where
he finds himself, no matter what befalls him.
He writes because it is the only thing he can do
when all around him others do too much or too little.
He writes because, whether he knows it or not,
he is in dialogue with God, translating the aching world,
making sense of things too terrible or beautiful
to believe, serving them up for others to take in,
word by word. Even the young poet knows
that his gift is a burden, that what he weaves
is a fragile basket of words to hold the world.
He takes things hard, though his words may evoke
the softer world, where truth is a moon flower
blooming in the dark hollow of the throat.
The poet knows no easy way out, carefully
assembling his vehicle, your transportation, stopping,
stepping back, looking through the tinted blue
at you, and through, and back at you.
Alejandro takes the job at Arts in Corrections. I tell him his duties include making my coffee.
“Zen and the art of poetry,” I explain.
“Okay,” he says.
Another job duty is to keep asking the right questions, like why he should work here instead of Auto Body. And I encourage him to write poems in his native tongue.
“I don’t know Spanish,” he says, “just a little Spanglish.”
“Well, Spanglish then,” I reply.
Alejandro’s gift is recognized by his peers in our poetry class, and by the teachers who have heard him recite his poetry. Zola, the GED teacher, requests that Alejandro read a poem at our annual high school graduation ceremony. When this request comes, I declare him Poet Laureate of the West. I explain to Alejandro that poets laureate write poems for special occasions, such as graduations and presidential inaugurations. He nods gravely, then smiles.
A few months shy of my one-year anniversary at the prison, I’m preparing for a ten-day vacation to Alaska. I assemble my work crew to give them instructions before I leave.
“Stay out of trouble. If you see trouble coming your way, go somewhere else,” I say this to all of them, but I’m looking at Alejandro, with his round, open face and shaved head. Is it an awareness of his situation or a sixth sense?
Alejandro has a needle’s chance in a haystack of making it: an illegal immigrant on Strike 2, he would have to make all the right decisions for the rest of his life and have luck on his side.
When I return to my apartment in Morro Bay, on a Sunday, I’m still unpacking when the phone rings. Emily tells me, “Alejandro got rolled up. It doesn’t look like he’ll be back.”
Alejandro was now in The Hole, formally known as Administrative Segregation, or Ad Seg. Emily tells me that he started a fight on Unit One, attacking another inmate with an ink pen as a weapon. This is so patently idiotic that it can’t be true. But two of my other workers — one of them Urkel — swear to me the next day that they saw the whole thing go down. It would be years before I learned what really happened.
Alejandro is put in the Locked Observation Unit, or L-O-U — on suicide watch. Urkel speculates that he’s just manipulating the system, getting out of the mix for a few days. He asserts that Alejandro is not suicidal, but in need of protection. Indeed, there are few safe havens in prison. The hospital is one of them.
It turns out that Alejandro knew he’d be going soon. He erased the poems he’d been working on from the memory of the word processor he’d been using. Maybe he heard a member of an enemy gang had put a hit out on him and decided it was time to roll it up. Looking back, it did seem strange that he didn’t want to check out books from the little Arts in Corrections library the day before I left for vacation. We’d just gotten our order in and most of it was poetry. He apparently knew that his “down time” was going to really be downtime.
Although his poems were gone, he left behind a quote from Myra Brooks Welch:
It’s easy, perhaps, to die for a dream
with banners unfurled — and be forgiving
It’s the hardest part to follow the gleam
when scorned by the world — and go on living
I am not familiar with this poet. I hope the gleam means a life of freedom from gang life. While he is on suicide watch, I can’t help but picture him: a baby-faced thug who’s pledged his allegiance to domestic terrorists, huddled in the corner of a darkened cell with poems glowing inside him.
Blood in, blood out, that’s what they say about the Mexican gangs. You can’t, à la Bartleby the Scrivener, wake up one day and say I prefer not to. If I were in Alejandro’s place, I would be suicidal. But maybe he’ll have a full-on conversion, reclaim his lapsed Catholic faith, or be born again. Maybe he’ll never get out of the joint, or die trying to run with, or run away from, his gang. Of course I’d like to go to the East Facility, where the L-O-U is, and check things out for myself, ask him what happened. But I can’t. If I show that kind of interest in an inmate, even one of my workers, it will be construed as over-familiarity. So I write Alejandro’s final work report, attach it to his timesheet and add my letter of recommendation:
To Whom It May Concern:Alejandro is a poet.
Six months later, I run into him. I’ve brought in an L.A. comedian to do stand-up on every yard on the East and the West, plus a staff show. I’m on the D Quad of the East Facility, where mentally ill inmates live. I’m cringing at the comedian’s racier jokes — we’re in a prison full of sex offenders. Then I hear a Miss Tobola, Miss Tobola to my right. There’s Alejandro with longer, wavy hair. I want to hug him, like a mother who hasn’t seen her son for months, but of course I don’t. He smiles.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
Nodding he says, “I’m staying here as long as I can.”
Alejandro is now housed in D Quad, with inmates who suffer from mental and physical disabilities. He is safer here than in the general population.
I tell him his poems are still being read. During our poetry festival an inmate on the West read one of Alejandro’s poems. Zora, the GED teacher, requested his graduation poem be read again for next year’s ceremony. A poet can go away, but his work remains.
Alejandro says he isn’t writing, but he’s reading Neruda. “He’s like my best friend now.”
This makes me happy because I had introduced him to the great Chilean poet, bringing in a bilingual edition of The Capitan’s Verses for him to study.
“I told them I hear voices,” he says.
“All poets hear voices,” I reply.
The doctors must realize he’s not crazy. Maybe they’re trying to help him, offering him refuge from gang violence. I send a silent prayer to the Medical and Psych staff on the East Facility. If you can save anyone, please save him.
Excerpted from Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison, published by She Writes Press on July 23, 2019. Copyright © 2019 Deborah Tobola.
To learn more or to order an autographed copy of Hummingbird in Underworld, visit deborahtobola.com.