My old friend, and multiple NC recidivist, Diane Lefer is off to Belfast, Northern Ireland, shortly to work on several community projects including one involving former political prisoners. The last time we heard from Diane she was in Bolivia. But herewith we offer a glance at her most recent work, just finished up, teaching creative writing to elderly parolees in Los Angeles transitional housing. The essay is a celebration of their writing, a story of a teaching adventure, and a polemic, an ancient and honourable form. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Diane’s new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, is just out. Where does she get the time?
This essay will appear in somewhat different and longer form in Turning the Page, the book I’m publishing compiled from the writing a group of men on parole created in the workshop I offered over the summer with support from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Free copies will be distributed at public events in South LA, and the PDF version of the book will be available soon for download at the website Francisco Voices where you can also learn more about the men and read some samples of their work.
The Francisco Homes are five neatly kept and well maintained houses in South LA, each with a yard, each offering the first step back to freedom for a total of about 60 formerly incarcerated men. These houses, run by a nonprofit organization, are the only transitional housing specifically intended for men who received life sentences but after decades behind bars were released on parole after the board of prison terms and the governor were convinced they had turned their lives around and posed no threat.
Transitional housing is a stepping-stone. One man told me, “If you go to prison at 15 and come out at 50, in some ways, you’re still 15.” That means there’s a lot to learn – and decades of technology to catch up on. Still, the men are anxious to move on once they’ve regained their footing. They look forward to living, at last, as adults.
For the time being, they attend house meetings and classes as well as regular meetings with their parole officers. They pay a low monthly rent, share household chores, grocery shopping and cooking. One man told me how much he loves going to the grocery store because he smiles and greets everyone – neighbors and strangers – in the aisles and at checkout, and these simple human interactions fill him with joy.
In July and August 2013, it was my privilege to offer a series of writing workshops for residents. Everyone was invited, at any level of experience, from men who’d been published to men who didn’t think they could write at all. We usually began with some conversation on a topic that might spark ideas. We looked at published poems, essays, and stories. Sometimes we incorporated drawing or improvisation to open up creativity in different ways.
When I first showed up, I had some preconceived ideas. First, I expected the South LA neighborhood to be rough. And yes, it can be. But men sit on porches, talking quietly; children play; people work in their gardens; the ice cream truck passes playing “Turkey in the Straw.” One Francisco Home resident said, with evident delight, “I live on a tree-lined block!”
I figured that just to get out on parole these men had probably spent many years keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and so I wanted them to have the chance to express themselves freely.
I admit I had an agenda: I thought no one knows as much about California prisons as prisoners and the formerly incarcerated do, but while voters and politicians make policy and law, no one really hears from these life-experience experts. However, I underestimated how cautious some of the men would be, reluctant to use their names or allow their work to be made public. The men are still under supervision, and some worried about repercussions. Some didn’t want to share their thoughts about the prison system because they are skeptical that what they write can make a difference.
One of the workshop writers spent almost 40 years in prison for a crime that I learned – had it not been for the practice of indeterminate sentencing – would have warranted eight years behind bars. He cut me off when I showed how upset I was on his behalf. He didn’t want to think about what was past. This was all he had to say about the many times he was denied parole: “I couldn’t afford to get angry. If I wanted to stay healthy inside, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself.”
But I can afford to get angry.
I’m angry that one of the men served almost 30 years after he walked in on a rape-in-progress, grabbed the man and beat him badly. Convicted of assault, he got a life sentence. Do you think that would have been the outcome if he’d been able to afford a lawyer?
I’m angry that prison websites list a wide array of educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs – most of which exist only on paper or on the computer screen. When California prisons had real rehabilitation programs, the recidivism rate was so low, we were a model for the nation. These days, it’s pretty obvious why 65% of former prisoners are back inside within three years – though lifers, like the men in my group, have a recidivism rate so low it approaches zero. Statistically, a person who’s never been convicted of a crime is more likely to commit an act of violence than a lifer on parole.
Programs are eliminated because of an attitude that to offer anything constructive is to coddle prisoners, by frequent lockdowns, the wardens’ reluctance to assign corrections officers to escort men to classes, class and meeting rooms converted to dorms due to overcrowding. Even programs that cost prisons nothing to run are hard to get into. I listened to one man who spent ten years on a waiting list before he was able to attend an AA meeting.
As one man in our group put it, “I had to rehabilitate myself.” But not every prisoner will be able to discover those inner resources on his or her own.
It makes me angry that pre-release planning too often consists of giving a prisoner a piece of paper with phone numbers and addresses of social agencies. The list is entirely out-of-date or simply incorrect. Phones are disconnected. Letters returned, Addressee unknown.
The fortunate find a safe harbor in transitional housing or treatment facilities, but there aren’t enough beds to go around. Los Angeles suffers from a severe lack of affordable housing. The organizations that serve the formerly incarcerated recently acknowledged they need to collaborate with organizations serving the homeless: the two populations overlap. “If you have no place to go,” said a man, “you go back to the streets.” And back to prison.
Men lose all their identification documents when they get locked up. They emerge with only prison ID that isn’t accepted as valid in the state of California. Negotiating a way through the bureaucracy to get a birth certificate, driver’s license or photo ID, and Social Security card can be daunting. Nothing like being told that according to computer records you don’t exist. It took one man in my workshop eight long months of persistent effort to get the documentation a person needs in order to seek employment. Why on earth can’t our prisons assure that prisoners get their documents before release?
It makes me angry that our jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals – confining those who had psychiatric disturbances to begin with and those who’ve fallen apart under dehumanizing conditions including long term solitary confinement – a practice recognized in the U.S. and around the world as torture. A friend of mine was beaten and stabbed in prison but he said nothing was as bad as the year he spent in solitary, not even allowed to have books or magazines. (As I write, California prisoners continue to risk retaliation, health consequences, and death on hunger strike to protest being kept in isolation for decades.)
So why weren’t the men writing about this?
One of the participants finally said, “We suffer so much from guilt and remorse and self-hate, nothing the State could do to us was as bad as what we did to ourselves.”
Again and again men said, “I have nothing to complain about.” Instead, the workshop writers wanted to stay positive, to think about what they can give their communities today and tomorrow rather than look back at what they took yesterday. They wanted to write with wonder and gratitude of the new world they had entered.
In “On Reverence,” his recent essay here in Numéro Cinq, Richard Farrell mourns the loss of the sense of awe in contemporary life. In the obliviousness of our daily pursuits, he writes, we fail to see the sacred patterns in the landscape we walk every day. “[W]e seem perpetually distracted. We cash in our humanity, and turn our backs to the sacred moments with such a blithe indifference that at times it feels as if life were one giant video game.” He confesses, “As often as not, I am oblivious to awe, wandering around in an over-saturated haze of consumerist fervor, kinetic schedules and endless detachment.”
I think of Farrell’s words every time I visit The Francisco Homes where the men live and breathe reverence. In their writing, they express gratitude along with their perplexity at people living free who don’t appreciate their relationships or the gifts they’ve been granted. Every week I was reminded by them of the pleasure to be found in looking at flowers or the sky, watching a mother cat with her kittens, riding a bike, being free. Sacred moments.
The men I met went through profound change while in prison. What is apparent when spending time with them today is their decency.
This is not to overlook or minimize the harm they did earlier in their lives. Their victims must not be forgotten, their pain and grief denied. But while well-funded victims rights organizations lobby successfully for longer sentences and fewer chances for parole, there are other victims whose voices also need to be heard. The first ever survey of California victims and survivors of violent crime found that the majority believed we incarcerate too many people, not too few. By a two-to-one margin, they favored probation and community supervision over prisons and jails. By a three-to-one margin they favored investments in mental health and drug treatment over incarceration.
Aren’t victims and survivors best honored and served when we devote resources to preventing violence instead of spending $10 billion/year here in California on punishing perpetrators when the worst that can happen has already happened and cannot be undone?
The general public turns out to be way ahead of the tough-on-crime politicians and policy makers.
Again and again, the men told me their stories: A man is put outside the prison gates, disoriented, with no place to go. He stops a stranger to ask directions. Offered a cell phone so he can make a call, he has no idea how to use it. He explains he has just been released from San Quentin after 29 years and instead of recoiling in fear, the stranger — usually a woman! — gives him money which he tries to refuse, takes him to the bus terminal and buys him a ticket, or drives him to a center where he can get help. Even a friendly greeting, the simplest of gestures, fills a newly freed man with gratitude.
I am grateful to the men of The Francisco Homes writing workshop for opening the doors and letting me in. I expected them to teach me about prison. Instead they reminded me to appreciate the beauty in everyday life. They taught me what it means to live without expectations but still, always, with hope.
Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include a new novel, The Fiery Alphabet, and The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”
All these things make me angry too. Sentencing and the carrying out of punishment is often cruel and unusual. Thank you for writing about this.
I do think rage comes from feeling powerless. And I feel a little less so when I can write about this and hope to reach people, so thank you, Natasha.
I think Doug is on the road and swamped, but if there’s a web administrator reading this, please note the link to the Turning the Page website isn’t working. It’s http://www.franciscovoices.weebly.com/ Thanks!
I was recently at an event at which Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis were talking about prison reform. Though I’d always known, in a vague sense, that the American prison system is deeply flawed, the nature of those flaws and just how severe they are came alive for me at that event. The same is true for this piece, Diane. Beautiful. There has always been a part of me that has wanted to volunteer at a prison, but I’ve been afraid, less for my physical safety than my emotional safety. I’m sure my heart would break a thousand times. But this piece has stirred the desire again. Thanks so much for writing it! And tell Aaron Nava to send me one of those Fathers in a Bottle!
Thanks, Laura. It’s hard to volunteer at a prison. In most states, they simply will not let you in. But reentry is also so challenging and on a local level, your opinion matters. For example, some communities, council districts and cities, want to ban group homes and treatment centers. And voters need to demand programs in prisons, not just retribution. But I also think one of the most important things we can do is fight the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to keep kids in school, make sure they are literate, put an end to zero tolerance policies. We need discipline reform and counselors in school and arts and music in school and health centers in school, and parents welcome in school, etc. That’s a major way (besides reforming drug sentencing and mandatory minimums) to be sure we don’t keep feeding the beast. Yep, it all breaks the heart. But…
Where were you that you got to hear Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky?
PS. to Laura — I’ll see if Aaron can spare a sample for you.
I’ve had a handful of experiences teaching and working in the public school system. Though I’ve always been well-aware of how broken the system is, seeing it first hand is always a shock. I often feel like I’m losing the kids even when I feel like I’m also getting through. The school-to-prison pipeline was a central theme of the Chomsky/Davis event and their remarks made me want to be part of cutting off that pipeline; sometimes I feel my work might be better done in the schools. I feel so strongly about arts education. In fact, most of the work I’ve done in the school system has been around the arts and language, and I’ve seen kids come alive through those disciplines. As I get closer to reaching some of my other goals, I plan on giving back in a way that feels meaningful. Perhaps, this will be one of the battles I choose.
Here’s a link to the event: http://www.berklee.edu/events/angela-y-davis-and-noam-chomsky
They were quite a pair to listen to!