"How ... is this going to affect my life at all?”
It was on the first day of class at the Idaho State Correctional Center that creative writing instructor Shane Brown was confronted with this question from an inmate.
As the class of 25 quickly thinned out, the answer was clear: for some prisoners, not much. Inmates who questioned the importance of writing and art were quickly weeded out. Most were just trying to find a distraction, trying to find some way to escape the boredom that they found in the routines they repeated hundreds, possibly thousands, of times.
This was a class for the people who wanted to learn. This was for the inmates who really wanted to change. But the question still remained: What would they get out of this?
Brown initially planned to visit the Boise prison just four times. He prepared to teach the class and coax out strong writing so the inmates’ pieces could be performed by professional actors for the College of Southern Idaho’s “Stage Door” series put on by the school’s fine arts department.
Brown teamed up with Camille Barigar, the director of community enrichment, to put the program together. They figured the prisoners’ writing would make for a thought-provoking show touching on an aspect of humanity not often explored. They recruited Lydia Sakolsky-Basquill, founder of the dance troupe Project Flux, to add a physical element to the performance.
They were going to teach the class and use the writing for a performance at CSI. It didn’t start out as a way to let prisoners find their voices. The plan wasn’t to get them in front of a crowd to perform their pieces.
But after the first day of class, the trio did some soul searching. What started as a pet project turned into a mission.
Now, almost a year later, Brown, Barigar and Sakolsky-Basquill make the drive to the Idaho State Correctional Center every two weeks on their own time and gas. The trip, they said, was always worth it. They had grown protective of their students, and they couldn’t let them down.
“I don’t know when this project will end,” Brown said. “I want writing to reinforce the fact that they are human.”
Back to school
The creative writing class is the first partnership between the Idaho State Correctional Center and CSI. The results have been universally positive, said David Mehlhaff, education program manager at the prison.
An inmate once told Mehlhaff that the workshop is more than just writing – it gives him the rare opportunity to interact with people from outside the prison.
The creative writing class encourages reflection on who the prisoners are, what their existence means and why they committed the acts that landed them in prison. There is often a shift in how they view life, Mehlhaff said.
“This isn’t a traditional class,” Mehlhaff said. “It gives them a voice for their soul.”
The highest level of traditional schooling offered in Idaho state prisons is a GED diploma. According to Idaho Department of Correction data, almost half of Idaho inmates enter prison without a high school diploma or GED certificate.
“I’ve worked with the department for 24 years,” said Julie Oye-Johnson, director of education services at the prison. “The change that comes with inmates after education is incredible. They learn to have different views of themselves.”
Brown’s class isn’t the only college-level class taught at the Idaho State Correctional Center – there’s also a debate club put on by volunteers from Boise State University. To participate in extracurricular classes, inmates must have at least a GED diploma and must be free of disciplinary offenses. Oye-Johnson said it’s a rare opportunity for higher-level classes to come into prison, so most participating inmates take it seriously.
“You’ve got a place where these guys are outside, figuratively, of the barbed wire,” said Marla Archibald, the prison’s academic instructor.
Archibald loans her classroom to the creative writing class. She appreciates that Brown treats the students like adults, which is hard in an environment where so many inmates spurn continuing education.
“A lot of convicts just give up,” Archibald said. “They ask ‘what’s the point of learning?’”
A benefit with the creative writing class, Archibald said, is that the students have to be vulnerable in front of their fellow inmates. Brown’s class offers them a unique chance to get outside of their cliques and coexist. Through writing, they can share their pasts and their fears.
Under normal prison circumstances, Archibald said, “Guys who are vulnerable here are chewed up and spit out.”
On April 6, there are six days left until the prisoners perform. Brown, Barigar and Sakolsky-Basquill make their bi-weekly trek to Boise to help the students practice.
At the prison, Archibald’s classroom sits down a corridor with gray walls. The classroom is bright and the walls are adorned with football stickers to honor students who passed GED courses.
The inmates, sitting at their desks before class starts, joke about what they’ll wear to their performance.
“I’m thinking of wearing my greens,” says Daniel Alonzo, Prisoner No. 115560.
“That’ll be embarrassing if we wear the same thing,” says Jacob Dumars, No. 97876.
When the trio of class instructors arrives, Brown stands at the front of the class and delivers an impromptu speech. He encourages the class not to be intimidated by the audience. He says to perform successfully, they must trust one another.
Before beginning rehearsals, they must first address the elephant in the room: the absence of Michael Wright, No. 66753.
Wright was a prominent figure in the prison’s black and Islamic communities but had recently been moved to Karnes County Correctional Center in Texas because of a lack of space and mattresses in Boise. He was one of four students in the class transferred to Karnes County.
Jeff Ray, the prison’s public information officer, said county jails typically handle overflow prisoners from the state correctional center. But Idaho’s swelling incarcerated population left no room for Wright and the others in county jails, Ray said, so they had to be moved to Texas.
Wright’s absence was felt that day. The inmates wanted Wright’s friend to come in to perform his pieces, but the three Twin Falls instructors were adamant that the other inmates perform them instead.
“I’m not talking about getting the voice. I’m talking about the representation,” said Jason Burdett, No. 56361.
Burdett is a large man with a layer of tattoos covering his body. He has been in prison for more than 20 years, and he’ll be there for the rest of his life. He said he’s seen a lot of people break down in prison, but he’s one of the fortunate ones who found a purpose.
In 2011, he started doing some heavy self-reflection on who he was. He learned to crochet, learned braille, and took every class he possibly could. Burdett became a positive force within the prison walls.
“I don’t want to be in here, but while I’m here, I can do good,” Burdett said.
Aside from the occasional teasing at one another’s expense, there is a real sense of camaraderie in the class. Everyone is on the same level. No one is exempt from criticism, but there is an unquestioned star among them.
After high school he had a scholarship to study English at the University of Rochester. He passed on the full ride, however, because of the death of his mother. Nothing sounded worse than trying to play the part of a happy college student.
The class buzzes when it’s Sanchez’ turn to read his newest work. He writes droll stories about saloons, hilarious odes to his favorite tobacco brands and heartbreaking stories from his past. His selected pieces for the performance are a sampling of all three.
It’s almost time for the main event.
‘A night of sunshine’
The audience files into the meeting area on April 12. Rows of chairs are lined up, facing a podium and a row of chairs where the inmates sit. Alfredo Roman, No. 20279, plays guitar in the back corner. As a jazz musician, he appreciates getting back into his comfort zone.
Brown heads up to the lectern first. He tells the audience he’ll keep it short; brevity is the soul of wit, after all.
“I’m so proud of these guys. They wanted to have a voice,” Brown says. “In class, we talked about writing for your audience. Gentlemen, this is your audience, and this is your purpose.”
The audience applauds, but Brown bristles.
“Before we start, can we hold applause until the end of the show?” Brown says.
When the first reader finishes, someone in the back of the room claps a few times before trailing off, remembering Brown’s strict instruction. For the second reading, Jason Burdett reads his piece, “The Challenge of Writing,” about his begrudging relationship with writing and facing himself. When he finishes, a woman in a bright pink jacket claps thunderously and unapologetically.
Brown, turning to face the audience, gives in. “What the hell. Clap,” he says.
The room erupts into applause.
Christopher Shanahan, No. 51937, with bright eyes and a wide smile, reads his piece titled “Stars,” about how thankful he is for finding a semblance of redemption and for finding his voice. As he shares his story, the only sound in the room is the dull hum of nearby vending machines.
“We’ve been with him during this journey,” Dave Shanahan, Chris’ father, said after the show. “It’s amazing to see where Chris is now.”
Daniel Alonzo is the final performer of the night. As the youngest member in the class, he writes with a raw honesty that makes his piece ideal for punctuating the show’s message.
“I’ve been in and out of jail since I was old enough,” Alonzo stares at the audience. “But I’m tired of it.”
When Alonzo finishes, the crowd offers a resounding ovation.
Visitors gather around the inmates, swarming the most popular people in the room. The inmates share thoughts about their lives, their writing processes and who they think they are. For some, this is largest outside community they’ve seen in decades.
“I hope they do it again,” said Janice King, Joshua’s mother. “People tend to forget them in here.”
“If it gives them a night of sunshine then it’s worth it,” said Sue Reneau, Joshua’s aunt.
On April 19, Magic Valley actors performed their version of the prisoners’ writings at the College of Southern Idaho. This was the show Shane Brown had been preparing for since the inception of the project, before the plan was hatched to have prisoners read their own works in Boise.
This time, Camille Barigar gave a short speech before the show. She said working with the inmates has been the most compelling intellectual experience she’s ever had, and she and Brown consider the inmates friends.
“We couldn’t spring them every night to perform,” she said. “So we’ve got these guys from Twin Falls reading for them.”
The set was designed just like the one in the prison. The audience stared down the performers, but behind the performers was a screen showing the authors’ prison identification numbers. The inmates said they wanted to own their identities, so the screen showed their numbers while the program provided their names.
The writings were grittier than at the prison show because of prison rules on writing involving swearing or any sort of seedier side of prison life. The CSI show featured the unedited writings that included men defecating in the shower, dealing with gang violence and not being able to send letters to their families.
The polished actors were a contrast to the inmate’s inexperienced performances. But the message was delivered. The inmates’ voices were heard.
And just like 125 miles away at the Idaho State Correctional Center, at the show’s conclusion, the performance received an uproarious standing ovation.
‘This is what’s real to me’
The next time Brown traveled to the prison, everything had settled from the inmates’ performances. The writing had been read at CSI, and Brown was back to his normal routine of teaching at the prison whenever he could.
On April 27, the group met in the chapel. There was a television on the wall with a two-hour screen saver-like stream of coral reef fish and relaxing music.
The decision was in: Brown planned to continue the class. He would bring in more teachers and try to grow the performances.
“Before this class, I barely spoke,” Roman, the jazz musician, said. “But you have awoken something in me.”
It took the class a while to gain its focus as the inmates reflected on the surreal experience from 16 days prior. For a brief moment that night, they were a part of the world again. The next moment, they returned to their cells and played hours of dominoes.
“That wasn’t real,” Burdett said. “I’ve been here so long, this is what’s real to me.”
King said his wife called him the day after the performance, absolutely beaming. She thought the experience would be freeing for him. But it’s easier to feel free when you can leave after the show.
There in the chapel, Roman read a piece about his time with Keith Wells, the first person to receive the death penalty in Idaho since the punishment was reinstated in 1976. In the weeks leading up to his death, there was speculation in the prison about whether music would be played on the speakers in the moments before his death. It wasn’t. Roman’s piece pondered life in prison and whether they were fortunate to be alive.
“What a penalty,” Roman read, “to die in slow motion.”