Next week an amazing event will take place to celebrate the award-winning work of men and women incarcerated in prisons across the country. PEN America's Breakout: Voices from the Inside will take place. Actors and writers like Jeffrey Tobin will be reading submissions from its annual Prison Writing Contest. The event is hosted by the PEN Prison Writing Program. Here is a piece I wrote to celebrate the program and give tribute to my former writing teacher and mentor Fielding Dawson who was its director and chairman
It's a Tuesday evening in the sweltering heat of August back in 1990. I make my way down the battleship gray corridors topped with slabs of razor-wire to the school building. It's there I was to attend my first writing class and meet Fielding Dawson.
When I arrived at the small classroom it was jam packed with prisoners. Fielding stood in front of the class and held court about the importance writing. The words he spoke caught my attention and from that day on I was hooked. And the hook was reciprocal because Fielding was amazed with the talent he saw in his classroom. He said it was because of the difference he found between teaching in prisons and universities where intuitive connections with convict students were made much quicker and were more durable. In prison he discovered the writing was more audacious, honest and outspoken, than conventional writing.
As a student in his class I thought the difference was in the makeup of his students. When he came to his prison workshops he never knew what was going to happen. Fielding directed the class dialogue toward breaking down barriers that prevented writers from getting to the core of their emotions and thoughts.
Fielding and I quickly became friends, even though it was against policy to do so. The administration had strict rules against civilian teachers having personal relationships with prisoners. They were not allowed to accept phone calls from prisoners or even correspond with them, but Fielding didn't care about that. He saw us as human beings, not the monsters the prison folks portrayed us to be. Fielding helped me with my writing and my artwork and encouraged me to write in order to capture the emotional responses to my incarceration.
What I loved about Fielding was his willingness support us and to be one with us. This was evident in the way he showed us this by advocating for prisoners beyond the walls that imprisoned us. In the 1990's he was the host of a popular radio show he had every Thursday on WBAI Pacifica Radio. It was there he read letters from prisoners across the United States, creating a link between those incarcerated and those in the free world. This was a way in which prisoners had an opportunity to tell the world of the issues they faced. They looked at him as a prophet of sorts, not one who read the future, but one who raised the consciousness of people who were unware of the lives of prisoners behind the wall.
It was through his teaching that he influenced me now as a free person to continue what he did. Today I have a letter project that engages hundreds of prisoners across America that sends me their stories that I in turn get published for them in the media. I continue to write too, through my syndicated blog on the Huffington Post and my two published memoirs telling of the atrocities of imprisonment and the plight of those re-entering society. Fielding Dawson would be proud of me for continuing the work he did for those who are imprisoned by giving them a chance to be heard from behind prison walls.