If I Didn’t Tell Them…

2 Mar

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Toni McConnel

I started writing stories about my experiences as a prisoner about ten years after I got out of the federal penitentiary for women in Alderson, West Virginia.  Among many intense motivations for writing my experiences was the feeling that the women I had known in various jails and prisons would never have a voice, their stories would never be told, if I didn’t tell them.  I felt a moral obligation to give them their voices, especially since there had never been a novel about prison written by a woman who had actually lived a street life (and still hasn’t, as far as I know). Many by men, none by women.

I started visiting jails and prisons to do readings or teach workshops in the mid-1980s.  It wasn’t something I had in mind to do, but Sing Soft, Sing Loud, the novel that evolved out of the stories, had just been published, and as a result of a reading I did in a women’s bookstore in Berkeley, I was invited to visit a writing workshop at the San Francisco County Jail.

In my wildest imagination I never dreamed I would ever walk back into a jail of my own free will, much less sneak in under false pretenses—the poet who ran the workshop didn’t tell the jail administration I was an ex-con because it was unlikely that I would be allowed in if they knew.  Fortunately they didn’t do background checks on visiting writers.

Even after that visit, I didn’t imagine I would continue to “go back.”  But later, back home in Utah, I met poet Richard Shelton, who has run writing workshops in the Arizona state prison system for more than thirty years, and he invited me to be a guest at one of his workshops.  I visited Dick’s workshops several times over the next few years.

Then an enlightened warden at the Utah State Prison for Women wrote to Jean Irwin, administrator of the Utah Artists in the Schools program, and wanted to know if it was possible to have a writer do a workshop in the prison.  And of course I was the writer Jean chose to send. More invitations followed and before it was all over, I had visited jails and prisons in five states.

As a result of these extremely varied experiences I wrote Creativity Held Captive: Guidelines for Artists Teaching in Prisons, which tells artists what to expect from jail and prison administrations and from prisoners, and what they need to do to prepare themselves mentally for the experience. You can read a detailed description of this booklet here.

I now know of other former prisoners who go back to teach or counsel.  They must be stronger mentally than I am.  All my visits were immensely rewarding but also extremely turbulent emotionally.  I identify too much with the prisoners and every visit triggered paranoia and despair. Now, at 77, it is just too much for me.

So my contribution these days is limited to Creativity Held Captive and Sing Soft, Sing Loud, which is still being taught at universities from time to time, so my continuing need to do something for the women I did time with is satisfied by that.

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