From the Audience and Classroom at Oregon State Penitentiary

25 Jan

About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.

Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.

I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.

What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.

His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.

To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.

After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.

Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?

Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?

Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?

My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?

Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.

 

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