Recently a lovely and talented local author volunteered to go to Perryville prison in Goodyear to teach a workshop in creative writing. Marilyn McGrath is the author of All You Know On Earth, a historical mystery novel that takes place in Phoenix in 1910. It’s an intriguing tale and her research of early Arizona is fascinating.
I was thrilled when Marilyn offered to go out to the prison. After the class, it was obvious she was deeply moved by the experience and I asked her to share her observations.
“I recently taught a creative writing workshop at Perryville Women’s Prison in Goodyear, AZ, and have been asked for my impressions. Fair enough. The problem is that my perceptions, pre-conceptions, and sense of balance are all out of whack. It’s almost like being in a parallel universe. Nothing plays out like you think it will.
The only part even remotely resembling a prison movie is the security procedure when you enter and exit the facility. First, you come into a huge lobby/front desk area. You have to take off your shoes, all jewelry, and walk through a scanner just like at the airport. All your belongings are searched and only authorized materials can come in. I was lucky. All I had to leave behind was a granola bar and a small storyteller doll (a writing-class talisman which usually sits atop my dictionary during class). Then you wait for your designated Corrections Officer to show up and escort you to the proper yard. But the wait is not dull since there is a colorful, prisoner-painted mural encircling the walls. Mostly desert scenes, they show inmates taking part in various programs and activities at the prison. But right in the middle is an unexpected, sapphire-blue body of water with four or five graceful, old-fashioned sailing vessels afloat. They are coming to America, it would seem — in this case the Arizona desert. It is delightful.
At last my C.O. arrives; I can see him through the double glass doors. Once he gets through, we greet one another, but he is not overly talkative. He has a job to do. We stand and wait for the first door to open and then step into a portal. I show my badge to the guard behind a thick glass window and the door shuts behind us. Now we must wait for the second door to open. Once we are outside we wait again, this time for the van which will pick us up. This shuttle, driven by inmates, keeps circumnavigating the prison, delivering and picking up passengers – mostly employees, but a few volunteers like me.
The narrow road we drive on is lined on both sides with tall, stately palms, the only vegetation to speak of. The grounds are desolate and surrounded by razor-coil fencing. It crosses my mind that the buildings (referred to as yards) are spaced pretty far apart from each other, and no doubt this is intentional. The people who drove me here have already pointed out the one that houses Death Row.
Our stop is Santa Cruz Yard where we get out of the van. My C.O. ushers me through one more door and here is where all the prison-movie scenes get turned on their head. Santa Cruz feels more like a high school campus. There are several one-story buildings with glass windows and I can see classes going on inside. And there are more murals – this time on exterior walls. One in particular shows inmates taking part in their first cancer walk.
Women dressed in bright orange pants and t-shirts are gathered casually at tables outside, and some of them are waiting for me. I am taken aback — this place is not forbidding at all.
Once I am inside the classroom and meet the inmate in charge of the program, my C.O. leaves. He will be back for me in an hour-and-a-half. I see some inmates are already at their seats. There are several rows of long tables and the women have placed tent-shaped name tags at each place facing me. Nice touch. After I am warmly introduced, I greet the class with an enthusiastic hi! I get one back from them, even more enthusiastic, along with a few giggles. We talk about writing – why is it important? It’s a way to express ourselves. To tell our feelings. Yes, I say, but it’s so much more. Writing is an act of courage. It is also an act of creation. You are making something new, something that never existed before. Then I risk sounding corny or lame. I say, “Writing allows you to spread your wings a little wider, and fly a little higher.” A few make flying motions with their arms, others smile at that. But I can tell they are all listening. It’s going to be all right.
Then we talk about food. They groan when I ask about prison food but no one writes about it. One chooses tamales. Another, shrimp in lemon butter. A third picks chocolate cake. But they all write about closing their eyes to savor the taste. I’m not sure I’ve heard other writers say this before, about closing their eyes. So we talk for awhile about our five senses. Maybe, the class decides, when you close your eyes your taste buds become more intense. Indeed.
We talk about two different genres: memoir and fiction. How are they different? How are they similar? We write short examples of both. And finally, we write a fiction piece inspired by a picture I hand out to each of them. The stories are stunning – descriptive, brave, and emotional. They may be fiction, but surely their power comes from each writer’s own life. The first to read hers out loud is met with a collective gasp, followed by spontaneous applause. Each successive reader receives similar acclaim. All I ask of any class is that writers show respect for the stories written by others. I didn’t even have to tell these women. They just knew.
They ask me questions about my own writing. They talk about books they are reading. They laugh at my jokes. If they weren’t all dressed in identical bright orange I might forget where I am. How can they be so nice? So polite? How can they be so relaxed? So funny? Why aren’t I scared?
I could say this has been no different than any other writing class — except for the obvious fact that it is different. Let’s be honest. This is prison. Things have been done. Bad things. And there are fences here, both literal and metaphorical. This changes everything. Or does it?
Most of us will use the word “prisoner” hundreds of times. We might say it with hateful disdain, with callous humor as part of a joke, or even with smug condescension. Sometimes we might say it with sensitivity or naïve compassion. But it’s only a concept. It doesn’t have a human face.
Thanks to this experience, the word prisoner now conjures up twenty-five faces for me — faces that welcomed me warmly and thanked me profusely for coming. One woman even remarked that for a little while that evening she almost felt like she was someplace else. In time I may forget the names, but I will always remember their faces. And because of that, I will never think about, or talk about prisoners in quite the same way. I just can’t.”