Festival Staff / March 3, 2017
Every Saturday, Erec Toso dons his khaki “prison pants” (the only pair he owns that the Arizona State Prison will allow inside the yard), drives to South Tucson, passes through security with his cracked plastic tub filled with notebooks and pencils, and runs two, two-hour creative writing workshops for inmates.
Afterwards, he’s trashed for the day. It takes a lot of energy to mentally and logistically prepare for the sessions and then to be helpful as inmates share their writing. Nevertheless, he says the workshops “are infusing me with what I have been looking for all my life.”
Toso, an English assistant professor in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, has been a part of the prison writing workshops for nine years, joining program founder Richard Shelton and writer Ken Lamberton as part of a team that now leads the 47-year-old program. Administratively housed at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, the program benefitted early on from grants from Arizona Commission on the Arts, and currently is funded with an annual grant from the Lannan Foundation.
Now, the program is entering an exciting new phase. Thanks to a generous donation from Barbara Martinsons to the Department of English, Toso will gain reinforcements this semester as graduate students and faculty obtain training and gain clearance to help with the workshops. Two other components of the Prison Education Project are also starting this semester: an undergraduate course on prison writing and a reading course offered to inmates.
A Tucson snow bird, Martinsons teaches sociology and American history in prisons in New York each summer. She donated to the project because she wants to help the UA expand its commitment to prison education.
“Most of the people in prison are going to come out,” Martinsons said. “Education makes them stronger citizens and parents, participants in their communities. It can be a real turnaround point for incarcerated persons.”
Prison Writing Workshops
About 15 inmates usually show up to each of Toso’s workshops. The inmates can write anything they want—poems, fiction, memoir. They comment on each other’s work. The workshops are ongoing: People drop out, others sign up. There are men who have been in the workshop for over 10 years, and others who have just started.
“It is self-selecting. They are curious and expressive and they want to know more about writing,” Toso said. “There are guys who haven’t gone past 8th grade, but they have life experience; they have things to say.”
Toso mentions “N.”, with his shaved head and crude tattoos, in jail for dealing ecstasy.
“If he were at the University of Arizona, he would likely be one of the star students in film or writing courses,” Toso wrote. “He works hard at his craft, taking it far more seriously than even my best university students. He reads well. He devours the books on writing that I bring in.”
Toso is following in the footsteps of his mentor, English Professor Emeritus Richard Shelton, who began the writing workshops in 1970 when he received a letter from a convicted serial murderer asking for help with his writing. Shelton’s work was documented in his memoir “Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.”
Toso has also written a book, currently under review, titled “Composing Humanity in a Prison Writing Workshop.”
“Writing well undercuts ignorance, hatred and chaos,” Toso wrote. “A good writer has to empathize, because only then can he or she speak truth to self and to power.”
To Toso, the workshops are an opportunity to expose inmates to another potential version of themselves, another vision of humanity.
Toso emphasizes that the learning goes both ways. “I am enriched from doing the workshops,” Toso said. “I am leaving with buckets of gold. I learn so much from these guys. Part of this is about composing humanity, but it is my humanity too.”
A goal of the workshops is for the inmates to get their work published. Some of the inmates from the workshops end up teaching as well as writing when they are released.
The Lannan Foundation grant underwrites a yearly magazine of inmate writing called the Rain Shadow Review (formerly Walking Rain Review) and covers other core program expenses. The magazine is edited by Toso, Shelton and Ken Lamberton, an esteemed writer who participated in Shelton’s writing workshops. Lamberton also runs a weekly writing workshop at the Poetry Center for inmates who have been released.
This semester, graduate students and faculty will begin to accompany Toso to the prison writing workshops. Toso not only wants to ensure the sustainability of the program, he would like to expand the number of workshops offered.
Creative writing graduate student Dorian Rolston recently went with Toso to the prison for the first time. Rolston said he is “a little themes writer” and was unprepared to find that everyone in the room wrote about big themes, such as relationships and freedom, and by how “lightly they collectively addressed these issues.”
“They broke into song at one point and at times were jocular and poking fun at each other,” Rolston said. “I can’t imagine my own MFA program offering anything more than that, which is a supportive, artistic community that is sensitive and respectful and ambitious. As a teacher, I found it revitalizing.”
Maria Conti, a graduate student in rhetoric, composition, and the teaching of English (RCTE), also recently attended the workshop. “I brought a poem that I wrote to be workshopped,” Conti said. “What struck me the most was the level of attention, focus, engagement and depth that these writers brought to my writing – I was just floored.”
Undergraduate Course on Prison Writing
This spring, English Professor John Warnock is teaching a new undergraduate course on prison writing at the UA. The course has attracted students from a variety of majors, including computer science, business and biology. A student who is a former corrections officer from San Quentin State Prison is also enrolled.
Warnock said the course is not a writing skills course, but an invitation to “serious expressive writing” with the goal of publication. On Tuesdays, Warnock imitates Toso’s prison writing workshops, asking the students to write (in pencil, like the inmates) and to share their work. On Thursdays, the students read a variety of texts— works written by inmates, books about teaching in prisons, and books about the prison system. Soon the students will begin providing feedback on writing that Toso brings in from his Saturday workshops.
Reading Course for Inmates
Another development in the Prison Education Project is the creation of a non-credit reading course for inmates. This semester, a group of faculty members and graduate students are offering a 10-week pilot program at the Whetstone Unit in the Arizona State Prison Complex. The participants in the course are incarcerated veterans in the “Regaining Honor” pod.
Led by Marcia Klotz, an assistant professor in the Department of English, and Colleen Lucey, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies, the course also involves five graduate students. The team will teach literature and writing skills to the inmates. Scott Selisker, an assistant professor in the Department of English, is on deck, gaining his clearance and preparing to teach the class in fall 2017.
“I believe that given our current political climate and hostility toward marginalized individuals, the humanities can intervene and offer higher education to underrepresented populations,” Lucey said. Lucey has experience teaching Russian literature, comparative literature, and world literature in a prison in Oregon, WI, for four years.
Toso signs many of his emails with the word “Onward.” It is a fitting directive for a program that is branching out.
“Our students and faculty were excited by this opportunity to bring the English department’s passion for words to inmates at the Tucson Prison Complex,” said Lee Medovoi, head of the Department of English. “We are so grateful to Barbara Martinsons for helping us to build a strong and committed team that can make a real difference for the future of our community.”
Community members can learn more about the Prison Education Project at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences pavilion at the Tucson Festival of Books. On Sunday, March 12th at 9 a.m., community partner American Friends Service Committee of Arizona will read poetry written by authors on both sides of the prison walls.
At 10 a.m., Ken Lamberton will moderate the session “Poetry and Prison” with English Professor Emeritus Richard Shelton and Reginald Dwayne Betts, whose appearance is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona. The authors will discuss their personal experiences teaching and learning creative writing in prison, as well as highlight the transformative power of poetry. Betts is the author of the recent poetry collection “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” which deals with the themes and consequences of the mass incarceration of black American males and the Reagan-era War on Drugs.
At the SBS activity tent on Sunday morning, UA students will be on hand to talk about the project and give out copies of Rain Shadow Review, a yearly magazine of prison writing.
Originally posted on the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences website. Interview and write-up by Danielle Bishop, Outreach Coordinator at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.