Let’s make sure the wisdom of prison educators doesn’t get left out of a dialogue that has become water-cooler conversation across America.
This post originally appeared at Where Excuses Go to Die
“All writing is re-writing.” Yeah, try telling that to someone who last wrote in blood.
Author and playwright David Scott Milton spent 13 years teaching creative writing at CCI, a “SuperMax” prison in Tehachapi, California. “Tehachapi,” as the facility itself is better known, has seemingly been around forever. It was built for inmates refusing to live by regular prison rules, murderers serving lengthy sentences, and men assigned to extreme isolation in high-security units, a.k.a. the controversial S.H.U. programs making headlines today.
Milton’s average Tehachapi class consisted of 15 to 20 lifers, most in for murder. I met him after he’d been hired to teach one of his classes about 80 miles north, on the Level III Yard at Wasco State Prison. By then, David Scott Milton was a veteran prison educator familiar with every risk, procedure, and personal reward his job could entail.
First off, for all the prominence of literacy and its rehabilitative powers, which we assume exists behind bars, you’d think creative writing courses would be better attended. They’re not. Though the power to save lives endures in the written word, a lot of the fellas incorrectly assume writing credentials come with the territory.
Yet you don’t learn to write in a prison writing class: you learn why it’s important to fight for the time to write, which sounds funny considering inmates are supposed to have nothing but time. But if there’s one thing true about prison, it’s that it’s one upended Hollywood cliché after the next.
Walking into a prison classroom for the first time is like joining any other penitentiary waiting room or assemblage: the best seats have already been taken, and that’s all there is to it. You enter, shoulders proudly back or slung lazily, whichever your distrustful swagger requires, and you scan the room for adversaries even if you have none. In fact, inmates judge each other on a number of postures, from chewing to pooping: prison is like a fashion show for the various chips on your shoulder.
Upon finding an empty seat, you may recognize a few of the fellas, but in the light of the learning environment they look different. For one, they showed up voluntarily, like you, which means they’re exposing to all comers a willingness to be seen as teachable—and therefore vulnerable. The trade-off is huge because a prison classroom is a place where one’s identity can be discovered, reclaimed, and cultivated. Accurately or not, the insecurity that results is projected onto every guy in the room, and snickers and comments abound. But you’re used to those by now. And if the group gets past touchy arrivals like these without altercation, an exploratory trust starts to build.
For a teacher, the civilian employee watching this little dance, trust builds in a different way. It starts with us, the students, pushing buttons and psychologically taunting him or her to find out who’s tough enough to have despicable prison guys as students. Mr. Milton, I would come to find, was darker and more capable of angrily demanding answers from God than most of the men he encountered. His cement truck of a voice helped, but it was his weary wisdom that immediately took over the room.
I was excited to apply what I’d more or less been learning on my own about writing and couldn’t imagine a more productive two hours a week than listening to this man. Little did I know how meaningful and important our friendship would become. David Scott Milton, when I met him, made me feel like everything in my life, prison or not, was meant to get me to this point—right to his instruction. It was all I could do to follow through on every piece of advice he gave us and never go slack on any of the footwork, practice, or emotional risk he’d later urge me to take.
After a few months, David returned to his regular Tehachapi class, and we stayed in touch through letters and greeting cards. He never wrote a letter that felt engineered, as if he’d been borrowing from exchanges with other former students to save time. He wrote instead about some of the challenges he faced, as well as those he saw others face – friends and students alike. He was serving as an adjunct professor at USC, for instance, when a former student and close friend killed his family and himself.
In his letters, David wondered if his connection to imprisoned murderers had somehow tainted his civilian life, and this dark question was only one of many personal musings he chose to share with me. In turn, I wrote only about those things that were least resolved in my life at the time: my future, my excuses, and my fears. If David trusted me enough to share pictures of himself with his children at Christmas time, how could I not fully open myself to him? How could I not become a student in the most consequential of ways? I didn’t know it at the time, but the degree of self-reflection his correspondence demanded of me made me a better writer and a better person.
After my release, David and I exchanged a few more letters and then fell out of contact. We recently reconnected, though – just in time for the release of the prison memoir he’d urged me to write even before my release. And here we are.
Murderers Are My Life is David Scott Milton’s one-man spoken word performance, dramatizing his experiences with inmate writing students and the effect those experiences had on him. It’s available on DVD and download. Some of the most emotionally harrowing things David endured are right there on screen: more than a few I remember him describing to me in letters – as he was experiencing them. It was surreal, but the performance itself is moving and funny.
Flavorwire’s Sophie Weiner recently posted “25 Things to Read, Watch, and Listen to If You Loved ‘Orange Is the New Black’” and if you watch Murderers Are My Life, I’m sure you’ll agree it should’ve been snagged by Sophie’s radar. Because if, as she claims, one of the best things about Orange is that the new show leaves us hungry for more of its fresh take on incarceration, certainly the voices of inmates aren’t the only ones that should be heard. Equally important are those who give them a reason to rehabilitate instead of reoffend. Like David did for me.
I’ve blogged frequently on the importance of civilian employees like David Scott Milton, who saw my potential in ways I couldn’t see myself. They are a large part of why I didn’t wind up in the spin cycle of recidivism. Although I had to first become the kind of person that could tell my story in a way that would be meaningful to others, David Scott Milton played no small part in my eventually bringing Where Excuses Go to Die to market.
So check out David’s powerful Murderers Are My Life. It’s a three-dollar download and worth every penny in terms of providing a different perspective on life behind bars. For those who like the rubber stamps of cell house rape, stabbings, and general savagery, well, that stuff gets covered too.
Either way, let’s make sure the wisdom of prison educators doesn’t get left out
of a dialogue that has become water-cooler conversation across America.
Photo: Murders Are My Life/Screenshot/dsmilton.com