I encourage anyone wanting to know more about prison and prison arts to read Richard Shelton's Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer (The University of Arizona Press, 2007). Shelton is often referred to as the OG prison writing teacher, having done this work – while also a full time professor, poet and writer – since the early 1970s. At that time, Shelton received a letter from a man on death row asking if the professor would be willing to read some of his poems. One thing led to another, and Crossing the Yard tells the story of the journey.
Shelton is such an honest reporter. He tells us about his initial morbid curiosity when asked to “read the poetry of a monster” – an attitude he’s now ashamed of – and the desperation he felt when witnessing unexpected horrible consequences for some of his prisoner students as they became poets. He tells us about institutional stupidity and the subversion he found he had to use in order to get anything good done inside. Many of Shelton’s former prison students are now prize-winning writers: Jimmy Santiago Baca to Ken Lamberton.
I love the life Shelton has made of his thirty years crossing the yard. And also I’m something like envious. From the beginning Shelton has visited students, written to them, had them over to dinner once they’ve been released; some have become nearly part of his family. I can no longer work in California prisons because I visit and write to my former San Quentin students. Also, almost all of these men are still inside (the three men I’m closest to serve their 30th year this year). I can only wish for sharing meals and movies, hikes and afternoons in bookstores – the sharing Shelton and his wife have made part of their lives.
Many of us doing this work debate about what verb to use for what we do. Are we teaching? Facilitating? Sharing? Shelton is clearly a fantastic teacher, willing to be very honest when responding to the men’s writing. He is also, with equal clarity, a human being sharing with other human beings. He doesn’t sing his own praises in his memoir, but the details he writes of – what he did and how he did it – inspire me to sing his praises.
Crossing the Yard closes at the end of a workshop in which nearly all the men report they’re going to be transferred, many of them to private prisons in other states, most of them to facilities where there will be no support for the good work they’re doing – transferred for no sensible reason at all. The last line of the book says better than I’ve ever heard said what my prison arts friends and colleagues say when we speak to each other about what we've experienced and witnessed: “I want to put my head down on the table in front of me and weep with a pain that will not be comforted and a rage I cannot express.”