Every Saturday, Erec Toso dons his khaki "prison pants" — the only pair he owns that the Arizona State Prison will allow inside the yard. Toso then drives to South Tucson, passes through security with his cracked plastic tub filled with notebooks and pencils, and conducts a pair of two-hour creative writing workshops for inmates.
Afterward, Toso is 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 assistant professor of English in the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 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 UA Poetry Center, the program benefited early on from grants from Arizona Commission on the Arts and is currently funded with an annual grant from the Lannan Foundation.
Now the program is entering a new phase.
Thanks to a generous donation from Barbara Martinsons to the Department of English, Toso has gained reinforcements this semester as graduate students and faculty obtained training and gained clearance to help with the workshops. Two other components of the Prison Education Project also started this semester: an undergraduate course on prison writing and a reading course offered to inmates.
"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 UA 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."
A Tucson "snowbird," 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."
Ongoing Writing Workshops
About 15 inmates usually show up to each of Toso's workshops. The inmates can write anything they want — poems, fiction, memoirs. They comment on one another's work. The workshops are ongoing: People drop out, others sign up. There are men who have been in the workshop for more than 10 years, 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 eighth grade, but they have life experience, they have things to say."
Toso mentions one man with a 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 said. "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 Shelton, his mentor, 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 also has written a book, currently under review, titled "Composing Humanity in a Prison Writing Workshop." He signs many of his emails with the salutation "Onward," fitting for a program that is branching out.
"Writing well undercuts ignorance, hatred and chaos," Toso said. "A good writer has to empathize, because only then can he or she speak truth to self and to power."
He emphasized that the learning goes both ways: "I am enriched from doing the workshops. 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 end up teaching as well as writing when they are released.
The Lannan Foundation grant underwrites an annual 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 Lamberton, a highly regarded writer who participated in Shelton's workshops. Lamberton also runs a weekly writing workshop at the Poetry Center for inmates who have been released.
UA creative writing graduate student Dorian Rolston recently went with Toso to the prison for the first time. Rolston said he was unprepared to find that everyone in the room wrote about big themes, such as relationships and freedom — and 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 the Rhetoric Composition and the Teaching of English Program, 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 in California is enrolled.
Warnock said the course is not a writing skills course, but rather 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.
Another development is the creation of a non-credit reading course for inmates. This semester, a group of faculty members and graduate students is offering a 10-week pilot program at the Whetstone Unit in the Arizona State Prison Complex – Tucson. 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 teaches 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 the fall.
Said Lucey, who has four years' experience teaching Russian literature, comparative literature and world literature at a prison in Oregon, Wisconsin: "I believe that given our current political climate and hostility toward marginalized individuals, the humanities can intervene and offer higher education to underrepresented populations."