Richard Shelton was a young English professor at The University of Arizona in 1970 when a serial killer dubbed the “Pied Piper of Tucson” wrote to him and asked for a critique of his poetry. The novelty of meeting a death-row inmate has prompted a lifelong effort to help prisoners find hope and rehabilitation through writing.
In his latest book, “Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer,” Shelton chronicles his experiences as a volunteer in Arizona prisons. It is a season of his life, Shelton reflects, marked with terrible disappointments, great triumphs and some bloodshed.
For most of the 32 years he has worked with inmates in the Arizona prison system, Shelton has conducted weekly creative writing workshops.
Charles Schmid was in prison for murder when he wrote to Shelton and asked him to read and critique his poetry.
“For all the wrong reasons, I critiqued his work and discovered that he was quite talented,” Shelton said. “I was fascinated because he was a monster.”
At Schmid’s request, Shelton visited him on death row to continue collaborating on Schmid’s creative writing.
“I worked with him on death row for a long time,” Shelton said. “He and his friends talked me into starting a creative writing workshop.” In 1974, Shelton started the workshop at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. The workshops continue to this day, now in Tucson. According to Shelton, he has never canceled a workshop in all that time.
The workshops function just like the ones Shelton conducted at the UA, except that the prisoners cannot duplicate their work. He brings in pens, collects writing samples, reviews and critiques their writings at his home. The process continues until the works are considered ready to submit for publication. At that point, his wife, Lois, types and submits everything.
Shelton is the editor of the journal Walking Rain Review, which features the writings of current and former inmates.
To say working in prisons for three decades has been a life-changing experience for Richard and Lois Shelton would be an understatement.
On March 20, 1975, Schmid was stabbed repeatedly by two other inmates. He died 10 days later. It was Shelton’s first experience losing one of his students to murder. “I’ve had friends who have been murdered and others who have died from drug addictions,” Shelton said. “It has been bloody. But the successes are also big and dramatic, and very rewarding.”
Some of the successes Shelton cites are the relationships that he has developed with many of his students in prison and their families, and former students who have enjoyed successful lives following their incarceration. “Many of these men have become like sons to us,” Shelton said.
One of those men, Ken Lamberton, has become a successful author after serving a 12-year prison sentence. Lamberton and Shelton are currently traveling together as Lamberton also is releasing a new book, “Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature Family and the Politics of Crime and Punishment.”
“Ken Lamberton is like a son to me, and I would be proud if he were,” Shelton said.
The Shelton’s have invested so much of their lives to working with inmates that most of their close friends are connected somehow to the Arizona prison system. “I have more friends that come from that situation than not,” Shelton said. “The bulk of my friends are or have been in prison.”
In “Crossing the Yard,” Shelton advocates for massive reform of the American prison system. One of the solutions, he believes, is “mass volunteerism.”
Shelton, recently retired from the UA, still teaches three workshops and is hoping to add another in the near future. He published a book of poetry, “The Last Person to Hear Your Voice,” earlier this year and will publish another book next year.