Teaching in Jail by Mairead Case
I’ve taught—I teach—poetry in jail (and public libraries and schools, but let’s keep this simple) for over ten years, primarily in Illinois and Indiana, a little bit in Washington, and now in Colorado with Hoist Point. Every place and class is different. Most of the time I am the teacher, solo or in a pair, but I have also been the drive-and-wait-outside-er, the grantwriter, the book supplier, or the self-care hookup. These roles are all equally necessary for sustainability. I don’t publish much about this work in my journalism or on social media, in large part out of respect for the writers I work with, in small part because I don’t want anything to interfere with my access, and mostly because I don’t want a crown or a marquee. My teaching style is oriented towards building platforms and community within, not amplification outside, and so unless you’re in the classroom I’m out of the picture.
Recently however I’ve found myself in several situations where I am writing or thinking about racism and late-stage capitalism, and ten years in I’m realizing I definitely do need to talk about these experiences in the prison industrial complex. They’ve shaped my brain, my heart, my horizons and citizenship, and so if I am not specific about how I came up I risk creating strawpeople or presenting my tenderness as naïve, not fierce. (See Adorno, who defines tenderness as “nothing other than awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose, a solace still glimpsed by those embroiled in purposes; a legacy of old privilege promising a privilege-free condition.”) Most importantly I believe there must be a way to talk about my work that enables other similar projects to start—or rhizome—instead of asking for praise or help processing. Because I do that offline. I do that in acupuncture and notebooks and bar booths and running shoes and friends’ arms. But I do want more people to do this work, and to have resources when they start.
Beyond zine distro mailings, I did not interact directly with prisons until I was in high school and the WTO came to Seattle, and my teacher Bob Mazelow encouraged us to learn more about what was up. Some of my friends got hurt, some arrested. Most were white punks so they were released fairly quickly. My point is that I became aware of jails because people I care about were, are kept inside them. With time and experience I realized the system is based on punishment point-blank, not forgiveness or restoration, and in a capitalist, racist, binary system this creates open-maw gray areas at best. After several years of street-centered anti-prison actions I learned the system would not be fixed in my lifetime, and so I decided to use my privilege and access-to-books to work inside it instead. In other words: I started this work because of personal, direct experience. I think it’s important for teachers in jails to make that connection. I can’t tell you how, but I want you to try. It is your responsibility to educate yourself on the system and your specific community, if not purely because it will make you a better teacher.
There is a stereotype: the often-white, often-college/MFA-student who learns about a jail writing program and throws themself right in. As with all stereotypes, this is rooted in truth but never the full story. Still: resist being this person. If you are new to the town or region where you’ll be working, look up numbers and stories. What languages do people speak in their homes? What do the places to buy food and books look like? How do people make money? How do they dance? Is there a monument or starlet or song everyone knows? A central religion or community center or street? Remember to resist stereotypes here too, and to make eye contact and look for nuance. This will help you fail better at teaching on the level. After reading a while, get off the internet and walk around. Take a bus to the jail and look at it. Think about your body and do not project onto other bodies. Write your own poems.
Next maybe read some more about the history of the prison industrial complex in the U.S., and best practices for community writing. If you don’t always start at the beginning and read everything through, it’s okay. In general you want to be observing the different tones and terms people use to talk about this work, and what you want to adopt for yours. You want to remember intersectionality. You want to look at structures and start thinking about what kind of group you want to join, and what kind of time you have, and whether you want to be part of an institution or not. Here are some texts I use regularly. You’ll find a list that works for you.
Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire
Next find your group. To be fair, I didn’t do any of this. I just dyed my hair from purple back to red, called the jail direct, and asked if I could start a community writing program. I had the advantage of my youth, my connection to the local university, and a light-orange world where I didn’t yet have to go through serious security clearance and hours of orientation. Sometimes diving in is really good. Sometimes it’s the only way to start. However in retrospect I wish I’d found a group so we could share rides and lesson plans and decompress. I especially wish I’d had one when I witnessed violence and wasn’t sure what to do. I still have those nightmares. (Since then, I’ve attended training in a couple states. Go, be on-time, and wear neutral clothes with no logos.) You will also want to consider what you are comfortable with in terms of your group’s affiliation with a school or a non-profit or a religious space or whatever, and with the way different people present while they teach. There is no one right answer here. Personally I’m cool with a mix, though when I work in women’s pods I believe it’s important that my co-teacher identifies female too. Above all, don’t forget you’re not alone in this work, and that it is work. You do not have to build the entire railroad by your lonesome, in fact you’ll probably burn out if you do.
That said, if you aren’t sure how to actually start, how to actually do this, use the internet to see if there are any pre-existing programs near you. Write to those people, give them your phone number, and ask if you can meet for half an hour in their neighborhood and buy them a cup of coffee. If you can’t find anyone, search your local prison and “Faith and Citizen Programs,” call that number, and say you want to meet and start a writing program. These are the first steps.
Your teaching style and situation will evolve, and depending on the facility it will morph, too. Currently I work with a partner for half the Fridays in an eight-week period (another pair picks up the other half), with a set group of women each session. There are no windows in our room. This facilitates multi-week themes and a more intimate setting for sharing writing. However in the beginning, I visited every week during the writers’ one free hour, so I focused on quick cool one-off exercises, made a mobile library, and gave space for personal letter writing. This created a more individually-focused atmosphere. There was one small, diamond-shaped sunlight. Because I believe in doing this work in every city where I live, if I can, my experiences are measured in time and flexible response, not organizational consistency. (I did stop briefly, once, because friends were arrested and held in the facility where I was working. I used the extra hours to write to people in Supermaxx.) I work other jobs for money so I can maintain a constant presence in this one.
This doesn’t mean I lack style, however. I choose to teach poetry because it is at once terrifying and approachable, and more importantly you can hold it in your hand (or your lap or your brain or whatever, if you don’t have a hand). You can talk about a whole poem in one meeting. You get to the end. You translate. And then it becomes a talisman, a recipe, a mirror or a window. A garden or a pit. Poetry is also super easy to transport and duplicate. All I need at the gate are some Xeroxes and some blank pages and pencils.
If it is a regular group for a set period of time, on the first day I ask everyone to make a list of rules and a style guide, together. This works as a temperature check and baseline, and it’s empowering in an environment where rules are mostly dictated. Generally I do not call myself the teacher or the space a classroom—though I never share my personal work, we all teach, and we are all writers in a room. We use different languages to do this, too, opening up space to talk about translation and code-switching. (I always bring my edition of Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics for people who are attracted to color and pattern, or less comfortable reading words. Other books I frequently use are Neil Astley’s Staying Alive, Tim Stafford and Derrick Brown’s Learn Then Burn, Martin Espada’s Poetry Like Bread, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Studs Terkel’s oral histories. I use Euclid, and the Audubon Society’s star and mineral field guides, Joan Mitchell paintings, use of force models, and the passages where Helen Keller describes feeling flowers.) Sit in a shape where everyone can see each other. Let silence hold. Challenge when you have questions about context, word choice, or tone, and check in with folks who are feeling quieter. Greet the staff.
Generally I bring six to eight poems under a certain theme (“Where I’m From,” or “What I Believe,” or “Music Writing”), with one to two writing exercises inspired by each, and generally we’ll go through at least three pieces in an hour and a half. (Currently, the writers love Amiri Baraka, Dorothea Lasky, Bernadette Mayer, Morgan Parker, dg nanouk okpik, and Fatimah Ashgar.) I try to write exercises that give people permission to relate to or expand on the poem. It is very important that everyone has their own copy of the work, and their own blank paper and pencil. When I’m in a situation that allows for multiple sessions, I’ll often encourage edits by taking original works home, typing them up mirror-style, making enough copies for everyone, and returning the original to the writer, then discussing the typed version next session. The type is a good equalizer for all writers in the room, and it shows each individual poet a new look and sincere care for their work.
All this creates ritual, creates structure, and if possible I like to have a grand ritual at the end of the session too—either a reading where everyone picks five minutes of poem to share, covered or original, or a ceremony where we all hold a publication we made together and read from it one-by-one. If you choose the latter there are plenty templates for zines/chapbooks with folded bindings, instead of staples or bands, and resources if the writers want to distribute. Some spaces will let you bring in food for this too, though be sure to triple-check before you get turned away on party day.
In the end, keep at it and keep caring specifically, and you’ll figure out what works for you, the writers, and the space where you write. If I can be a sounding board or a library for you at any point, please write: mairead [dot] case [at] gmail.
Mairead Case is a working writer in Colorado, where she is also a PhD student at the University of Denver and the Summer Writing Program Coordinator at Naropa. Her novel See You In the Morning is newly out from featherproof, and Tenderness, a poetry chapbook, is forthcoming from Meekling Press.
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