Tuesday, November 02, 2010

PEN Prison Writing Fundraiser

Last night, at the invitation of the awesome Jackson Taylor, I attended the PEN Prison Writing Fundraiser at le Poisson Rouge in the West Village. PEN -- the global literary community -- actually runs workshops in prisons around the country matching world famous authors and people wanting to figure out in writing where their lives took a wrong turn. It is a very noble program that helps prisoners find their voice and in the process prevent recidivism. I learned that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, 70% of whom, alas, are non-white. The program is controversial. Many wonder why we should give hardened criminals acess to celebrated authors. To that I answer: why not? Most of those prisoners are going to be rejoining society at some point. Why not give them access to soul-enhancing activity? Would we rather as a society that prisoners train lifting weights and watching music videos?

Jackson Taylor is the head of the PEN Prison Writing Program for 20 of the last 40 years, author of The Blue Orchard, founder of the New School's graduate writing program and -- best of all -- a friend. The fundraiser included a raffle and readings by authors Junot Diaz, BlackStarr's Talb Kweli, Lisa Dierbeck, Sean Dalpiaz, Wahinda Clark and Wally Lamb. Liu Xiaobo winner of the Nobel prize also got a shout out.

These celebrated authors read heartbreaking stories of prisoners -- tales of commisary, of abuse, of madness and of humanity -- as a rapt audience listened and learned about the architecture of a wholly other cosmos. The second half of the evening involved Jackson and the writer Wally Lamb interviewing two success stories from the prison writing program (one from Connecticut, one from Kentucky). Two women who have been published -- Wahinda Clark, one of the speakers, actually starting a "thug love fiction" publishing brand (no lie!) -- shared some of the stories about the prison writing workshop and what it meant to them and the myriad of difficulties they encountered when dealing with the prison authorities. Clark recounted how her punishment for publishing a book while incarcerated in Kentucky was getting transferred to Martha Stewart's prison in West Virginia.

Jackson had one of the most brilliant ideas. One of the big problems in prisons with the PEN program is the jealousy that a lot of working class prison guards have about it all. It is totally understandable. The guards are working class people who have by and large played by the rules and they have to watch prisoners lavished with educations worth thousands of dollars. Why should they allow the prisoners to get college level classes and credits with world famous authors -- leaving aside the argument that it reduces recidivism and gets the prisoners to better come to terms with their impulses. What about the prison guard with a family and a high school education? What do they get?

To this Jackson proposes some sort of GI Bill for the prison guards in which they would have an equal opportunity at college classes. And why not? Jackson argued we give such programs to the military. Isn't being a prison guard also somewhat comparable hazardous work? And it would eliminate the jealousy that the program deals with on a daily level and make a real play at making prisoners better when they come out into society than when they came in. Maybe when the economy gets better a Congress -- clealry not the rightwing one coming in tonight -- could at least explore this idea.

One can hope.

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