Part 1 of 3
Let me be honest: I’ve been in and out of prison several times, and I suspect that for me it is going to be a constant for the foreseeable future. There, I said it: prison is part of my life. Ironically, what has landed me in a correctional facility is my good, honest work as a writer. Confusing? Let me explain, but let me start from the very beginning, going back well before I ever set foot in a prison.
After many years actively working as a journalist, I saw the media environment around me change drastically. The dissemination of the news was migrating from print media to free online platforms; newspapers were folding right and left; and reporters were watching their jobs disappear in real time. However, as the saying goes, when you have lemons, make lemonade. And so I did. I transitioned from writing articles to writing a book and along the way I crossed paths with the fascinating world of memoir writing. It was this specific narrative form that landed me a small but exciting teaching job. Little did I know that it would become central to my life.
The teaching job was offered to me by one of the better known and best funded libraries on Long Island that took a chance on me. I had never taught; I had never taught writing; and most of all I had never taught in English. Much to my surprise I found out that I was pretty good on all three counts. Teaching was coming natural to me; writing had been my bread and butter for more than three decades; and my English was near-native, despite having always used Italian as my main language as a reporter.
I started leading groups of aspiring writers. At first, they were simple six-week courses; then they were extended to ten weeks; and within a year we had developed a forty-week syllabus. The enthusiasm of participants was palpable and infectious. Imagine a writing style that combines the creativity of fiction with the rigidity of journalism. Yes, they are personal stories from memory, but nothing should be made up. The truth is still of paramount importance, or at least one’s perception of what the truth is. It is in this spirit that classes at times feel like group therapy.
I was amazed to see how important these writing classes became to the participants. They wrote about events that they had never even talked about with their spouses; they shared experiences that were deeply intimate and personal; they created bonds with each other that felt even stronger than decade-old friendships. Memoir writing was becoming central to their lives as it was becoming central to mine. Until one day in early October 2022.
With the worst of the pandemic pretty much behind us, I woke up one morning with an unexpected thought. With unwavering determination, I made the decision that I was going to take my memoir writing classes to a prison. I didn’t know why, where, and how, but I knew that I wanted my teaching to reach a new degree of challenge. My first call that morning was to a dear friend who had collaborated for years with Brown University on a project to improve the health care of inmates. His enthusiastic response was reassuring but it was of no help to figure out my next step. I scoured the internet looking for information but found nothing that seemed remotely helpful.
It became necessary to galvanize several people in order to find the right contact. A friend put me in touch with another friend who has been teaching poetry in a prison in Nevada. “It was by far the most rewarding work I have ever done in my life,” he said before suggesting how to go about finding the right contact in a correctional facility. Obviously, Nevada and New York State are not even close, but the hierarchy is somewhat similar. Still, I found myself navigating erratically the prison system until someone in a law enforcement office somewhere in the middle of Long Island — gave me a specific name. “This is your man.”
The irony was that “my man” could not be reached by email. The countywide email system of the Sheriff’s Office had been hacked and a recorded message on a voice mail was my only option. It sounded a bit desperate. Kind of “Hi, you don’t know me. I have never taught in a prison but I’d like to teach inmates. Care to call me back?” Ha! Good luck! Not the sort of compelling message that one would expect would generate a prompt response. But I was wrong. Sure enough, a week later my phone rang and the voice at the other end was more than willing to listen to what I had in mind.
His ears perked up when I said two magic words: group therapy. “Tell me more,” he said, as I felt the wheels of his brain turning. I made it clear that I was not a therapist. Not even close. But memoir writing is an exercise that puts in motion a dynamic that seems somewhat close to group therapy. “Send me a proposal, your resume, and a syllabus,” he said before ending a conversation that surprisingly had lasted fifteen minutes.
The next time I heard from “my man” it was to ask for my permission to conduct an FBI background search. “You are clear to go,” he said when he called me a few days before Christmas. “When would you like to start?”
In early January my adventure began. Every Friday morning, I enter a correctional facility at 9:45 and I am escorted out around 1:45 pm. For sure it is a powerful experience the impact of which I have yet to fully comprehend. But my gut feeling tells me that I will be going in and out of prison for quite some time. Curious to learn more?
Stay tuned for the rest of my adventure in the next two installments….
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