While the United States continues to slowly drop in international rankings of quality of health care, level of education, and longevity, there is one statistic in which we are handily dominating the rest of the globe. For a few years now America has been the undisputed world leader in incarcerations, and in future years it is likely to only solidify its grip on this dubious distinction. A sprawling enterprise with 5,000 national outlets and a budget of almost $200 billion, America’s current prison system is, in the words of one scholar, “a leviathan unmatched in human history.”
This is something of a recent development. As late as the 1970s, only one American in 1000 was in jail (a rate consistent with West European nations today), but by 2003 the number of Americans incarcerated had risen for 28 straight years to seven per thousand. This is mostly due to the increasing criminalization of drugs (well over half of prisoners are doing time on drug charges) and the many “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing laws passed during the 1990s that take away a judge’s power to, well, judge. Though the percentage of the population arrested has not increased significantly, those now doing time as a result of the arrests is much higher.
Not only do we imprison more, but we imprison worse. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in American prisons, and their presence in jail adversely affects the communities they come from: children of prisoners are far more likely to end up in prison than those with parents who have never served time. Recidivism rates hover between 60 and 70 percent, and prisons have even proven adept at terminating marriages.
The state of Arizona has been among America’s leaders in building new prisons and then quickly filling them to capacity. Today, this state spends more on its jails than it does on its schools, and the Department of Corrections is the largest single government employer in Arizona. Perhaps in response, the University of Arizona Press has published two new memoirs that are quite critical of the state’s prisons. One is by a former inmate, the other by the man who is responsible for the longest-running prison creative writing program in America. Both books are deeply personal stories of time spent in the Arizona prison system, and though the authors are of different ages, of different backgrounds, and were in Arizona’s prisons for vastly different reasons, both of their books reach the same passionate conclusion: it is time to reform America’s prisons before it is too late.
In 1970 Richard Shelton was just another creative writing professor when he received a letter from the then-notorious murderer Charles Schmid. On death row for three killings sensationalized by the media, Schmid wanted the professor to critique his poetry. “I was very curious and titillated at the thought of meeting a real monster,” Shelton writes in his memoir, Crossing the Yard, and so began his ongoing, 30-year involvement with convicts and creative writing. During it, Shelton would spark the careers of the novelist Jimmy Santiago Baca, the noted nonfiction writer Stephen Dugan, the poet Billy Aberg, and many others. He would also fight every step of the way against a system that was, at best, indifferent to his presence, and at worst contemptuous and obstructionist. By the end of the story, Shelton will have spread numerous writing programs across Arizona’s prisons, helped an inmate to become a MacArthur “Genius,” received multiple grants from the Lannan Foundation, founded a respected literary journal that only publishes the work of the incarcerated, touched the lives of hundreds, and developed friendships that he ranks among the best he has.
Shelton finds prison a very ugly place; his narrative is littered with examples of casual cruelty that make one cringe, and most of them, sadly, are perpetrated by guards. At one point he describes a quiet, catatonic man named Thetis who was subjected to the “corner pocket,” a tiny, metal triangle built up against the prison’s walls. Inside it was pitch black with only a hole for a toilet. “‘They put me in there,’ [Thetis] said. ‘They welded the door shut. Left me for fifteen days. When I came out I was crazy, like I am now. I guess I’ll always be crazy.’” This sadistic device was used as late as 1974. Not long after Thetis tells Shelton about the corner pocket, one of his students dies of hepatitis. The man, Charles Green, was having convulsions in his cell, and the guards’ response was thus: “To hell with it. Most of the men in this joint have hepatitis. Tie him to his bunk and we’ll deal with it in the morning.” By the next morning, Green was beyond help.
At other points, Shelton’s image of prison verges on the absurd. When a new jail is opened in Buckeye, Arizona, Shelton is called for help. The problem? Though the new prison has six libraries and a librarian, it also has “no books at all and no prospects of getting any.” This seems a fitting symbol of a prison system that now will only educate its inmates up to the 8th grade. Another time, a member of the Arizona state legislature is touring a prison. Instead of painting the cells all the same color, three different pastel colors have been used, and the legislator “registered an immediate objection. It was, she said, a waste of the taxpayers’ money to use more than one color of paint on the prisoners’ cells.” Though the legislator was assured that the paint cost the same no matter which color was used, she maintained that it was a waste of the taxpayers’ money. One wonders what this woman would make of the logic embodied in Catch-22.
Though Shelton’s story does contain its share of the absurd and the dismaying, it also features the kind of inspirational stories that would be groaningly schmaltzy if they were not true. In 1976 he applies to the Arizona Commission of the Arts for a large grant to fund and expand his program. As the commission members debate back and forth, they’re locked in stalemate, and the future of Shelton’s program is in doubt. Then, “something quite incredible happened.”
One member of the commission had not spoken throughout the discussion, He sat in silence and with a dignity no one else in the room could begin to match, a formidable presence in his tall black felt hat with a feather, his beautiful jewelry, and his unshakable reserve in the midst of all these chattering white men and woman. He was Charles Loloma, the internationally known Hopi silversmith who had single-handedly revolutionized the art of contemporary Native American jewelry design. He made a fist and began to pound, softly and rhythmically, on the table, while he chanted: “Give him the money! Give him the money! . . . Soon several others had joined in the chant, as if it were part of a sacred ceremony. It was one of the most remarkable exhibitions of one man’s charisma and power I have ever witnessed. We got the money.
Another time, Shelton’s students save his life by barricading the door during a prison riot (which Shelton and the prisoners believe to have been incited by the guards). With complete confidence in the goodness of his men, Shelton tells us that he was “perfectly safe” the whole time. Later, when a guard tries to goad Shelton into taking along a walkie talkie for protection, he asks Shelton what he would do it a fight broke out in his class; Shelton replies that he’d let his men take care of it, and then adds that in all his years of teaching, there’s never been a single fight.
One might call it fate that Schmid wrote to a man who would develop such a capacity to trust prisoners, but, however it came about, Shelton’s open mind serves his program, and his book, well. His pleasant voice is that of an old-fashioned, clear-eyed optimist who keeps charging ahead no matter what; his belief in the redeemability of the incarcerated and the value of volunteerism shines through without him ever having to preach (except for a tiny bit at the end). His anecdotes speak for themselves: Prisoners’ requests for a reduction in sentence are routinely denied, but one of Shelton’s students decides to include a copy of his poem “Having Taken a Life” with his plea. The parole board responds by taking six years off his sentence. “That did it,” Shelton writes. “Suddenly he realized the power of words and that he had access to the power. He has been a poet and a good one ever since, and he will be a poet for life.”
Crossing the Yard is a quick, engrossing read, a series of well-strung anecdotes and glosses on the prison lifestyle that gradually builds to something larger. Shelton compares the diversity of his encounters in prison to the reach of a Dickensian novel, and as with Dickens this book’s cast is a source of strength. One never knows who Shelton will meet next, and seemingly every individual exemplifies some aspect of life in prison: the barely literate black man who didn’t know blacks wrote books; the obsequious prison chaplain who tries to scare away volunteers each year with his “orientation”; the guard that accidentally hands Shelton a batch of cocaine instead of the key to the education room; the neo-Nazis that try to infiltrate Shelton’s class to use it as a front for their operations; the Chicano murdered because he defied a gang order to quit attending class with whites. And so on.
Shelton’s memoir is largely a story of improvisation, of finding ways to keep the program running no matter the obstacle, but its clear that the most important subject of Shelton’s improvisations is himself. Prison, he tells us, has forced him to realize “how few choices we have.” It snatched him up unawares, it has taken him through the gamut from hubristic highs to “hideous guilt,” and it has provided him with a life that continues to pose difficult questions, not the least of which is, How can someone relate to murderers and rapists? Sheldon reveals himself as a conflicted man who has made it this far by keeping his head down and drawing on an admittedly improvable belief that what he’s doing is right: “I would treat Charles Schmid, I said to myself, as if he were born yesterday and had no past. I would do this as long as he behaved in ways I could find acceptable. If he tried to con me or expressed attitudes I couldn’t tolerate, I would have nothing further to do with him. I could not justify this position logically, but I felt that it was right for me. I felt I could take it from there, and I’ve been taking it from there ever since.”
Hundreds of inmates are certainly glad Shelton has continued to “take it from there,” as should be the Arizona residents who now call many of these ex-cons neighbors and are likely ignorant of their criminal past. Readers too should be glad, because Shelton has produced a fine book.
Ken Lamberton is one of Shelton’s former students. A recipient of the prestigious John Burroughs Medal and the author of numerous books on nature, Lamberton is also a convicted sex offender. After running off with his 14-year-old student, leaving behind a wife and two daughters, he is given a 12-year sentence. In prison he discovers writing and publishes the first of three books dealing with his crime and his life before and after. Time of Grace, the third in Lamberton’s “prison trilogy,” deals with the last four years before his release in 2000.
When the book starts, the author has just been delivered to a minimum-security prison called Echo Unit, his reward for eight unblemished years as an inmate. It is a place of dormitories with closets, filing cabinets, and windows, tents for those who don’t live in the dorms, “grass and trees and sidewalks lined with rosebushes,” “teenage boys strumming guitars.” “I think of Echo more as a monastery than a prison,” Lamberton writes, “although I’m certainly no monk.”
What Arizona Corrections gives it can quickly take away. Soon after Lamberton’s arrival, the state legislature passes a new, tougher version of the sex criminal law; in part, it says that sexual predators cannot be housed in minimum security prisons. So Lamberton and a hundred other men are “rolled up” to Yuma, a place of three-man concrete cells where permission is required to flush the toilet. But it all turns out to be an administrative mistake—Lamberton’s wife and his lawyer discover that since he is not a repeat offender, Lamberton isn’t a “predator,” and he’s is placed back in Echo.
This anecdote is far from trivial, as it demonstrates the precarious nature of Lamberton’s life as a convicted sex felon in a world that seems to know no mercy when it comes to sex crimes. Many other prisoners consider sex criminals the lowest of the low, and the Aryan Brotherhood (despite bragging about having sex with underage girls) takes it upon itself to punish them. The Brotherhood regularly questions new prisoners as to the nature of their crime; inmates who respond that they are sex offenders (or who simply fail to answer) are targeted, and Lamberton himself had two ribs broken when he was ambushed years before he reached Echo.
At times it seems that the state of Arizona is a far bigger threat to Lamberton than the Brotherhood. The same law that forced his sudden transfer also allows the State to evaluate each sex offender upon release; if Arizona deems that they are a danger to the community, they can be interred in a mental ward indefinitely. (Amazingly, Arizona’s Supreme Court later rules that this is not double jeopardy, as the mental ward is not a prison.) Even one violation of the prison’s rules will double Lamberton’s “community risk score,” placing him in the predator category and perhaps delivering him into a mental ward for the rest of his life. Though Lamberton has been meeting with a therapist regularly since 1990 and plans to enter a 12-step program upon release, such a violation could occur if he refuses to “volunteer” for Arizona’s so-called Sex Offender Treatment Program. Developed by “a husband and wife without a Ph.D between them,” the program includes “smelling-salt therapy,” polygraphs, and “genital monitors.” Lamberton refuses this mess and places himself in danger.
All of this is only Lamberton’s life before he gets out of jail. Even though sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than average, upon release, Lamberton’s photo and private information will be delivered to his community’s media, and they are free to run sensationalistic stories on “the sex offender living next door,” even knocking on his door and interviewing him live. For the rest of his life Lamberton will have to alert the authorities whenever he moves, and he will have to renew his driver’s license (or state ID) every year. Failure to do either of these—even when Lamberton is a frail old man—will violate his probation and deliver him back into jail. As Lamberton points out, even convicted killers aren’t subjected to such post-prison persecution. His book raises fair questions about why society wants to punish sex criminals more than all others and if we haven’t gone too far.
This isn’t the only double-standard Lamberton reflects on in Time of Grace. Throughout his narrative he occasionally dips into the ongoing affairs of former Arizona governor Fife Symington, who is undergoing investigation for taking bribes from Big Tobacco while in office. Symington is permitted to stay in his vacation ranch in Honduras during the proceedings (a common criminal would be in a cell) while Big Tobacco pays his public relations expenses all the way. Eventually he gets off, and neither Lamberton nor his friends are surprised.
Contrast this with the story of James Hamm, an acquaintance of Lamberton’s who served a sentence for murder. Hamm was fortunate enough to be in prison when it was still possible to get a BA from within, and upon his release he was admitted to the law school at Arizona State University. The law school graduation of this former murderer makes headlines—one anchor declares “we don’t make this stuff up,” while a woman who scored in the 20th percentile on the LSAT complains that Hamm, who scored in the 98th, “took her place.” But this is nothing compared to what happens when ASU hires Hamm to teach criminal law. The public outcry is so great that ASU takes back their offer.
Time of Grace is certainly an impassioned plea to rethink our harsh treatment of criminals (well, non-rich, non-famous criminals), but it is much more than that. Lamberton is a first-rate nature writer, a man who writes about the natural world with the passion of someone who has worn holes in his field guides, and his book is suffused with an attention to nature that would be surprising even if he were free to roam wherever he liked. One is amazed at everything he sees from his 20-acre encampment in the Arizona desert—tarantulas, ringtails, bats, hawks, multiple types of toads, leafcutter ants, hummingbirds, birds of paradise, warblers, shrikes, ocotillo, jimsonweed, cottontail—and he writes about it all with grace and sensitivity.
On my way back to my cell, I notice a low-flying nighthawk circling the area between Dorm Four and Housing Unit Two. The bird continues dipping between the buildings as I approach and cross into its airspace. It’s feeding on winged insects, protean clouds of them vibrating in the air. I sit on some steps to watch and discover a termite hatch. As if gravity were unwinding, the alate reproductives spray out of the ground beneath a privet shrub directly to my left. I’m participating in something intimate, silent yet potent: termite nuptials and nighthawk gluttony; the ecstasy of consummation and consumption. The nighthawk is insatiable, and for fifteen minutes I enjoy trailing the owl-like bird with my eyes as it sifts silken chutes from the air with its wide-mouthed, whiskered beak.
In jail, Lamberton uses the natural world to help move beyond “barriers, physical as well as metaphorical . . . embracing this wilderness of fences and razor wire, trying to believe that I am not an exile.” In a system that has more or less acknowledged that it’s not going to bother with rehabilitation, and up against extreme ostracizion, Lamberton is fortunate to be able to turn to nature and writing. One wonders what would have happened to this man if Shelton’s workshop and his own love of the natural world were not available to help him rediscover himself, come to terms with prison, and temper his crime’s harsh repercussions.
One of the harshest repercussions Lamberton faces is the ongoing challenge of sustaining a marriage from prison and fighting to regain the trust of his wife, Karen. Although she does not leave Lamberton because she “doesn’t believe in divorce,” nonetheless Karen “won’t give me a second chance because some things can’t be forgotten.” In all her conflictedness, anxiety, surprising resilience, and dedication, Karen makes a character worthy of a novel. In choosing to stick to her principles against the repeated, patronizing urgings of her friends and church, Karen effectively sentences herself to bear, alone, all the hurt and anger caused by Lamberton’s crime as well as the slow grind of a 12-year prison sentence. As Lamberton tells it, Karen’s once rock-solid faith in God is broken, and she loses her innocence as she turns to a more pragmatic idea of religion. Karen also raises their three children on welfare, earns a law degree so that she can challenge her husband’s sentence (she wins a reduction, but the State breaks a pre-trial agreement by appealing and Lamerton is forced to return to jail), and wins another case to establish a precedent that affects prisoners nationwide. She even appears on an episode of The Phil Donahue Show. Perhaps if she lets him, Lamberton will one day tell us this intriguing woman’s full story.
In an introduction, Lamberton states that his book is meant to reproduce the fragmentation of his consciousness, and, true to form, Time of Grace is episodic and lacks much of an identifiable narrative center. Occasionally Lamberton’s approach is a little rough around the edges, as when he repeats certain information or gives into shrillness that, though it may have reflected his state of mind at the moment, nonetheless makes for bad reading. For the most part, though, the approach works; propelled along by an elaboration of core themes and beautiful depictions of the natural world, Time of Grace is a satisfying look into a man steadying himself to live up to his freedom.
Shelton’s and Lamberton’s books both have remarkably similar beginnings in which the authors lament their pre-prison misconceptions about justice in America. “Who was I to question the judicial system that had found him guilty, or the severity of the punishment that system had meted out?” asks Shelton, purposely demonstrating his naivete. Lamberton is more straightforward: “Like many people, I believed the justice system was a vehicle for truth. I discovered that truth is irrelevant and politics is not, that our adversarial system favors the affluent, that judges have become redundant.”
In each of these beginnings is the kernel of each author’s beliefs about why we lock up so many Americans. In Shelton, it’s a matter of complacency, of simply not ever stopping to consider how we punish out criminals. People don’t look, and behind their backs the prison-industrial complex spins out of control.
Lamberton sees things a bit differently. He argues that prisons are sold to the public on the model of former Arizona director of prisons Terry L. Steward, who “employs fear tactics to sell his position: prisons will keep you safe—we must continue to build them and to fill them.” From this point of view, it isn’t that a naive public doesn’t grasp that our justice system often fails, but rather that people want this system to be rigged because of fear whipped up by the self-interested. Do whatever it takes to lock up those criminals!
Perhaps in a pre-9/11 world, Shelton’s argument would have sounded more plausible, but knowing how brazenly—and successfully—fear has been exploited since the Twin Towers came down, one must side with Lamberton’s view that our lust for imprisonment is about fear. Otherwise, whence our sudden fear of Osama et al? How did we, almost literally overnight, become a nation terrified of terrorists? The rhetoric is startlingly similar: in many cases, just substitute “terrorist” for “criminal.” Or, consider how quickly the Democrats went from “soft on crime” to “soft on terrorists.” Or, ask yourself, Before George W. Bush became the worldwide sheriff who vowed to get Osama “dead or alive,” wasn’t he the steely governor who had executed more prisoners than any other, the one who failed to grant clemency to a retarded man and joked about the pleas for commutation of a born-again woman? Or, as Lamberton wryly notes, after Stewart retires as the head of Arizona’s prisons in 2002, he heads for Iraq “to use his formidable expertise to begin reforming Iraqi prisons on the American model, prisons like Abu Ghraib.” Makes perfect sense to me.
Though Lamberton and Shelton are on the right track when they call for major prison reform, the rhetoric and statistics presented in Time of Grace and Walking the Yard are not new. Moreover, statistics is neither man’s strength, and other recent books have made far better academic cases for changing our policy on prisons. What Lamberton and Shelton have contributed, however, are the existential arguments. Their stories of how they navigated and survived the prison labyrinth give us empathetic accounts that put a human face on the tragedies hinted at by the statistics. Their stories make us feel that redemption is not only possible, but is the correct moral response to crime.
This seems like something we need, as prisons today are institutions that are quite vindictive. Lamberton documents how he and his inmates are left with less and less by a state that keeps taking away: first their right to Christmas gifts from their families is eliminated, then their microwaves, then their closets and shelves (the rooms don’t look enough like cells). Their families can only give them impossible-to-find, all-white shoes. Even normal toothbrushes are contraband. The last indignity is when, just before Lamberton is released, each man is forced into an ugly fluorescent orange wardrobe that can only be removed for purposes of showering. But at least he isn’t subjected to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-deemed “toughest sheriff in the West.” His charges wear zebra-striped clothes and pink underwear, eat green bologna sandwiches, and aren’t allowed cigarettes or coffee.
Taken alone, none of these deprivations are shocking in their harshness, but reading one after another over the course of Lamberton’s book, it’s difficult to avoid wondering what exactly is the purpose of prison. Is it to avenge society by slowly ratcheting up these men’s discomfort levels? Is it to give prisoners such a bad experience that when they get out they will never want to return? It is to warehouse people at the lowest cost to the State? Or is it to prepare people to live with their freedom? There’s no simple answer to this question, but it seems in the build-up of prisons no one has bothered to ask it.
One might reasonably expect that prisons should be harsh places that will mete out a level of vengeance and make ex-cons think twice about returning, but two points offered in Walking the Yard and Time of Grace show us why prisons bent solely on retribution are wrong. First, scholarly studies have shown that criminals tend to be bad at weighing the costs and benefits of a crime. In their impulsive behavior, they lack the kind of long-term thinking that would make prison a deterrent to future crimes—arguably, a greater deterrent would be teaching them to stifle their impulses. Second, prisons that offer criminals no way of improving themselves quickly become schools for learning and perfecting criminal behavior, systems of criminality that help create a revolving door and swallow up even those who may have committed a minor crime.
Moreover, after reading Shelton’s and Lamberton’s accounts of prison, it’s difficult to conclude that all inmates—even those who have murdered and raped and robbed at gunpoint—shouldn’t be treated with a level of dignity and offered a second chance. The circumstances of each crime are unique, so, as Shelton learns, pre-judging a criminal based on his crime is a morally fraught choice. It’s also impossible to say how a conviction will change people’s view of themselves—for many of Shelton’s charges, their conviction sparked an intense period of self-scrutiny and inner change that eventually found an outlet in writing. That’s not to say all convicts will be similarly enlightened, but Shelton’s experiences and Lamberton’s story indicate that redemption should be a possibility.
Lastly, there is simple pragmatics: Lamberton notes that 95 percent of all people currently incarcerated in Arizona will be getting out over the next decade. They will be members of communities. They will be people’s neighbors. What do we want them to have learned while they were in prison? Would we prefer that they return to society with a chance of flourishing in it or preordained to be outcasts?
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