On Wednesday, February 1, 2012, I went to prison.
It was a great day.
I visited the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC), Victorville, where I was invited to speak to the inmates and give a seminar on creative writing.
The FCC runs the program through their Educational Department in conjunction with the California Writers Club, High Desert (CWCHD). When, nearly two months ago, Bob Isbill, the President of the CWCHD, asked if I'd be interested in talking to the inmates, I jumped at the opportunity.
On the morning of February 1, I drove up to the High Desert to meet Bob at his house, where I met his equally lovely wife, before he and I headed off to FCC Victorville. As we entered the doors of the visiting area, we had to pass through security, which isn't unlike going through the airport.
I removed my shoes and belt, placed them in a small plastic tub, then stepped through the metal detector. Bob and I waited for a few minutes, until we were greeted by our escort.
The escort led us through the yard, which, honestly, was a bit intimidating on account of all the movies, TV shows, and documentaries that I've seen (not to mention nightmares I've had) about prison.
"It's quiet right now," he told us, as we moved through the empty yard. "But they'll be coming out soon."
There are 20 inmates in the writing program and, as Bob told me, there's plenty more who'd like to get in. There is, however, a cap put on the number of inmates that can be a part of it; those who are in the program must pass through a series of hurdles, while also exhibiting good behavior, in order to be elegible. Because my presentation was regarded as a special event, they opened it up to more inmates and, in all, 85 men showed up.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a certain level of anxiety when, while I sat at the front of the chapel, I watched the inmates entering and taking their seats. It was their khaki jumpsuits that made it all sort of real for me. These were real men who'd committed real crimes and were serving real time. And I was an outsider on their turf.
Rusty LaGrange, who is also part of the CWCHD, gave me a very kind introduction, after which I began speaking to the roomful of 85 inmates. I spoke about novel writing for about 20 minutes or so, before doing a Q & A with the inmates. The men of FCC Victorville had lots of great questions and we talked for well over an hour. And while I never completely forgot where I was, I did, for the great majority of my time there, forget I was in the company of prison inmates and simply saw them as an audience of men enthusiastic to talk about creative writing. When our time was up and the Q & A came to an end, I was presented with a certificate of appreciation and a beautiful plaque.
Following the Q & A, there was time allowed for a meet and greet, giving me an opportunity to speak with many of the inmates one on one. Some had questions about writing and publishing, while others simply wanted to say thank you. A few even told me they were going to ask their families to buy Inside the Outside and send it to the prison for them to read. In all, I couldn't have asked for a kinder or more gracious audience.
As we were escorted out of the chapel and I waved goodbye to the inmates, I was immediately reminded of the two separate worlds we inhabited. While I was off to the Hesperia Library to prepare for another presentation later that evening, the inmates of FCC Victorville would go back to their daily reality of being prisoners in a federal penitentiary. I can only hope that my visit served to inspire them as much as they inspired me.
And now that I'm out, I can't wait to go back to prison.