THE BLOG
07/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Prisoners' Professor

Richard Shelton's first interest in a prisoner's poetry was born from curiosity rather than charity. In 1970, a convicted murderer named Charles Schmid--on death row at the Arizona State Prison in Florence--wrote Shelton and asked him to critique his work. Shelton, then a professor at the University of Arizona, accepted. He has since admitted that he did so "for all the wrong reasons...I was fascinated because he was a monster."

Shelton may not be proud of their first contact, but his relationship with Schmid led him to discover a life-changing project, when, four years into their relationship, the inmate convinced him to start a poetry workshop for prisoners. It's a workshop that Shelton has been teaching to this day.

A prison may seem like an odd place to find students of poetry, but in an environment where many are looking for a new sense of purpose, the art can have a remarkable impact. Last year, PBS's The News Hour With Jim Lehrer ran a feature on one of Shelton's workshops, and the prisoners spoke of the purpose that writing poetry had given their lives. Jaime Omar Meza, a thirty-year-old who has been in prison since age 17, related that "for the first time, I know what I want to do with myself." Another inmate, Andrew Jaiks, perhaps put it best:

"It's not a matter of giving something to the convicts. It's a matter of opening up people's lives so that they do have an avenue for understanding compassion, through the things that we read and hearing other people read, and learning how to take criticism, and have that be for some other reason than just to degrade you."

Shelton put it another way: "If you can learn to use language honestly, then you can apply it to yourself honestly, and I think you can see yourself in a different light." While it doesn't always work, poetry has helped many of Shelton's students find more meaning in life. Some, like Ken Lamberton and Jimmy Santiago Baca (both now out of prison), have even found success as writers.

Shelton recently published a memoir of his experiences called Crossing the Yard : Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer. The book describes how, in addition to the successes, there have been some difficult, and even dangerous, times. As you can see in this excerpt, the danger didn't always originate from the prisoners:

When I crossed the main yard that night, it was deserted. Chow was long since over, and the men were either in their cells or in classrooms in the education yard. I got to the iron door and yelled "Guard!" as I always did. The little basket came down as it always did, and I reached into it to get the key. But there was no key. Instead there were many little transparent plastic bags filled with white powder. I froze, but my mind was racing. From above, all they could see was my cowboy hat. They couldn't see my face. Somebody had made a terrible mistake. I had been told by men in the workshop that the mainstream drug trade was carried on by guards to supplement their extremely low salaries, but I hadn't believed it. Now I had seen too much, far too much for an outsider.

Usually, of course, the danger did come from the prisoners. Shelton's students once had to bar the door while a riot took place outside the classroom, and many of his students have been beaten, or worse. Schmid, his original pupil, was killed by fellow inmates in 1975. Shelton told the University of Arizona News, "It has been bloody. But the successes are also big and dramatic, and very rewarding....Many of these men have become like sons to us."

Shelton is now in his 34th year volunteering in the prison system. I think that this excerpt from his poem "Desert Water" helps to get at the charity of the man, and helps to explain why he does it:

once a year
when infallible toads
begin to sing
all the spiders who left me
return and I make room for them

I am too proud
to mention their long absence

...we wait for the promised rain
for the second coming
of water

each time it arrives
like the flood and I know
I have not wasted my life

spiders still come
to my house for shelter

You can read poetry by Arizona State Prison students in the journal Walking Rain Review, which publishes work by current and former inmates.