Tear Down These Walls

After three decades of prison volunteering, poet-educator Richard Shelton thinks it's time for reform

Richard Shelton, who is as famous and accomplished as a poet can be in contemporary America, doesn't publish prose often. His first memoir, the now-classic Going Back to Bisbee, came out in 1992; as popular and acclaimed as that book was, it took the University of Arizona professor 15 years to follow it up.

We can forgive him, though. He is neither lazy nor distracted nor given to resting on stale laurels; he has not been chasing co-eds, nor has he been drinking too much, as poet-professors are wont to do. Actually, as we find out in his astonishing new memoir-polemic, Crossing the Yard: 30 Years as a Prison Volunteer, Shelton has been spending his weekends these last three decades organizing and teaching poetry workshops in Arizona's infamously corrupt and hopelessly broken prison system.

He started in the early 1970s, during the nadir days of murder, corruption and lies inside the state's backward and brutal Florence prison, called to volunteer there through the enthusiasm of one of Tucson's most infamous murderers, Charles Schmid, a killer the national press dubbed the "Pied Piper of Tucson," referring to the group of teens Schmid gathered around him for a time and supposedly induced to murder three young girls. Despite his crimes, Schmid, Shelton writes, was a talented poet, who, after reading one of Shelton's books, pleaded in letters for the professor to critique his work, just as Shelton would do for any middle-class Arizona son or daughter matriculating at the state university.

Schmid would eventually publish his poetry, as have a mind-boggling number of Shelton's prison students over the years. His workshops to date have helped dozens of undereducated and socially marginal men and women become not only published but, in a few cases, award-winning and famous writers. His former student Jimmy Santiago Baca has won the National Book Award, and nature writer Ken Lamberton, also a student of Shelton's behind the walls, has won the John Burroughs Medal. Through the workshop program, Shelton and his students have published a high-quality literary journal for prison inmates, and several well-reviewed anthologies. It's likely that, per capita, Shelton's prison students have been just as successful, if not more so, than his UA charges, at least in the limited but high-art world of the small presses. And most of them, Shelton writes, had to be stripped first of their preconceptions about language and poetry and even intellectual pursuits in general before they could even start expressing themselves in any meaningful way.

His years of volunteering have been unbelievably dark years as well, Shelton writes. Schmid, his first inmate student, was murdered at Florence, as were several other workshop members over the years. He received guff and administrative roadblocks for years from wardens and guards, who invariably see the prisoners as subhuman and dangerous. Shelton has not found this to be the case. He writes that he always felt safer with his students in the prison than he did in his UA classrooms. He has never, in more than 30 years, been threatened by an inmate, though there was a time when the Aryan Brotherhood attempted to covertly take over his class. During the same years at the UA, three nurses were shot dead by a student, and fights were known to break out from time to time during workshops. (Shelton writes about a fistfight that broke out in one of his classes in the 1960s between two young men, both vying for the affection of a young Linda Ronstadt--who could blame them?)

Shelton over his years on the inside came to identify much more with his students, the outlaws, than with the often ignorant and arbitrary prison authorities. This stance, hard-won over decades of close contact with murderers and outcasts, is one of the truest and most illuminating aspects of his memoir. While he is a self-described "do-gooder," and may actually be some kind of literary saint (time will tell; we should all watch for poetic miracles after his passing), Shelton is not a knee-jerk bleeding- heart, and he is not naïve.

Because of all this, he is someone Arizonans, and Americans, should listen to, especially on matters of crime and punishment. And what does he say we should do with our overcrowded, violent, soul-smashing, crime-creating prison system? In a perfect world, he'd tear it down, brick by brick, and start over. In this world, he calls for a kind of people's revolution, challenging each of us to volunteer inside this brutal shadow world that is being propped up and perpetuated with our tax money. Get to know it as I have, Shelton writes.

You can start by reading this book. Then maybe we can tear it all down together.