Reading, Writing, and Rehabilitation

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

By Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson

Oakland, CA: New Village Press, 2010, 198 pp., $20.00, paperback


Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons

By Megan Sweeney

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 331 pp., $22.95, paperback


Reviewed by Bell Gale Chevigny


After the integrated civil rights movement gave way to black nationalism in the 1960s, I grieved for my lost sense of purpose. Then, creating a reading and writing workshop in a local prison struck me as civil rights action by different means. I dreamed of inspiring and equipping my students—mostly black—to join the struggle for social justice upon their release. More than forty years later, it seems to me that a revived civil rights movement would appropriately be directed at prisons, since the vast majority of US prisoners are now people of color. To an astonishing extent, prisons have stolen funds from state education budgets and replaced social services for this demographic. Black communities, ironically no longer as self-sustaining as they were before desegregation, have lost hundreds of thousands of men to incarceration, and their children hunger for the “prestige” of doing time.

These valuable books represent a small but dedicated movement to defy popular beliefs about prisoners and punishment, and to restore prison arts and education programs. The activists are seeing some encouraging signs. The number of executions is dropping, prison construction has slowed, and there are some signs of renewed openness to parole, alternative sentencing, and treatment for substance abuse. Postsecondary education in prisons, nurtured in the seventies by federal Pell grants, was killed by Congress in 1994; but the success of ingenious degree-granting programs run by teachers in private colleges has spurred efforts to revive the Pell program.

Meanwhile the publication of prisoners’ writing and books about the rewards of facilitating reading, writing, and other arts programs inside are gradually raising public consciousness about the need for a radical change in the US criminal justice system. The two books under review—one a double memoir, the other an academic study—both break significant new ground.

All her work, Judith Tannenbaum says, has been “anchored in the belief that making art is a human birthright.” A teacher of poetry in a wide range of settings, she has also long served as the training coordinator for WritersCorps, a fifteen-year-old San Francisco program in which creative writers offer workshops in public schools, community centers, detention facilities, after-school programs, and low-income housing. For four years in the late 1980s she taught a poetry workshop in San Quentin State Prison with a grant from the California Arts Council. When the workshop ended, one of her students gave her an assignment: “Write about these past four years from your point of view.” She took it seriously and her book, Disguised As A Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry in San Quentin (2000), has become a classic, essential reading for people interested in working behind the walls.

A couple of years ago, Spoon Jackson, a San Quentin student with whom Tannenbaum had kept in contact, proposed they write a double memoir about their very different lives as they were shaped by poetry and prison. (Disclosure: For more than a decade I have known both Tannenbaum and Jackson and admired their work.) By Heart presents their stories in alternating, contrapuntal chapters.

Tannenbaum grew up in a large, talky, left-leaning Jewish family in Los Angeles. As a child, she dictated her own stories to her mother. Hypersensitive among her peers, she strove to be invisible. She loved sitting quietly indoors and listening to her warm and voluble family. There, she felt “as though I were in a ballroom whose walls were mirrors shining light in all directions. It wasn’t me reflected exactly, but some bright beauty, a multifaceted flashing.” Later “being-a-mirror” became “a favorite aspect of teaching; reflecting to others their own joy, beauty, curiosity, excitement, and humor.” Later still, her classroom in San Quentin—even with (and perhaps because of) the strictures against overfamiliarity—would also “reflect light.”

Tannenbaum took a circuitous and bumpy ride to the prison classroom. A hippie at the University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, she suffered a breakdown, entered and left a happy marriage, and wandered aimlessly around Europe. Back home she found herself through teaching and writing poetry. Her poetry, like her anti-authoritarian teaching style, arises from a state in which she is both wide-open and totally focused. As important as telling one’s own story, she believes, is listening to the stories of others; otherwise, she says, “how else will we recognize the whole we are part of?” Her San Quentin students shared her hunger “for poems powerful enough to help find a way through hard times. . . . Everyone in the room . . . had suffered and had caused suffering. . . . Oddballs together,” they were making the best of what they had. Tannenbaum had always longed to be part of an artistic circle like Gertrude Stein’s, but only at San Quentin did she find “the group of artists that was mine to belong to.”

Spoon Jackson was born in Barstow, California, the fourteenth of fifteen sons. In his Mojave Desert home, he writes, “the mountains held the whole world.” He was happiest lying under a railroad bridge or running with wild dogs in a dry riverbed. School was oppressive. To fit in with other boys, he began to steal and do dope. He was shot during a fight and killed his opponent. Though “conscious of no conscience,” he knew he deserved to serve time. But he understood nothing that was said in his trial, and his sentence—life without parole—overwhelmed him.

During his first decade in prison, Jackson says, he “walked in dark shades and silence.” Silence became his teacher, giving him “amazing focus and depth.” Determined, after his trial, never again to let unknown words trap him, he—like countless other prisoners—became passionate about definitions and vocabulary. He read everything he could get his hands on and took all the courses offered. He began to want to make amends for the wrong he’d done. He especially wished to show his mother, before she died, that “her son walked in realness,” which he defines as “a natural state—a place children have gone to before their truth is altered by environment.” Or, as he says in his poem “Real,”

    Realness eats raw meat
    and does not waver
    nor drift on the currents . . .
    Realness walks only in his
    own shoes.


Yet even at that point, he says, he didn’t really go “inside”; nor did he believe that anything he might find there would be beautiful.

In Tannenbaum’s workshop, Jackson sat silent behind a ring of empty chairs, wearing shades. She let him alone for a year, while the others spoke and wrote. (To be a poet in prison, Jackson declares, takes more heart than to be a gangster.) When she finally scheduled their first conference, he appeared without the shades and with a sheaf of rough poems and a rush of talk about his boyhood in the desert. Tannenbaum took notes and typed up his words, to mirror him back to himself. A few weeks later, he wrote “No Beauty in Cell Bars”:

    Restless, unable to sleep
    Keys, bars, guns being racked
    Year after year
    Endless echoes
    of steel kissing steel


Tannenbaum felt that she was “witnessing a birth . . . a person waking up to his calling.” Rather “finding his voice” (as the saying goes), he was “recognizing what was already there.” There’s a crooked symmetry in this remarkable book: poetry and teaching rescued Tannenbaum, and prison provided her with the lifeline of a writing community; poetry also awakened Jackson, but for him it was a counterforce to prison’s destructive power.

When Jan Jonson, a Swedish director, arrived at San Quentin to stage Waiting for Godot he chose Jackson to play Pozzo, the merciless slaveholder. Jackson was bewildered; he’d never read or seen a play. Jonson assured him that the playwright Samuel Beckett too loved silence and used it often in his plays. Beckett believed that prisoners “shared a reality with his play that could not be captured in other circumstances”—the experience of “nothingness, smallness, timelessness, emptiness, and the waiting for what does not happen.” The international audience who came to see the play carried with them their “heavy luggage of fear and uncertainty” but soon figuratively joined the actors in the stage set’s “empty landscape,” where they were forced to ponder other kinds of prisons, “mental, spiritual, physical, racial, and cultural.” They saw that they, too, lived with “one foot in light and one in darkness,” says Jackson, and realized that “to maintain their own humanity, they had to see and feel ours.” The prisoners’ six historic performances, he says, revealed the “universal soul—a happy sad condition of being human.”

While moved and amazed by the production, Tannenbaum deplored the Swedish troupe’s arrogant and demanding behavior. They ignored prison schedules and rules, especially against overfamiliar relations with the men. Jackson fell in love with a Swedish artist, and they married inside the prison. Tannenbaum did not attend, annoyed by Jackson’s failure to invite her and fearing to jeopardize her program. A rift opened between them.

After the standing ovations for Godot, the adulated actors returned to their cells. To add to the letdown, Jackson was soon transferred from the “art-world Mecca of California prisons” to one of the worst prisons in the state.

Over the next two decades, Jackson was shunted through the state’s mushrooming gulag (between 1985 and the present, the number of prisoners more than tripled). He was always on the lookout for arts programs to join and for nurturing contact with nature. Many prisoners keep their hearts alive by making pets of birds, mice, and even spiders. In one relatively liberal facility, Jackson writes, “I eventually built up such a splendid rapport with some sparrows and black birds that they followed me all over the prison.” Eight years later, a new warden ordered that all the trees and gardens be destroyed: “He did not want any plant life taller than grass,” Jackson says.

With many of her best students scattered and her grant ended, Tannenbaum had trouble writing her book. Jackson encouraged his “Big Sis” to “write reckless.” When she finally published the book, she took it, and poems by prisoners, to readings at colleges and incarcerated groups all over the country. Imagining what the life of someone like Jackson might have been had an adult taken notice of him as a child, she has become a powerful advocate of programs for prisoners and youth at risk.

This year, 2010, is Jackson’s 33rd behind bars. Now 53 years old, he has no prospect of release. “I am not happy nor will I ever be happy in prison,” he says, and adds, quoting Pozzo: “That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”



Reading is my Window is a most original scholarly work about genres few regard as literature—narratives of victimization, urban fiction, and self-help—and the reading practices of incarcerated women. Assistant professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Megan Sweeney based her research on interviews and group discussions with 94 women prisoners. Her research method and analysis are meticulous; the book is enlivened by the frank and often surprising remarks of her subjects.

Reading has “never been a neutral medium that whites happened to monopolize, but rather a defining feature of white identity—and one that depended crucially on the illiteracy of blacks,” writes Sweeny, citing Leah Price in “Reading: The State of the Discipline” (Book History, Vol. 7, edited by Ezra Greenspan and Jonathan Rose [2004]). In this country’s earliest prisons, reading was encouraged—for white males. Incarcerated women of all races were considered more depraved than men and beyond redemption; thus their education was neglected.

The glowing exception was the women’s unit in Sing-Sing where, in the 1840s, the matron Eliza Farnham organized her reform efforts around reading and writing. She replaced public readings of the Bible with Dickens’s Oliver Twist and supplemented the sole title in the prison library—Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted Sinner—with popular novels, travel books, and phrenological texts. The Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller visited several times and was radicalized by her perception of the women’s inherent goodness. She went on to argue in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) that fashionable women’s conspicuous displays of wealth were a spur to prostitution. In the same year Fuller helped found New York’s Women’s Prison Association, still alive and stronger than ever. Later in the century, members of black women’s clubs became “literary activists”; they hoped to counteract the brutality of the convict lease system by treating inmates as readers.

Today, 28 percent of all incarcerated women are black. The enlightened corrections policies of the 1970s have been rejected so definitively that in 2006, the Supreme Court supported a Pennsylvania prison’s denial of secular newspapers to prisoners in long-term segregation units, on the grounds that denying prisoners such reading material serves as an “incentive for inmate growth.” Although women in prison have little to read but victimization stories, urban fiction, and self-help books—a deplorable curriculum from a teacher’s point of view—Sweeney finds that they use these texts to “claim their humanity, practice freedom, and transform themselves.”

“There are many ways to victimize people. One way is to convince them they are victims,” Sweeny quotes Karen Hwang in the epigraph to a chapter on the literature of misery, or “mislit.” Trained that “what happens in the house stays in the house,” incarcerated women keep abuse bottled up. Reading mislit helped one prisoner understand the value of finding someone “you can just unload on, because there’s a lot of stuff that you carry around that you don’t even start thinking about until someone triggers it.” But many prisoners criticized writers who used their situations “as a crutch to get sympathy.” One endorsed an author’s emphasis on the need to overcome the past: “Let’s get over that hump. . . . You’re 42 years old and you’re still talking about what Johnnie did to you at nine? Come on! . . . let’s talk about you at fifty years old. . . . Where are you going? . . . Everybody has a story to tell. Let’s read the story after that story.”

In the 1990s, “urban fiction,” also called “gangsta lit” or “hiphop fiction,” was generally self-published and sold on street corners or in barbershops; now authors sign six-figure contracts, and Triple Crown Publications, founded in 2001 by an ex-convict, is the largest independent publishing house in the nation. Typical urban titles include Forever a Hustler’s Wife, and Thugs and the Women Who Love Them. Since Sister Souljah published The Coldest Winter Ever in 2006, the genre has been especially popular among young black women. With their familiar characters, scenes, speech patterns, fashion, and the “game,” the books enable women to feel connected to their communities and to conjure a world beyond the prison’s control. Readers characterize the books as “powerful agents that can either enable positive transformation or contribute to one’s downfall.” Prison administrators fearing the power of urban fiction have banned it, but books prisoners receive through the mail are widely circulated by “the Underground Book Railroad.” Sweeney worries about the genre’s “ethic of violence, ruthless competition, materialism and revenge”—although she points out that this is hardly unique to this genre—and she reveals a larger harm:

    Our current failure to approach communal safety and well-being from the perspective of social equality and social justice—rather than from the perspective of ‘Fuck with mines and I will annihilate yours’—represents an impoverishment of our social imagination. This limited social imagination, far more than any book that could make it into prisoners’ hands, is what truly warrants fear.

Sweeney’s judgment about self-help books is also shrewd: “Given that penal systems marginalize radical prisoners and deny women access to reading materials that emphasize structural models of change, books that foreground individual models of change are some of the only available resources.” However, the incarcerated women were able to use these books as part of “a long-term process of claiming authorship of one’s life and ‘restorying’” their experiences into a positive narrative.



Both of these books are implicitly calls to action; both advocate the promotion of reading among prisoners through participatory groups. In my own teaching experiences inside, I have been continually surprised by the capacity of my students to be moved by—and listen carefully to—one another’s work. The workshop takes them out of the prison environment. They swiftly shed their defensive personae to become exuberant writers and learners who take advantage of the rare opportunity to interact seriously and generously.

But it is no easy matter to create such workshops inside. These texts may well spur readers on the outside to seek programs in which they can engage with those inside. Such readers will benefit from Tannenbaum’s list of resources for prison and community arts, and Sweeney’s list of organizations that gather books for prisoners.



Bell Gale Chevigny, emerita professor of literature at the College of Purchase, State University of New York, is the former chair of the PEN Prison Writing Program; the editor of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (1999 and Sky Horse Press, forthcoming); the guest editor of The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons Volume 19, no. 1 (2010); and the author of many articles on prison writers. In 2010 she celebrated Margaret Fuller’s 200th birthday with a séance/salon that she hopes to recreate at colleges and universities in the coming months.

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