Tuesday, March 15, 2011
BEHIND THE WALLS WITH CHARLES JOHNSON
Since my days as an undergraduate, I’ve corresponded with black men who were incarcerated. (I had fellow student friends from Chicago and St. Louis who'd been in prison and were trying to turn their lives around.) They write to me about the dreams they hope to realize when they are released. And ask me to comment on their poetry. This correspondence began in 1970 when I was still primarily working as a professional cartoonist and my PBS series "Charlie's Pad" was first on the air.
I don't remember who invited me, but I drove to Marion Prison in southern Illinois, the highest maximum security prison in America, built to replace Alcatraz. I will never forget that evening---the series of heavy, metal doors that locked with a clang and echo behind me as I made my way inside, and the way the young, black prisoners came through a tunnel-like corridor (so low they had to walk stooped over) to the conference room where I sat waiting to meet them with my drawing pad and black marker. During my time with them, I gave them what cartoonists call a "chalk talk," i.e., I gave them a few drawing lessons. They asked me to draw pretty women for them, which I did.
Thirty years later in Seattle, and in my role as a writer, I went to a lock- up facility for offenders under the age of eighteen who were awaiting trial. All the kids wore different colored jumpsuits and soft slippers. I remember one young man who approached me before my talk to say that he read that I kept a diary as a kid. He said that inspired him to do the same during his time behind bars so that one day his baby son could read it and not make the same mistakes he did.
I’ve been told my work is popular with young men behind bars. When I receive their mail (You can always tell the letters from prisoners because of the way the envelope looks; they've been "processed" or checked in some way by the prison administrators), I always try to write them back, but I do so with a heavy heart because “there but for the grace of God go I,” and I know the difficulties they will face once they are back in the social world: the restrictions placed on their lives by the criminal justice system, the uphill struggle to find employment after being in prison and the lure of temptation that former friends can offer. So, yes, I always try to write back to them and offer encouragement. I have to.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 5:01 PM