The letter below is from Mr. Duran, an LWOP prisoner in the A-Yard at the California State Prison, Los Angeles in Lancaster. He has been in prison for over 20 years. Mr. Duran is not currently enrolled in Dr. Roy’s class, but his longtime friend, Mr. Stein (who is one of Dr. Roy’s students) was “blown away by the honesty and depth of Mr. Duran’s insights.” Mr. Stein tells us that after he read this letter he knew it had to “get out there” so that people can learn how prisoners are and how they change over time.
The letter is to “Ana,” his wife and the mother of his sons. He changed her name for privacy reasons. Mr. Stein says that Mr. Duran’s first language is Spanish, so the letter was originally written in Spanish and later translated into English. As Mr. Stein remarked, “translating such a deep text to English must have been a chore.”
I hope you enjoy this letter in its original format. I must mention that Mr. Duran has consented to have this letter and his name published.
Check out the latest letter from Voices From-Yard.
My pen pal James talks about prison life and reveals the structure of prison racial politics. He gives details about some of the benefits of these politics and how they influence his day-to-day routines. With this, James makes a point to acknowledge his fortunate placement at the A- Yard. He draws a stark contrast between the atmosphere of the A-Yard at California State Prison, Los Angeles and the atmosphere of other prison facilities.
March 2, 2016
I really don’t have complaints as I have been so fortunate to have been able to have access to higher education. I also now live on a peaceful yard. When I was in prison at Avenal in the early to mid nineties, there were melees and small rots on a bi-monthly basis. They mostly involved southern Mexicans and northern Mexicans, as well as bloods and crips; however, sometimes whites were involved as well. It’s nice to be on a yard that you’re able to be yourself and interact with all races. There are less politics here, which allows us to do that. Politics are basically the rules (unwritten) that keep races segregated. For instance, certain tables, showers, workout equipment, areas of the yard are claimed territory. If you violate those territories, there is a pretty good chance you’ve just disrespected another race and there will be a price to pay. In a level III, you may only get into a fight or could get stabbed. If you’re in a level IV, you may get stabbed and killed. Politics are serious. I personally believe some politics are good because they provide a structure that gives cohesion to a race. Politics also help to prevent problems pertaining to making a large group of men understand where they can sit, shower, walk, and who they can interact with. For example; If I want to take a shower and as on most yards blacks out-number whites by say 6 to 1, I’ll know I’ll be able to get in line at our shower and efficiently rather than wait for hours if we didn’t get in line at our shower. We share with Latinos where they share with Asians and “others.” The blacks, Asians, and others may want to watch one thing on TV, where on our side we may want to watch something else. This limited use of politics works and is not too segregated as we also interact and can sit where ever we want and talk with anyone we wish to talk to. I’ll continue to share bits and pieces with you so you will better understand this unique culture.
My partner James, one of the Voices From A-Yard, sent me photos of two boats he built in prison. He shares with me his personal inspiration for making the boats and he tells me that having the opportunity to creatively express himself is a way to be closer to his two sons who have been advised not to see their father while in prison.
This is what James says:
Here are seven photo’s depicting two boats I made with my cell with popsicle sticks, strips of redwood and black walnut. You’re definitely asking, how did he make that in his cell? Well, first I belong to the hobby program here at Lancaster Prison, which allows me to purchase hobby supplies. The bulk of the boats were made with popsicle sticks and elmers glue I ordered. The strips of redwood and strips of black walnut were obtained from a friend who once worked in the yard cabinet shop. The tools I used are simply a p-38 can opener and a primitive mitre-box made from popsicle sticks.
Before I continue, Id like to tell you about my inspiration to build these boats. When I was arrested for this cowardly, senseless crime of murder, my young sons J… and K……., were only 6 and 4. I love and miss my two young boys who are 16 and 15 now, more than anybody or anything in the world. When I built these boats I needed an outlet where it felt like we were working on something together when I built these boats, which took about two years a piece, It was my way of spending time with my boys. While I worked on them I also kept a journal so that they would know what we had done and what wonderful memory I was thinking of together with them. Once I finished each boat, I built custom boxes for them so that they would arrive at my brother’s home safely. He took pictures of them for me and them hand delivered the sailboat to them and re-packaged the other and sent it to them. Sadly, about six years ago their school psychologist told their mom that it would be best if the boys didn’t communicate with their father (me) while he is in prison. And even though I write to them almost every week, send them money for their school clothes, money for Christmas, birthdays, and these boats, I do not ever receive a single acknowledgment. However, even though that deeply hurts my feelings, I will never stop loving them and will continue writing them, sending them money, and building them boats.
The sailboats design is completely out of my head. I once lived on a 27 ‘ Catalina, on Rhine channel behind the Delaney’s restaurant in New Port Beach, when I worked at Riddle Yacht Brokers as a teenager. This sailboat is very similar to its design except all wood instead of fiberglass. The other boat is a scaled ½” per foot replica of a 1932, 32’ HackerCraft Runabout. I love these boats and challenged myself to build one. It had a rudder when I mailed it out but it somehow was broken off when it left the prison. In the 1930’s this commuter boat went about 52 knots, almost 60 mph! That’s very fast for the 1930’s. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed making them :).
Victor Hugo’s quote not only touches upon the significance of education and the possibilities it holds for the future, but it also makes a point to convey the bleak options one faces without access to education. This is to say that education plays a pivotal role in change and without it – growth is nearly impossible. In effect, as the proverbial door opens and the flow of ideas is exchanged, both students on the inside (inmates) and students on the outside (grad students) have the opportunity to learn from one another through the correspondence of letter writing. As we exchange ideas, we challenge one another to see different perspectives while expressing our thoughts in ways that can be mutually understood. A good example of this interaction can be grasped in a recent letter from my writing partner Jeffery Stein as he describes the value in Los Angeles County Progressive Programming facility from his perspective and tells me how grateful he is to be part of the A-yard, a self-correctional facility that promotes education as he describes his experiences as:
“The first thing that I noticed when I arrived was the absence of tension. You see, at the other prisons the tension is palpable and near constant. I am not sure if my “Rights” as a prisoner are actually codified anywhere- my actual experience has been one of true reform and re-education.”
Jeff not only acknowledges the value of the program, but he also admits how fortunate he is to be part of an environment that is conducive to learning and self-improvement. Because of this environment, he is able to expand his horizons through prison literacy. As literature becomes a powerful tool, it becomes an even more powerful tool in prison as it not only works to augment one’s vocabulary, but also functions as a valuable instrument in critical thinking. Through our exchange of ideas, Jeff has made me aware of how literature has opened up his mind to various possibilities as he identifies with characters and social settings within the narrative. In fact, after reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter to Birmingham, Jeff reflects on his own position and says:
“I felt like I would have dropped whatever I was doing at the time and lent my time and energy to his cause if I had been alive at the time all this was happening”
Being able to identify with others is an essential component to self-reflection. By self-reflection, Jeff is empowered to turn his own life around and extend his help to others who may also find them selves in similar situations. He says, “I hope I can help somehow because I made a U-turn. And I was helped along the way, few things are as powerful as that.”In essence Jeff is saying that the progressive program has helped him so much, that he feels indebted to the rehabilitative system and is obliged to help others by showing them that there is hope through rehabilitative programming.
After considering new perspectives through Jeff’s eyes, I have learned that even though I may be on the outside looking in, I still have much to learn when considering the experiences and perceptions from those on the inside. This is to say that through the exchange of letter writing and literary ideas, I have discovered how and why literature affects each and every one of us in similar ways.
“This is a really great course. I really hope that it continues. I am afraid that it will get canceled. I would stick with it even if we didn’t get credit for it. Professor Roy is doing a very cool thing. I could never tell him or convey how much it means to me . . . I really hope we receive full funding for this course. I was not sure how it would work being in prison. But, so far I have no complains.”
— Tommy, A Voice From A-Yard
February 11, 2016
“I am currently in training to become an Inmate Peer Educator–California Health Justice Center. I am also an active participant in the American Sign Language Class; A teacher’s aide for The Volunteer Education Program; Music Theory Class and Enrolled [in] Islamic Theology & Arabic Grammar Courses via Tayba Foundation.”
— T/E, A Voice From A-Yard
Every time I receive a letter from Tommy and T/E I am thrilled to see how committed they are to learning. Tommy and T/E take full advantage of all of the programs available to them; they do not miss an opportunity to learn or be connected with issues outside prison walls. Tommy just finished reading Poldark Series by Winston Graham and as you see above T/E is very much involved in educational programs. Aside from their personal updates, I also enjoy that their letters are written on a typewriter which makes them so quaint. But above all what I love from these last two letters, and which I am excited and proud to share, is that their research papers and reflections essays have improved. During these last five to six weeks that we have been working together, their writing style (grammar, syntax, and organization) and their reading of literary works has improved significantly. They are even using MLA format (I find this truly laudable because after all these years I still have to refer back to my handy-dandy MLA book or to my dearest friend Purdue OWL).
One of my favorite moments of this week’s letter from Tommy was when he told me how much he did not like Brothers and Keepers: A Memoir from John Edgar Wideman. He described his experience by saying “I feel like I have climbed Mount Everest. Barefoot.” However, Tommy was a bit concerned about what I would think and what Dr. Roy would think about him not liking a book assigned for class, “Sorry, I don’t mean to complain to much. The good thing is that I made it till the end.” I told him that not liking a book was perfectly normal and that at times when we dislike something so much that is where our best writing comes out. “Most importantly,” I told him, “is that you arrived at your conclusion by thinking critically about the book’s theme and style and how it relates to your own prison experience.”
Education for the Voices From A-Yard is a way out of the prison culture and into a culture of mutual respect and enrichment, where their ideas are validated. Often the conversation about Prison Education tends to focus on those men and women who after they are released have a lesser chance of recidivism. Yet, for some of the men in this program, who know that probably they never will leave prison because they are serving an LWOP sentence, Education is not a promise for a job “outside,” but rather it is a fulfillment of a promise they made to themselves and their loved ones. Where prison walls have set limits, Education fulfills a promise to move forward as learners and humans.
After corresponding with the Voices From A-Yard and developing a rapport, I have come to a point of great introspection. This contemplation stems out of a question that was posed to the grad students, “How might the narrative affect the voice of the subject?” While at first my initial response is to say that the narrative frees the voice because it conveys the ideas of the inmate, my second response says that the narrative actually works to limit the voice of the inmate as it is filtered through the narrator. However, upon further examination and careful consideration, I feel that while the narrator simultaneously brings two different worlds together through language, the job of the narrator ultimately frees the voice of the inmate. In effect, I feel that this can only be possible if the narrator remains conscious of the writing process while not only holding oneself accountable to the reader, but also remaining mindful of who’s story the narrator is telling.
In fact this point is made clear in John Edgar Wideman’s novel “Brothers And Keepers” as he says that he continuously questions his point of view when “represent[ing] otherness,” because as the narrator, he is “accountable to his readers” and “answerable to the story” (xv).
This is to say that as I receive letters from my pen pal I not only read and interpret what he writes to me, but I must then translate the context in order to be able to relate and understand it within the limitations of my own experiences. Meaning, as I read the details that he uses to describe the conditions of his lived experiences, I naturally understand his words but interpret them as my own in order to make sense of his world in relation to my own.
For Instance in a recent letter, inmate Stein identifies with poet Etheridge Knight’s“Villainous ideal” as he relates to having to appear tough and untouchable while incarcerated. He further interprets Knights use imagery as a way to tone down the harsh realities of prison as he says “I know from my own prison experience that he is referring to that “bad mother-f…er” mask people often have to employ to keep from being preyed upon.”
Without Stein’s interpretation, these details might have been lost on me. However, because of Stein’s personal experiences, he is able to condition these details and relate them to (me) the reader in a meaningful way. In essence, Stein is simultaneously drawing from his own experiences in order to represent Knights voice in a meaningful way while consciously remaining answerable to the story.
As words are used to express ideas for all practical purposes of communication, the narrator translates the language of the subject and relays it to the reader. With this, the voice of the subject comes to the blog as a third voice; a voice that not only gets filtered and transmitted, but also translates the ideas of the subject and delivers the ideas through a filter. This filter will enable the spirit of the voice to be heard, while rendering the ideas in a way that the reader will be able to understand.
As a contributing mediator for this blog page, I not only represent the voices from behind the prison walls, but I also work to free the spirits of the inmates. Through critical analysis, I feel that if the mediator consciously narrates the spirit of the subject, the voice will be set free and effectively echoed through literature.