Finding Redemption Behind Bars through Writing: Two Perspectives
Over the weekend the Los Angeles Times ran an interesting, and complementary, pair of articles. First is this review of Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars (Atlas & Co., 2009) by Kenneth Hartman, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a 1980 murder. (Hartman had this op-ed in the New York Times last fall, and wrote about “The Power of Books in Prison” at the Huffington Post.) Reviewer Carolyn Kellogg writes:
Hartman writes of prison not as a blank space outside of life, but as a society of its own, with swift punishments and fierce comradeship. The first time in his life friends threw him a birthday party was when he turned 21 in Folsom; as racially divided and violent as prison was, it was the first true community he’d found.
He dropped drinking and drugs, took classes, taught himself to meditate, transferred to newer prisons. He read. He published articles. He helped architect an Honor Yard with a few small freedoms for prisoners willing to abide by strict rules. He married his girlfriend, had conjugal visits and fathered a child. These things are pretty phenomenal, considering the nihilist he was as a young man.
Second is this reflection piece by David Scott Milton, a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who teaches writing to prisoners at California’s maximum security Tehachapi prison — including, at one time, Kenneth Hartman. For Milton,
the value of bringing art into a prison is that it humanizes the men in a profound way. Most of them, like Ken, had buried their humanity with their crimes. As they wrote, they opened to each other and to me. I remember telling people that there was no doubt many of the men I dealt with were extraordinarily dangerous. But I discovered also that even the worst had a spark of goodness and honor in them. Without consciously working toward it, I found myself attempting to fan the sparks of humanity through the inmates’ work.
I would spend a good deal of time — we even spoke about in class — trying to figure out how to work with the system so that men could be redeemed, so that they could contribute to their families and society as a whole. I remember one day mentioning to the class that, as I knew them, most of these men probably could be released and never commit another crime. But out of the dozen men in the class, one would murder again. And none of us knew which one. As a result, none could be released.