In 1979 I began team-teaching creative writing at the Attica Correctional Facility. The other teacher, Jerome Washington, was a highly regarded writer and activist from Trenton, New Jersey. He was in Attica on a murder conviction. His case was later retried and the charges dropped.
My first trip to Attica was for orientation. The head guard dressed me down in no uncertain terms, making it clear that breaking the rules in a prison was a felony. Then I was fingerprinted and mug shots were taken for identification purposes if anything bad happened like another riot. Then I was given a tour of the facility.
Ninety per cent of the inmates were housed in four long buildings, A, B, C and D Blocks, forming a square. There were four exercise yards in between, separated by two covered walkways that intersected at Times Square, a cage about the size of a garage. You had to pass through it to get anywhere. The 1971 uprising that was commemorated in the last week started here where guards huddled assuming they were safe until the prisoners managed to break the bars and take them hostage.
[Gallery: From the archives, photos of the 1971 Attica prison riot and aftermath]
“A Block” looked like the popular image of prison — three stories of cages with no privacy. The Blocks got better from there. D Block even had a lounge with a TV and small private rooms, but no one I met wanted to reside there because it meant you were working for the guards.
We passed through D Block to the Commissary Building where classes took place. We went to the building next door where inmates made office furniture economically because of their cheap labor. For years the head of the metal shop had asked for a switch that would turn off the power when he had to leave but he never got it. Unsupervised, inmates made knives out of chair legs in seconds. That’s why knives appeared faster than they could be confiscated.
Next we went to a stand-alone building called F Block for inmates in solitary confinement. The second floor was the only place I wasn't allowed to see. Davik Berkowitz, the notorious Son of Sam killer was among the men there.
Our class met on Wednesday evenings and was broken into two 45-minute sections with a half hour break. Jerome told me the men wanted structure so they could move forward with their lives in some way. It was hard for us to communicate between classes so we each brought as many exercises and examples of good writing as we could pull together. I obviously had more resources to choose from, but I had to be careful that it wasn’t too inflammatory.
The inmates were mostly from New York City. They were in their 30 or 40s and in good shape from working out so no one would mess with them. Most had been convicted of violent crimes.
Not much had changed since the uprising in 1971. Inmates had been moved around the prison system but the guards had nowhere else to go. The courses offered to the inmates were a step forward but the hostility between inmates and guards was palpable. Jerome he told me I’d get used to it. It was never aimed at visitors.
News of my workshop spread and Buffalo writers expressed an interest in going there. With the help of Sally and Leslie Fielder I also took nationally known writers visiting local colleges and universities.
The break provided an opportunity for the inmates to talk with the visiting writer. Usually one inmate got the attention of the visitor and told his story. Often a correspondence began after that.
During a break one of the regulars named Gary Bahdi told me his life story in 20 minutes. A transcription would match anything by Dostoevsky, but I have to rely on my memory.
As a boy Gary engaged in petty thefts, then he moved on to breaking into trucks and freight cars. He held up stores pretending he had a gun. Then he got a gun and showed it. Then he started shooting. One day he came home to find someone had beat up his girl friend. He asked who did it. “You did, Gary. Don’t you remember.” When he was 19, he had enough money to live on for the rest of his life but he couldn't stop.
He committed several murders but he was arrested for manslaughter. His lawyer said he’d get off with a slap on the wrist due to his youth if he pleaded guilty, but he was sentenced to 30 years. “I can’t serve 30 years,” Gary said. “Then serve as many as you can,” the judge said.
In prison Gary joined a gang until one night a throbbing mass appeared in the corner of his cell. After a terrifying night he realized it was himself. And it would keep returning until he changed. That night he became a different person.
All my students at Nichols School knew Gary’s story. At a senior retreat in Rochester, I was roaming the halls trying to keep the boys and girls in separate rooms. Someone ordered pizzas and when they were delivered I said, “Gary Bahdi! When did you get out?” All the doors slammed shut and there was no more trouble that night.
Perhaps the most successful workshop was when I brought Gwendolyn Brooks. It was standing room only. The inmates knew her poems from memory and recited her refrains with her. At the break an inmate went up to her. “Joey!” Brooks said. “What are you doing here!” “I’m sorry Miss Brooks. I messed up.”
That night I learned about toasts, an underground, oral form of poetry where the audience encourages a poet to go on flights of improvisation. The best toaster in Attica happened to be there. I’d read “The Signifying Monkey” in books but it was nothing like what I heard that night. It went on for half an hour with wild tangents made up on the spur of the moment.
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky almost didn’t make it to Attica. On a two lane road between Buffalo and Attica, we ran into a blizzard. Ginsberg was in the backseat chanting Hindu ragas and Orlovsky was in the passenger seat fighting off the flu with garlic cloves. I had no idea where the road was. Orlovsky had taken too much LSD the previous year. What he lacked in conversational skills he made up for in concentration. He discovered that the car’s wake revealed a yellow line on the road’s edge. Looking down he recited, “You’re on the road; you’re on the road; you’re OFF the road; you’re OFF the road, you’re on the road” until we reached the valley where Attica is. For weeks after that my car smelled of garlic but I didn’t care.
Ginsberg talked to the class about writing. He took out a little red book he always carried. When he had a Zen moment he wrote it down. He didn’t look at it again for 30 days. If it still worked he used it. Otherwise he abandoned it. Then he said, “Enough. You guys don’t need advice on how to write poetry. You need to learn Zen breathing to deal with living in a place like this.”
My first impression still resonates more than the others — prison is not at all like we think it is. TV shows and movies don’t come close. Every writer I took there had the same reaction: The inclination to treat other humans like refuse is in all of us and we are blind to it until confronted in its purest form. Prison is filled with human beings, not cliches. Afterward in the car we were silent for a while as my guest assimilated what he or she had experienced.
William L. Morris is the co-creator of The Buffalo News poetry page and a former teacher. He lives and writes in Florida.