From the Iowa Prison Writing Project
Critical Writing in Prison I
(Using Sports to Write Prison Essays)
It is May, 2021, as I begin this particular essay, one of well over 200 essays I’ve written since coming to USP Tucson. In the previous essays, I’ve touched on a variety of subjects, from my Christian faith to the deplorable ways USP Tucson staff treated human beings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a writer, I try to invite you into my realm, with the daunting task of convincing you, the reader, to believe me, a writer in prison. If I was just a writer, the task would be much easier. But because I’m in prison, I’m at a serious disadvantage.
Why is this? Because our society has stereotyped prisoners as the lowest form of humanity. The assumption though greatly untrue, is that all inmates are wicked, unlawful and untrustworthy. The key word being “all” Society in general doesn’t give a human being in jail or prison a fair chance to make a point, because we have accepted the theory that every court in America operates on a Christian, righteous and lawful standard of ethics, and anyone losing their case in an American court was justly tried and the law fairly deemed them guilty.
Although I can easily argue the hypocrisy of this, let me challenge even the ends of “justice”. Even if a person was found guilty–does he or she lose their humanity? Does any law degrade a human being to a substandard of humanity, when they are no longer standing as a human being? The assumption we’ve made is that inmates “deserve whatever happens to them”...without ever finding out if such a person was fairly tried.
So, I try to write, to challenge these notions; to try to help people see that there are many people in prisons that are redeemable. Dare I say, ALL people are redeemable to make a Christian stand. But I realize I’m walking up a steep mountain, during a thunderstorm, with weights on my back, to make an appeal that a writer in prison can make a compelling argument.
So, how do I go about it? There are numerous tactics, all based on the writer’s perspective, as well as his resources. The latter is of great hindrance; in prison you’re severely limited in information, so making a valid argument based on facts can be a challenge. Yet, as a writer, my experience counts for validity. I can tell you exactly what happens in prison, because I experience it. The key though, is to sell you that what I share is true and valuable. For that to happen, I have to get you to trust me. Again, a hard sell, but not impossible.
To work on the tactic of making a compelling argument, I turn to a subject I love: sports. I’ve been a tremendous sports fan most of my life. That didn’t change when I came to USP Tucson. As a huge college football fan, I would break down games, and write a paragraph on every major college game, then give my predictions of who would win, by how much, and why.
This taught me to see – as fair as possible – both sides of a game. Often, I hear a guy say,” THat team’s gonna kill the other team”, to which I ask them, “Why?” I’m willing to buy their reasoning, if it makes sense, but I just can’t go with the old, “cause they’re gonna crush them.”
I used to think that way, as a student in college, until my professor said to me, “And what do you think the OTHER team’s gonna do”? It helped me realize that there are at least 2 sides to every story, and I try to show that in prison writing. To be fair, I’m not always successful, many things staff at USP Tucson do don’t get the opportunity of doubt with me, but it helps at least to address it.
So, I break down college football games, using what I have: the previous year’s college football book titled “Phil Steel’s College Football Preview”, along with stats (if any) from the previous year, and my intellect. Not much to go on, but it’s all I have.
Again, the idea is to break down the game, use information I have, and put together a prediction, based on intel and time. Time is of the essence, because I have less than one week to break down up to 60 college games. I start on Sunday, after getting all the college scores over the weekend, and I usually finish by Wednesday. It needs to be finished by Wednesday, at the very latest. Thursday, because some colleges play on Wednesday, some Thursday. Additionally, the sports tickers start giving out betting lines, and I don’t want to be influenced by what they say. So, I need to be done with every game by Wednesday.
So, how does all this work, and how do I apply it to prison writing? I’ll show you in upcoming essays. Writing in this form challenges me to do a little research, have a strategy, and meet a deadline, while still allowing my personality to color in some of the details. If all this comes together, I have a decent chance of convincing you of prison issues that for the most part, have not been addressed. I’ll open this up a bit in my second installment. Until then, check out my other essays.