“I look deep into the lion’s eyes. It was me or him, so I stab him with my spear. Chack, chack, chack, whumpf, whumpf,” said the writer as he grasped an imaginary spear and puffed out his cheeks to make the sound of the spear hitting the lion’s flesh. Helin, Los, and I were open-mouthed as we listened to our fellow writers as they sat together in white plastic chairs with their journals and pencils in hand, telling their stories via Zoom in our final creative writing class.
During the pandemic lockdown, I decided to start volunteering with the Prison Education Project (PEP). There are times when one feels compelled to do something. For years, I dreamed of teaching in prisons. I could have easily been in prison if I had not gotten sober and found teaching. I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” This is not me being trite. PEP was the answer for me as it was the largest volunteer-based organization in the United States committed to expanding educational opportunities for the in-custody population. The last class I taught was from December 2021 through January 2022. It was a five-week course on creative writing.
Two other writers taught the class with me. Helin was a working writer and Los, was a poet who just finished law school. The course was held online via Zoom as the writers were incarcerated in a prison in Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Uganda, Africa.
Luzira Maximum Security Prison houses both men and women. It is the only maximum-security prison in the country. According to the Human Rights Reports by the Department of Justice in 2020, there are human rights issues involving citizens who are arbitrarily arrested or detained in Uganda, Africa. There are also political prisoners in Luzira. Some prisoners spend years in prison awaiting trial only to have the court find insufficient evidence to justify their detention.
The all-male class of students was dressed in bright orange and yellow smocks. The one guard in the room was always friendly and helpful. He stood to the side in his green uniform and beret. We taught the class at eight pm on Sunday nights. Across the world in Uganda, it was ten am on Monday morning. The classes lasted an hour and a half.
At the beginning of the first class, students introduced themselves.
“Greetings gentlemen. Are we together?” I asked as I put my hands into the shape of a circle. Everyone put their hands into a circle and held it up to their chests. This was a cultural reference from the country taught to us by PEP and we used it to connect.
“Name a place where you would like to set a creative writing piece. Share out your name and the setting of your writing piece,” I said after Helin, Los, and I introduced ourselves and welcomed the writers to class. There were around fifteen men in the room, and they all took turns introducing themselves and their story settings. Most of the men set their stories in their villages in Africa or in the prison. Many wrote of the struggle before their time in prison. They wrote of struggling to eat and searching for work in the cities. Others wrote of love lost and betrayal. Their stories flowed naturally embedded with figurative language and metaphor. The Zoom connection went in and out so we had to keep waiting for them to log back on. By the end of the hour and a half class, we had learned all the writers’ names and something about their stories.
During the second class, we discussed origin stories. “We always want to know our character’s backstory. An example of this is a superhero’s origin story,” said Los.
The creative writing class morphed into a writing workshop where the writers responded to prompts and shared their writings. Most of the classes were spent listening and offering bits of input on the use of dialogue and imagery.
This is how the last few classes would typically go. Helin, Los, or I (we mixed it up) would ask students to share their writings from the homework the week before. Numerous hands would pop up and we would smile and laugh together. We would let each writer read their stories or poems for three to five minutes. After they finished, we would state what we noticed and ask questions. The writer would furiously write down the notes and thank us with a nod of his head with his hands clasped together. We got to as many people as possible and then started again the next week. It was hard to stay within the time limit.
These men were bursting with stories, with tales they needed to write and speak to the world. During these moments spent online I felt like I was overseas sitting in a room with writers in Africa, not at my computer in Palm Springs. The reality was these men were incarcerated. Some were facing the death penalty or life in prison. Their society may have put them behind stone walls but their voices were strong, vibrant, and alive.
Are We Together is a two-part blog series by Jacqueline Mantz Rodriguez. Read Part 2.
Dr. Jacqueline Mantz became a teacher through providence. Jacqueline nearly dropped out of high school but graduated with the support of her family and teachers. She returned to college at the age of twenty-four after a mentor and peace officer told her she had potential. Jacqueline has a B.A. in English, two Master’s degrees, and an Educational Doctorate. Jacqueline has worked within the education system for over twenty years in many different settings including non-public schools, special education, an online blended learning school, and now at a continuation high school. Jacqueline’s philosophy of education is simple yet deeper than any ocean. Teaching is an act of love and courage. Her ability to see each and every student as a fellow capable soul helps her facilitate student learning in a caring way that changes lives.
Jacqueline lives teaching. After school Jacqueline works with students who are on Home and Hospital services providing an education to students with disabilities in their homes. She also works for the Riverside County Office of Education supporting new Special Education Teachers as a practicum supervisor. Jacqueline volunteers for the Prison Education Project (PEP) teaching courses on autobiographical writing, forgiveness and healing, college and career readiness, and Shakespeare. Jacqueline co-wrote a book with a woman currently incarcerated titled Embracing Dawn under her pen name Marie Rodriguez. She is currently assisting another individual, who is incarcerated, in publishing their memoir. Jacqueline is currently working on a memoir about her teaching experiences.