Mother California

imagesKenneth E. Hartman’s is the third book to come out this fall written by men doing time. I’ve written before about Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom and Jarvis Masters’ That Bird Has My Wings, and now I want to share a few words about Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars by Kenneth E. Hartman.
Hartman has done twenty-nine years in five California prisons. The years Hartman writes of are the years in which I’ve known the California Department of Corrections (“Rehabilitation” has recently been added to the department’s title, but as nearly all programming is about to be cut beginning next year, there’s no rehabilitation happening other than what the men and women inside create for themselves).

I know what I know due to the various poetry workshops I’ve taught inside, as well as to researching and writing a manual for artists working in prison for the state’s Arts in Corrections program. Through teaching, interviewing staff, or sitting in visiting rooms, I’ve been in at least half of California’s thirty-three prisons. I’ve learned most from close friendships with former students – including a recent collaboration with Spoon Jackson on our book: By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives. Spoon, Coties, Elmo, Smokey and the others are all lifers and each has served Hartman’s twenty-nine years and more.

Hartman tells not only his personal story, but also the broader story of what’s happened in California prisons in the past three decades. Both narratives are compelling, well written, factual (and accurate to what I know and hear), and incredibly important. I’ve appreciated all three books out this fall, but in many ways, Hartman’s got to me most. Due to his own skill, I’m sure, but also because so much that he writes mirrors the experiences and expressions of the men inside whom I know best.

Hartman’s personal story is one that moves from adolescent evil to adult consciousness. The book’s publisher – writer and editor James Atlas – comments on the book’s first line, which he feels is impossible to forget: “When I was nineteen, I killed a man in a drunken, drugged-up, fistfight.” Hartman immediately lets the reader know: “Anyone who knew me could have seen it coming.” He’d been in trouble for years and had spent a long time in the juvenile justice system. He was state raised (thus “Mother California”) and ended up with a life without possibility of parole sentence.

Hartman shares some of the familial reasons that logically led to his becoming such an angry young man, but there’s no blame or self-pity in his writing. Mostly his narration is objective, almost that of a journalist, not denying emotion but maintaining steady sight, and at just the right distance to allow intimate vision and wider understanding. In this way we watch the young race-identified white man do all kinds of bad in his first years in prison. And we watch, too, his increasing consciousness and self-directed change.

Since “increasing consciousness and self-directed change” is the path I’ve watched my former students walk, I am deeply curious about what encourages such opening. In Hartman’s case, writing played a part, but mostly it was love – first from (and to) his wife (who saw and reflected the good that was in him) and eventually from (and to) his beloved daughter. Although our era keeps moving away from this knowledge, everyone I know who works with young people or people in prison knows this exact truth: deep growth comes through love and bright reflection, not through punishment and negativity.

Eventually Hartman works with others to establish what’s called the Honor Program at Lancaster (California State Prison – Los Angeles County). I know a group of prisoners at New Folsom (California State Prison – Sacramento) who are also old lifers, also sick of their part in perpetuating race hatred in prison, also sick of negativity instead of steady encouragement toward greater humanity. This group, too, brings men together to do deep work on their own spirits. I’ve learned so much about real – self-directed and group-supported – change from these men. I wish the wider voting public understood that this kind of work – prisoner-led – is going on all over the country. I welcome Hartman’s report.

As Spoon and I prepare for the April 2010 release of our book, I am so glad for these three other books. “Each man does his own time,” as the saying goes, and Betts, Masters, Hartman, and Spoon Jackson prove that point. Each man “came awake” inside, but each journey was unique and not programmable. (written by Judith Tannenbaum)

2 thoughts on “Mother California

  1. California is a slave trading prison system. Doing time in California prisons is no joke. It’s a battle field and a war zone constantly. I feel for any man or woman who has to go through such an environment like a lifer with all those men who never get the chance to be redeemed. A few get the chance to prove themselves back in society and those are the one’s who work hard at rehabilitating themselves in a broken system and finding their way out. Any prisoner who works hard at his own rehabilitation should be commended and given another chance. Awesome post, keeps hope alive.

  2. Marianne Forbes

    I really thought mother of california was an excellelent book on struggles, strength and hope. It was amazing to see Kenneth’s change through out the book. It gave me hope for my son who is facing life in prison at age 18.

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