Kudos For Memoir About Teaching the Arts in a California Men’s Prison

From Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, LLC 

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(Knoxville, TN, July 23, 2019) In her unforgettable memoir, HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLDreleased this week by She Writes Press, Deborah Tobola intertwines the story of her rowdy family and occasionally tumultuous childhood with the story of her nine-year stint as a teacher of arts and creative writing at the California Men’s Colony, a prison in San Luis Obispo, California.

Tobola’s teaching changed lives, allowing prisoners to see that they were also poets, dramatists, and artists. The creative writing and performances her students pursued were a respite from the drudgery and violence of prison life, but even more, they brought hope. Over the years, Tobola battled officers who thought prisoners didn’t deserve programs; bureaucrats who wanted to cut arts funding; and inmates who stole, or worse. Yet Tobola loved engaging prisoners in the arts, helping them discover their voices: men like Opie, the gentleman robber; Razor, the roughneck who subscribed to the New Yorker; and Do Wop, a singer known for the desserts he created from prison fare.

Tobola enjoyed wonderful success as a teacher: her students in prison won writing awards, published their work locally and appeared on local and national radio. Each year, Arts in Corrections students produced original plays with music, under her direction. But in the end, her programs were eliminated in budget cuts.

HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLD is fascinating, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and memorable, and it powerfully depicts both the endurance of the human spirit as well as the importance of the arts in all of our lives.

DEBORAH TOBOLA is a poet, playwright and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards and a Children’s Choice Book Award. Tobola graduated with high honors from the University of Montana in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1990. She has worked as a journalist, legislative aide and adjunct English faculty member in Alaska and California.

Tobola began teaching creative writing in California prisons in 1992, taking the job of Institution Artist Facilitator at the California Men’s Colony in 2000. Tobola retired from the Department of Corrections at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company created for formerly incarcerated actors, where she serves as artistic director. Tobola returned to prison work five years ago and currently teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony. She lives in Santa Maria, California.

For more information, or to check out Deborah’s events,  please visit her online at www.deborahtobola.com.

“With Hummingbird in Underworld, Deborah Tobola has found what Rumi calls, “the infinite moment when everything happens.” It is luminous and tender. The reader is given passage to poetry and humanity; to compassion and even to a bright proposal to change our prison system. Remarkable.”—Gregory Boyle, Founder, Homeboy Industries

“Tobola came to the California Men’s Colony with a dream to make the arts program a lighthouse in the dreary sameness of prison life. With open-mindedness and empathy, Tobola explores how systemic issues play out in individuals’ lives as they grasp for light in the darkness.”—Booklist 

“…a deeply moving reflection…beautifully wrought…”—The Indypendent

“…a treasure of a book in multiple ways.”—Foreword Reviews


Conference Announcement: Reframing the Landscape of Justice

California Lawyers for the Arts and the William James Association

in collaboration with

Santa Clara University and the Justice Arts Coalition

presents

Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice

June 24 – 28, 2019

Santa Clara University

500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053

This national conference will provide professional development opportunities for artists who work in correctional institutions at all levels and best practices for arts administrators who would like to learn how to implement and manage these programs.

Participants in this conference will have opportunities to

  • Share best practices in program development and curriculum design
  • Learn about current research models, including evaluation and documentation
  • Develop opportunities to collaborate with justice reform advocates in different states and nationally
  • Participate in workshops showcasing exemplary programs for juveniles and adults, as well as restorative justice and re-entry models
  • Learn how to build public awareness and enhance programmatic sustainability
  • Continue to build the Justice Arts Coalition as a national support organization for artists who teach in correctional institutions and artists coming home
  • Participate in art classes in various disciplines taught by master artists

* Monday, June 24th is reserved as a pre-conference training day for arts providers   and contractors teaching in the CA State Prison System

* Friday’s schedule features Future IDs Workshops at Alcatraz

Confirmed speakers include:

Jimmy Santiago Baca, Conference Artist-in-Residence, as well as Beth Bienvenu, National Endowment for the Arts; Anne Bown-Crawford, California Arts Council; Larry Brewster, University of San Francisco; Dameion Brown and Lesley Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company; Annie Buckley, California State University – San Bernardino; Laura Caulfield, University of Wolverhampton, UK; Mary Cohen, University of Iowa; Mandy Gardner, Southwest Correctional Arts Network (SCAN); Allia Griffin, Santa Clara University; Jane Golden, Philadelphia Mural Arts; Beverly Iseghohi, Urban League of Greater Atlanta; Ashley Lucas, University of Michigan; Dorsey Nunn, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children / All of Us or None; Meade Palidofsky, Story Catchers Theatre; Gregory Sale, Arizona State University; Kyes Stevens, Auburn University; Curt L. Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars; Ella Turenne, Occidental College / Inside Out Prison Exchange Program

Contractors in the California Arts Council state prison arts program should contact their providers to register. 

Artists and staff affiliated with local and state arts agencies throughout the United States should contact CLA conference staff for special discounts available through NEA funding. 

Download Registration Form PDF HERE 

For more information, please contact conference staff at:

aic@calawyersforthearts.org or (415) 775-7200 x 101

Corrections . . . Because being in prison can be hazardous to your health.

Corrections Cover Art
by Ronald McKeithen

About the contributor: Connie Kohler is a semi-retired professor emerita at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.  She is the producer of several radio dramas highlighting health issues. She has been working with inmates since 2013. 

Johnny Gunn, aka Hardcore, played football in high school and for a while in community college.  His large, athletic frame was once intimidating, giving him a place high in the prison pecking order.  But, now in his 50’s, though Hardcore still does bench presses, much of his muscle has turned to flab, a condition he doesn’t seem to acknowledge as he continues his steady diet of honey buns and other delights from the commissary.  Now he has diabetes and must change his eating behavior.  After injuring a big toe, Hardcore is at risk of losing it or more.  But he’s more focused on being an advisor and friend and keeping his status as big man on the block.

Ron is a younger inmate who sees that Hardcore’s days as king of the block are numbered and challenges Hardcore for the position.  When a new inmate named Jimmy H arrives he asks who is the meanest guy who nobody will mess with.  While Hardcore tries to claim that distinction, other guys in the block tell Jimmy H it’s Ron. Ron is the toughest.  But Ron has issues, too.  Back home his mom and siblings aren’t doing so well – which causes Ron much stress.  He’s had a couple of passing out spells that might mean high blood pressure. But he’s not one to go whining to some pathetic prison doctor.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to emulate Ron, Jimmy H seeks out the local tattoo maker, a guy called Skillet.  He gets a homemade tattoo from Skillet who uses ashes and soap for ink and a makeshift tattoo gun.  When Jimmy H starts feeling sick, he learns that his tattoo has led to Hepatitis C.  Now it’s Jimmy’s turn to use a homemade instrument as he goes after Skillet with a shiv.

Unfortunately, when Charles McCracken, one of the older lifers, tries to stop Jimmy H, he gets the sharp end of the shiv in his arm.  Charles has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease and has spells of confusion.  He tells Johnny Gunn (Hardcore) that he is scared about what will happen to him as he looses control of his wits and body.  When he wanders uninvited into another inmate’s cell and comes very close to getting beaten, he’s put into a cell in the infirmary for his own protection.  But Hardcore and others worry that Charles will only get worse in solitary.

These are some of the inmates in the fictional prison called United Correctional Facility.  They were created by a group of prisoners in an Alabama maximum security prison as the cast of characters for “Corrections”.   “Corrections” is the title of a serial drama (in audio format) that prisoners write and perform.  The first season was aired by a local radio station and the second season script is near completion.  The tagline for Corrections is,  “Because being incarcerated is hazardous to your health!”

I facilitate weekly meetings of this group of writers and performers.  Because my background is in public health, the drama revolves around health issues common in prison. The writing follows what has been called the “entertainment education” (EE) methodology.  Serial drama is a particularly good EE platform because it allows the story to model typical healthy and unhealthy behaviors and their consequences.  The goal of the drama is to change audience expectations about the consequences of behaviors such as overeating and smoking. This is done by showing a character suffering the negative health consequences these behaviors often lead to, such as getting a dirty tattoo leading to Hepatitis C.  Another goal is to promote a confident attitude toward changing unhealthy behaviors by having characters model how to do it with all the setbacks and small successes that are part of it.  By showing how the prisoners in the drama overcome typical obstacles to changing unhealthy behaviors, the drama gives the audience the sense that, “If he can do it, then I can do it.”  The primary intended audience is inmates but the group hopes to reach people in the free world to give them a different idea of what prisons and the people in them are like.

For season one the group identified TB (something the warden wanted addressed as well), diabetes and poor eating practices, Hepatitis C, stress and aging in prison as the most important health issues to address. Aging in prison is seen as especially important because many who were given long sentences during a “tough on crime” era are over 50 years old. As these inmates age, their health declines leading to chronic disease and dementia.  These are costly problems that the prison system in this country isn’t prepared to deal with.

In creating this drama, inmates have learned more about health and staying healthy.  For season 2 we are addressing the issue of screening for prostate cancer.  Several men were confused about the digital rectal exam versus colonoscopy.  One member of the group who had repeatedly refused to be screened by digital rectal exam, actually changed his mind after a few weeks of discussing how to influence inmates to consider getting checked.  Another health issue that the group researched and wrote into the script is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and it’s relationship to depression and violent behavior.

While writing this blog I asked inmates to write down what they would say in a blog. Below are samples of what several inmates wrote.

INMATE CONTRIBUTIONS

Daoud Boone

Imagine waking up every day to someone telling you when to eat

When to sleep

When to make your bed

When you will have the opportunity to visit with friends and family

Imagine waking up behind a barbwire fence

With limited rights . . . with limited sight . . . imagine be out of sight out of mind

Imagine a world of cell mates and lethal mazes

The men at United Prison don’t have to imagine this life

They live it . . .

For some it will be the death of them!

Corrections is a story written by inmates

Addressing issues revolving around health in the prison environment

These inmates are using art to create a fictional radio drama that is true to life and will hopefully bring awareness and produce health behavior and social changes

These inmates are using a negative environment to grow, build, and be productive and positive

We call this program Corrections.  We meet, we discuss, we write, we record

We hope you listen and enjoy.

Alecio Randall (Alecio wrote the following as if he were me, Connie, in first person.)

This challenge takes me into the underside of society. There I help to identify health issues and corrective habits with men (whom) most have cast away from thought and mind.

We embattle (sic) a variety of topics, writing scripts, creating cast, and recording dialogue from inside prison. From high blood pressure to dementia to violence, any and every health issue is explored combined with real life inside on a fictional scale.

Various challenges of going to prison on a weekly basis don’t diminish the rewards of implementing change, hope, and positive ideas and habits. For the very men I know will re-enter society. Hopefully, the message of good health, getting rooted into these courageous and bright minds provides a toehold for change.

 Brandon Hawkins

We have a plethora of common goals and purposes in our agenda. We do not write just for entertainment, but so as not to bore our audience we do throw a healthy dose of entertainment into the mix.  One of our most vital goals is education. Educating the public on prison issues usually kept suppressed from the public, such as: aging, diseases, deficient health-care, drug abuse, etc.  And furthermore, not just how the day-to-day prison life affects inmates, but also how the officers, faculty and staff face challenges and risks daily by working a prison facilities.

Another one of our goals is to give the public an inside view of the issues prisoners face on average inside of prison facilities So when our audience listens to seasons of “Corrections” on the radio, they not only hear the drama, but we place them in the midst of it all, giving them a simulation effect of actually being there, and causing them to visualize the “writings on the wall” painted by our cast members.

James E. Rogers, Jr.

(Providing two examples of the issues we struggle with as a group. The group struggles often with whether to go for maximum realism vs. getting administration’s approval to air. Recently the question has been raised about possible harm from modeling illegal practices, such as using contraband cell phones to video bad goings on and get it out to the public. James commented on the issues below)

We debated whether or not we should use a cell phone to do a documentary of the elderly inmates. (Note: not in real life, but as an element of the scripted plot.)

A Side: the administration would view this as unacceptable. A way to promote b/s.

B Side: cell phones are being used throughout the US system.  Therefore those on this side of the debate want to be as realistic as possible and put the facts out there.  Also that cell phones are not being used as escape devices as the administration states. The majority of the cell phones are used so people can keep in touch with their loved ones, research to help with their appeals. Mainly to stay in touch with their loved ones, trying not to become so distant that when they do talk or see one another that it wouldn’t be strange, awkward or whatnot.

That debate led to another debate: how realistic should we be?

A Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct.

B Side: we don’t have to be 100% correct but we should be as realistic as possible because we are putting a lot of valuable information out there and if I was to do some research and find most of the info inaccurate then how would I know how much of this information that I could take as true.

Curtis Henderson

How arts brings awareness to health issues?

Expression is shown in many forms and the arts has its forms. Visual is the easiest to grasp, where shown through TV and being verbal. You once had silent TV as well to show these issues.

Radio is another form, but you need a hook or to be very creative to hold the audience’s attention. Promotion or with the health issue(s) at had they need to dramatize.

Outbreak

Epidemic

Out-of-control

Deadly

Virus

Contagious

Non contagious

Cancer

Stacey Manning

A lot of people in society view people in prison as big, hulking, tattooed killers. They can’t fathom the thought of them as humans that age, get sick, and die in here like people do in society.

For victims of crimes, when the judge says I sentence you ( . . . ) the saga ends. For criminals, it just begins. Often times the criminals end up in an overcrowded prison suffering from various ailments, not able to take care of themselves and no help from anyone to help them with day to day activities.

I hope that these dramas entertain as well as offer insight into these matters.

It has been the best experience of my life. I had never participated in anything like this. At times it’s so much fun it should be against the law. At other times it makes you want to scream. You just have to realize that we are not professionals or perfect, and we are here to entertain and spread a message. At times the message is lost because the entertainment takes over. So as you listen, remember that is as realistic as we were allowed to make it. The memorial (scene) was so close to me because I’ve attended several while here. The aging because I’m old now. I was 32 when I came. I’m 51 now. The health issues because I have some of them now. I hope you enjoy listening to Corrections and learn something, too.

“Corrections” Archive of Episodes