Book Launch – Words After Dark: A Lyrics, Lit & Liquor Anthology

We are excited to share the book launch of Words After Dark: A Lyrics, Lit & Liquor Anthology, edited by Amy Dupcak and JAC community member Amanda Miller. The anthology, now out on Lucid River Press, features poetry, essays, stories, comedy and song lyrics, originally performed during the now eight-year-run of Miller’s literary/performance series Lyrics, Lit & Liquor. We invite you to join tonight’s live-streamed rooftop reading in celebration of the book’s official release (Saturday 9/19 at 5pm ET via Facebook live). 

We are also delighted to announce that Miller and Dupcak are generously donating 20% of the book’s proceeds to the Justice Arts Coalition! The anthology is available in paperback for $12 on Amazon


We had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda Miller to learn more about her work and the creation of Lyrics, Lit, & Liquor and Words After Dark. 

JAC: Please describe a bit about your background as it relates to the work you are doing today. How did you become involved in this work? 

AM: I am a writer, performer, event producer, yoga instructor, massage therapist, Jewish educator, and activist. To me, these roles are all interconnected and overlapping, falling under the umbrella of arts and healing. Theater and writing came first and organically sprouted into the rest.

I became involved in JAC through my work with PEN America’s Prison Writing Program where I have served as a Prison Writing Awards Committee member, event co-curator, book reviewer and performer. I co-curated and performed in the program’s virtual event A Stronger Desire To Live as part of PEN’s World Voices Festival in June 2020 featuring visual art from JAC’s roster of artists, which is how I first connected with JAC. I got involved with the Prison Writing Program when the director was reaching out to NYC Reading Series to feature work by incarcerated writers as part of PEN’s first ever BREAK OUT series, a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into the literary community.

JAC: What inspired you to start Lyrics, Lit & Liquor and how has it evolved over the years, culminating in the release of this anthology?

AM: Inspiration for the series came when my writing group member, Scott Hess, launched his novel back in 2012 with a variety show. At the time of Scott’s launch I’d been hosting a comedy variety show, but I’d never attended one in which literature was featured let alone the centerpiece of the evening. I found that breaking up the readings with other forms of art helped audiences listen more deeply.

For a while I’d been straddling the performance and literary worlds, but Scott helped me see a way to bridge the two. A chapter from my memoir One Breath, Then Another was due out in an anthology that August. I decided to celebrate with an event in the dive bar where I hosted the comedy show with a reading of my chapter sandwiched between various acts. It was a memorable night, moving from the hilarious to the heartbreaking with lush tunes interspersed throughout. Afterward, the venue invited me to host an ongoing show in this format and, with that, Lyrics, Lit & Liquor was born.

While other performances would be sprinkled in, readings and music would form the show’s backbone. The most important thing was to have a fun, welcoming, unpretentious, DIY feel open to a wide array of writers, musicians, and performers, with no fancy credits or a book deal required. A discussion about the series with dear friend, fellow writing group member and Jeopardy! fan Amy Dupcak led to the idea to include original themed trivia at every show, a question between each performance.

While we have changed venues four times in our nearly eight-year lifespan, we’ve remained in the East Village. And while the overall vibe of that neighborhood has dramatically changed over the past decade, it’s still hallowed ground for DIY alternative art and culture. We’ve always aimed to contribute to the spirit of a neighborhood that keeps that torch lit.

Words After Dark is a natural outgrowth of our series and the brainchild of myself and Amy. We wanted to feature some of the talented readers and musicians who have graced our stage over the years, and to share their work with an even wider audience. Editing this anthology has been a labor of love nourished by a deep commitment to maintaining a space for open artistic expression and community.

JAC: What is unique about Lyrics, Lit & Liquor and how have you maintained/translated this into the anthology? What makes Words After Dark different from other collections of poems, stories, lyrics, etc?

AM: Lyrics, Lit & Liquor’s eclectic nature makes the series unique: at any given event you may experience an old lady character stripping down to her leopard print drawers, satirical political country songs, an operatic magician, a topless woman with a political message scrawled across her chest rocking out on her electric guitar, confessional poetry, quirky fiction, gripping memoir, and audience members shouting bizarre noises to answer a trivia question for a candy bar.

Organized into sections that pair beverages with writing and trivia (answers in the back—no peeking!), Words After Dark recreates the Lyrics, Lit & Liquor experience on the page. Sip a Dirty Martini while snickering at the lyrics to “A Sweet Fucking Word” by award-winning comedian and musician, Jessica Delfino. Indulge in a Bloody Mary while absorbing the gut-punching novel excerpt from critically-acclaimed author Scott Alexander HessThe Root of Everything. Toss back a tequila shot while taking in the heart-stomping prose poem “My Past and Future in Present Tense” by PEN America Prison Writing award winner Sean Dunne. Drinks are hand drawn by New York graffiti artist Matthew Litwack. All these elements make Words After Dark different from other collections.

JAC: What inspired Words After Dark

AM: As we were rounding the corner to the eight year mark, Amy and I came up with the idea for the anthology together. We wanted to celebrate our tenacity in keeping the series going this long and the awesome community we’ve built along the way. We originally intended to publish this anthology in May 2020 in tandem with a celebratory bash at the bar where we’ve been stationed for the last couple of years. Alas, Covid-19 shuttered venues, eliminated in-person gatherings and relegated us to the walls of our apartments for the indefinite future. And so we postponed our publication date, waiting until we could hold a proper release party in our proper venue. But as the pandemic has persisted with no clear indication as to when “normal life” will resume, we decided to publish now.         

The title Words After Dark comes from the fact that the words in the book were literally performed when it was dark outside. But it turns out that the title works on a more metaphorical level that speaks to our current times. Venues may be dark, but artists are still here, and the world needs art and connection more than ever.

JAC: Why are you choosing to generously donate 20% of the book’s proceeds to JAC? 

AM: In the time I’ve been a part of the JAC community, I’ve been so inspired by the work this passionate, open-hearted network of human beings is doing. This is a group of people harnessing the power of art for its highest purposes: healing, liberation, education, community, and justice. I’m donating a portion of the proceeds to JAC to support this work and also increase awareness of JAC as an entity.

JAC: What are you hoping your readers will get from Words After Dark?

AM: I hope readers will enjoy a fun, moving, enlightening journey through the drawings, trivia, comedy, short stories, song lyrics, essays, poetry, and novel excerpts on these pages. I hope they will be inspired by the unbound, uncensored creative expression.

I hope that in this time of physical distancing, the collection will provide a feeling of connection and remind readers of the power of words to lift us up.


Words After Dark is a great gift for aspiring literary writers, songwriters and comedians hankering for unbound, uncensored creative inspiration. It’s essential for anyone with an interest in NYC’s independent arts scene and for all who believe in the power of words to lift us up.

Featuring Sheila-Joon Azim, Mac Barrett, Brian Birnbaum, Adam Blotner, Emily Brout, Britt Canty, Jessica Delfino, Sean Dunne, Amy Dupcak, Rachel Evans, Juliet Fletcher, Jordana Frankel, Christie Grotheim, Jared Harel, Scott Hess, Helen Howard, Nancy Hightower, Meher Manda, Valdaniel Martins, Amanda Miller, Noam Osband, Zachary Parkman, Kyle Pritz, Joel Remland, Waylan Roche, Megan Sass, Christopher X. Shade, Shawn Shafner, Melissa Shaw, Simi Toledano, and Jenny Williamson. 

Miller and Dupcak invite you to raise your glass, silence your phone and enjoy!

Guest Blog: Jameelah Lewis

Battle Ground by Jameelah Lewis

Battle ground.

My mom aint never raised no punk, so why would I run?

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

The subtle patterns of people running away to catch their breath.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

As the smoke in the sky pollutes our lungs and steals our air.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

We stand in solidarity against police brutality.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

They bring out the snipers and set the stage to make us flea.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

“Move back, Move back, Move back they chant and chant.”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

Running from the monsters chasing us with batons.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

“It’s our first amendment right to be here.”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

“Go home or we will be forced to remove you.”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

Helicopters circle above us.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

The SWAT trucks start to roll in.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

Police pull up in busses to haul us off.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

Ripping people out of their cars.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

Driving through crowds of people.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“Grab anyone! Grab anyone!”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“Stop let him go!”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

“Leave us alone please, I’m sorry I’m sorry.”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“Stop fucking resisting!”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“Grab my sign!”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“Let her go and leave her alone.”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“Go ahead and shoot me, I’m willing to die.”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

“I just want my mom!!!!”

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared.

And still this rings in my head.

I’m not afraid, I’m not scared; I’m not afraid, I’m not scared; I’m not afraid, I’m not scared. 

This is my arrest experience.This is not all of it and I am still coping. This is not singular to me. It is okay to be scared, to be worried, to cry! In this time I know I am not the only person working through the trauma of being arrested, of being terrorized and being degraded. There is a community of us and you reading this are not alone. You are not a punk and it is okay to mourn an amerikkka that has already claimed you as dead.


Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 1.50.32 PMJameelah Lewis is one of the newest members of The RCC team and The PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Coordinator/ Advocate. Jameelah started with The RCC in December 2019, with a passion to make an impact on the criminal justice system and her community. After graduating in 2018 from UNLV with her BA in Criminal Justice, she wrote that her passions lie in communal restoration and transformative justice work. Thus, having the ability to work in the capacity in which she does is a dream come true. In fact, 2 years ago, Jameelah wrote a note in her cellphone underling what her dream job would be, and today she actually gets to do it. Jameelah has committed herself to this work and commitment to liberate Black people. In these efforts to fight for liberty, Jameelah was arrested May 29th by Las Vegas Metro Police Department. For the first time ever Jameelah saw and experienced what her clients go through, and it was through this experience that her newest vision developed.

Through her involvement with The Justice Arts Coalition, Jameelah is now developing a six week program for survivors of sexual abuse and manipulation to share their experiences through a variety of art projects. 

The piece shared today is personal, highlighting the moments before her abduction, and will be used to encourage others to share their truths as well. You can keep up with her by following The Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas.

Coronavirus in Prison

This post will be updated with additional quotes and testimonials, as JAC receives further information from the incarcerated individuals within our network. If you have any details that might be relevant to this ongoing work, please contact info@thejusticeartscoalition.org.

michael p riley poem
“If any or all of us die,” Michael P. Riley
IMG_0012 (1)
” Real Talk,” Michael P. Riley

“Thankfully, we do not have a positive case here. Several staff have been exposed but the prison has done quite a good job at keeping contact with inmates to a minimum and at quarantine. Our meals are still hot and some of us still get to go to work, like me! I am definitely thankful for that. It is hard to get much of a workout in and things feel tight but otherwise, it is okay right now. 

Really, my thoughts are all on my brother right now, who some of yall know is incarcerated at FCI Seagoville. The virus is blowing up over there right now. 3 weeks ago they had zero cases, and now they have 488. They, like all federal prisons, are overcrowded and unprepared for this sort of thing. My sentiment is that if they can’t keep us safe… then they can’t keep us! And it looks like some congressmen and congresswomen are starting to agree, calling for the closure of the federal prisons. I expect that we’d go to our states then but the states are ahead of the feds in terms of prison reform with matters of sentences and probation and so forth. I am under no delusions, the BOP has pretty much just ignored the many attempts to reform and better the situation. First step, CARES act, heroes act and so forth. And now, by basically refusing to grant release to any significant portion of their population, they show that they would rather gamble with our lives and a pandemic than let anyone go. OKAY, that’s all the politics from me! My bro though, is on my mind at his prison but he’s healthy and doing his best to stay safe.”

– Joshua Earls | August 17, 2020

*****

“CORONA”

BLLEEEEEEAAAAAAPP…..
This is a public service announcement.
We are officially at war.
Extreme times — calls for extreme measures.
Therefore,
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death
To stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
Because the Invisible Killer from Wuhan,
Who cannot be negotiated with —
Is on the loose
And indiscriminately leaping
Like a wingless flea on a dog
From person to person
All around the globe,
Without a care in the world
If you didn’t already know.
—-
*Coughing sounds can be heard*
—-
19,19….
Is that you?
In that dry cough that I hear in the background?
Identify yourself.
Covid-19….tell me…is that you?
—-
Ssshhhhhhhh…..
Please don’t say my name too loud,
Because it’s now official,
The (W-H-O) is looking for me.
They have labeled me as a viral bandit.
In fact,
Due to my disregard to lungs, organs,
Kidneys, and human life,
I have the whole world
Now shook with panic
And on the lookout for me.
In just a short span of time
I grew from an epidemic, to a pandemic,
And now I’m a full-blown crisis.
The Chinese, Americans, Italians,
And Boris Johnson….
Will tell you without the debate —
I’m the number one Enemy of the State
And living proof of the philosophy
That states:
What effect one of us affect all of us.
—-
My grip on the world is so tight —
I paralyzed Easter and the Olympics,
Now ain’t that a sight…?
I made the Business World shake,
Turned Las Vegas into a ghost town,
Put Paris on lockdown,
And made Wall Street numbers fall down.
Now tell me,
If you don’t think my existence
Isn’t up against the clock.
Tick tick tock, tick tick tock.
—-
The reality is
1 million is already at harm.
Astronomical figures.
Somebody —
Sound the alarm.
We need ventilators and PPE.
People are dying,
We cannot meet the demands
Somebody — somebody —
Anybody.
Please help us.
Send us PPE.
And make it a matter of National Security.
If need be!
—-
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
People of all ages.
Symptoms or no symptoms.
Underlining conditions or not.
Y’all all at harm.
I’m the new norm.
And what you’re witnessing now
Is just the calm before the storm.
—-
6 feet of separation!
Social what!
Social who!
Social distancing.
Is that the best your leaders and the CDC
Can optimistically tell you to do?
To help flatten the curve,
Contain my outbreak,
And hinder what I’m about to do?
—-
They say art imitates life,
But this is not a movie.
The world have seen
Numerous examples of me before.
Have any of y’all read the Bible before???
You see,
Back then,
Microorganisms,
Plagues, and complex molecules
Like me — just wasn’t labeled as Wars.
But today…..
You over sophisticated fools
Labor my dire consequences — as a war.
When I’m only the new influenza
By another name.
Regardless of the factors,
I’m here and banging on Humanity’s door.
—-
BBBLLLEEEEEAAAAAPP…..
Again this is a public service announcement.
We are advising all citizens,
As a matter of life and death.
Stay home, shelter-in-place,
Wash your hands,
And keep them out of your face.
If you’re not taking heed
To these precautions
Then…….
You must already be dead,
Affected,
Or simply out of your mind!
—-
Corona.
—-
Written by Kenneth Reams,
In the wake of the virus,
© April 2020
SIGN THE PETITION ADVOCATING FOR KENNY’S RELEASE HERE!
*****
Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 5.57.21 PM
Gary Farlow
*****
Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 6.27.29 PM
Vince Vader
Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 6.28.31 PM
Christian Trigg
Viral watercolor by Sam April 2020
Sam Loynachan
Sams Corona Virus Prose April 2020
Sam Loynachan
the miracle worker, joshua earls
“The Miracle Worker,” Joshua Earls

Josh Earls: “I wanted to paint something just to add my voice to so many others who are already expressing their love and gratitude for those medical professionals out there who are saving us all. Really, nothing makes you feel more helpless than when you see your loved ones in need and yet you are completely unable to do anything to help them. I don’t get to use my time in quarantine to add my hands to my father’s as he fixes up the house, or to pick up the things for my mother that she needs to make a trip to the store for. I can’t help prepare a meal for my sister who still has to work through this. I can only sit here. And most of all, if someone I care for is sick, I can only rely on these miracle workers to meet their needs and to make sure they are still “home” when I’m allowed to be there. So I just want to, for any who may be listening, say thanks to the good folks on the front lines. May the appreciation and gratitude of our nation point to them in this new paradigm we are moving into. As one who has all but had their voice taken from them by this punitive system, I’ll let my humble art be a voice.”

From correspondence with someone in a federal prison:

Testing is happening in rounds of 150 people per unit. After the first round, 12 people were removed from the unit and told their test was negative. The remaining 138 were left behind, and medical staff would not respond to questions about their status. After many hours of waiting in uncertainty and fear, a town hall was called by medical staff, who conveyed that if their names were not called they could safely assume that they’d tested positive, and that they’re “lucky because we are most likely asymptomatic and thus won’t be in much danger.” Staff went on to say that the BOP’s goal for the institution is “herd immunity,” with a goal of 80%+ infection rate so that everyone who can get the virus will have already gotten it.

“They are past the point of trying to prevent us from getting infected after only 3 weeks of isolation.”

Later that day, 12 more people were pulled out and told they were negative.

“After it being implied that we were positive, we are now even more confused. Maybe they just forgot to call my name? Perhaps they will call me at any minute and move me away. Everyone is frantic and nothing feels safe right now.”

2 days later:

The writer learned that there’d been another town hall on the other side of the unit. Staff told the people held there that they are best off remaining on the unit, refusing the test, staying in their own rooms, not having to move to the tents that have been erected for those who test negative, which would result in losing their property & access to commissary. They might as well “get a virus that we are going to get anyway”. So, many have refused tests.

“I have to wonder, do those people now get counted as positive cases, or since they were never tested does this facility get to hide their real numbers. Does that even matter when the whole plan is herd immunity? That the men who die in here, never knowing freedom again, do so at our governments plan does not sit well with me. I know so many of these people. They just don’t deserve that.”

For further information on the ongoing crisis in prisons, please explore this story from NPR.

Beyond our Prisons

“Sometimes you gotta get ‘pulled away’ from your life in order to realize that you were already ‘away’ mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

                                                                                         -Glenn Robinson

Glenn Robinson is 33 years old. J.R. Furst is 31. Glenn Robinson is of African American descent, and J.R. is white-ish. Glenn was hustling, stealing and providing for his family by the age of 12, while J.R. was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Glenn is serving 40 years at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA. J.R. is not serving 40 years. These two individuals started corresponding—via handwritten letter—in November of 2012. Together they founded Beyond This Prison.

THE STORY

Bold Italics = Glenn’s Voice

Standard Font = J.R.’s Voice

Most of my friends are either dead of in Angola State Pen serving life sentences. As for family, well, I only have a few that are still on this journey with me. Everyone isn’t built to withstand the struggles and sacrifices that are to be made when dealing with an incarcerated loved one.

I had totally blocked contact with family & friends, because I figured that was a perfect solution—blocking all communication from the outside world. It turns out that I was only paralyzing myself.

Imagine going in for surgery. The anesthesiologist puts the needle in your arm. You lose the ability to move or speak, but you are still aware and can still feel. They wheel you into the operating room. You’re trying trying trying to let the doctors know that you’re still awake. They’re about to SLICE INTO YOUR SKIN! Stopppp!! Stopppp!!

…All is lost though. Your efforts are futile. Everything except for your mind and heart are comatose. You simply can’t connect with the outside world. As the knife cuts into the skin, you SCREAM bloody murder, but no one can hear you.

That’s sort of what my young life felt like…

In the environment where I grew up, everyone has some kind of motive for their affiliation, so trust isn’t something you give away easily. It’s actually been in prison (where I’ve resided since I was 17) that I’ve learned that everyone isn’t out to gain off of me. Prison has taught me how to love, respect, appreciate, trust and accept people in a whole different light. In here, you’re alone! You can own your reality and grow as an individual, or you can die inside of a barricaded mind.

My ‘waking up moment’ came in the form of writing. One night, I felt so isolated and so deranged that something just popped. I’d gotten so low that I ended up coming out the other side. I was 16 years old.

I’d gotten stoned with some ‘friends’ of mine. Smoking marijuana was not pleasant to me, but I didn’t feel well anyways, so what was the difference? We drove around doing nothing. I was dealing with three different kinds of fog: the misty one descending on the city streets, the smoke of the marijuana in the car, and my foggy mind. That’s a lot of fog!

Later, after having been released from my duties as a ‘friend’, I was in my room feeling demonic. Feeling sick. Feeling ill. Feeling like a monster. I turned on the television to distract myself, and I also turned on a Bob Dylan record. I needed all the white noise I could get.

Bob Dylan was loud. The television was louder. I wasn’t touching the volume dials of either, but it felt like the levels were rising. My ears felt like they were going to bleed. It was too much!!!!!! I lost my sh*t. I flipped. I reached a boiling point. I wanted to scream, but I’d lost my voice a long time ago—if I ever even had it. Because I had no voice, my body screamed for me. It heaved itself, and it awkwardly fell into the chair at my desk. Without full control of my motor skills, my hands flopped onto the keyboard like dead fish…

That’s when it happened. The chair was like an electrical outlet, and my tailbone was like a plug. Once the circuit was connected, my spine straightened, my shoulders pulled back, and my eyes focused. I regained the motor skills in my hands…and BLAST OFF. My fingers moved like gigantic spiders across the keyboard. My body was literally shaking. As fast as my fingers were moving, I would’ve liked for them to move faster! The energy surge was that strong.

I thought to myself, THIS IS FREEDOM!!!! I FEEL FREEEEE!!

Well, I’ve chased that feeling ever since. Everything I do in my life is an attempt (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) to be in touch with my core truth, and to express and nurture it in a courageous way.

Through chasing this feeling of freedom, I came across Glenn Robinson. I needed an ally. I needed to create a resonance chamber. Unconsciously, my Yang was looking for a Yin—and the cosmos obliged.

I checked out www.writeaprisoner.com, and I scanned through hundreds of profiles. Out of all those individuals, I just happened to find Glenn. Right from the first letter, I got this sense from him like, “It’s about time, J.R., I’ve been waiting for you!” We hit the ground running.

I’d gotten on www.writeaprisoner.com to meet new people and to try and establish healthy relationships with some down to earth, unbiased individuals. II was basically just throwing rocks in a big pond trying to create ripple that stood out from the others.

I was self-conscious of how J.R. might be viewing me. I’m a young black man that’s doing time for a capital offense, and I came from a rough upbringing. He, on the other hand, is a well-bred white guy from the other side of the tracks. Usually my type is looked down upon by his type—or so I thought.

After a few correspondences, though, I learned that he’s a genuine brother with a beautiful outlook on life, and that he and I are 2 soljas fighting the same war—just from separate sets of circumstances. It’s a war of bringing people out of their mental & spiritual prisons.

I’d spent my life dealing with internal incarceration and he’d spent his life dealing with external incarceration. His world looked like what my world sort of felt like, and vica-versa. Both of us sought freedom. In fact, as I did more and more research, I found that most humans are looking for freedom on some level. Whether it be that nice sense of freedom that comes from finally clocking out of work at 5:00, or the freedom to marry whomever we choose, or the freedom to be out of debt, or the freedom from anxiety, anger, fear and stress. Most of us seem to want to feel free.

Large swaths of society (consciously, or unconsciously) see color, status and background as an important factor when getting acquainted. That’s an ugly disease that doesn’t exist between myself and J.R. He’s become a brother to me. He’s a vanguard and a second spirit. When you’re going through hardships in life, it’s isn’t about who started that journey with you; it’s about who helps you cross the finish line. It’s about the ones you can count on to help you make it through. That’s J.R.! He’s a right-hand man…sort of like a 1st grade homie.

It’s as if we’ve been through life 2gether. We’re the best of both worlds! “The Gangsta & The Gentleman”! Through viewing our friendship, hopefully the world can see that true friends aren’t built off of color or upbringing. We are BEYOND This Prison!

As part of our co-founded organization, I edit chunks of Glenn’s letters, have them illustrated, and then post them on www.beyondthisprison.com. I host Youth Programs where we connect youngsters with their own incarcerated pen-pals, and they create art based off of the correspondences. I also facilitate all inclusive workshops called UNSHACKLINGS where we run highly participatory activities using prison not only in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense as well.

Over the past 3 years, Glenn and I have composed hundreds of handwritten letters, written dozens and dozens of emails, and have a phone conversation on at least a weekly basis. In December, I took an epic 54 hour Greyhound bus ride to Louisiana to meet him for the the first time.

The journey’s just beginning…

JRWeez

J.R. can be contacted at beyondthisprison@gmail.com.

More from NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

About this post: These pieces will appear in Concertina, Joseph Bathanti‘s forthcoming book of prison-related poems, from Mercer University Press. Bathanti is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, where he is Director of Writing in the Field and Writer-in-Residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project.

Recidivism

From the Latin: recidīvus “recurring” and recidō “I fall back” and re “back” and cadō “I fall.” 

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Before working in a prison, I had never heard the term. A guard, Albert Overcash, took me out on escape with him – a violation that would’ve meant his job. Albert knew the guy on the run – Clarence Vessel (alias Weasel) – and didn’t think it mattered one way or another if Clarence were caught or stayed gone. “I’m sure not hauling him back to the camp,” Albert vowed.

Clarence, a revolving-door drunk, had never hurt anybody. They’d pick him up, drunker than ten men, for loitering or pissing against a dumpster, stealing potted meat at Kroger. Give him eighteen months. He’d serve six active, bump out, then back in for Mogen David, Wild Irish Rose, MD 20-20. DTs, black-outs, his gray matter eaten up with rotgut.

Albert laid this all out to me. Before I knew anything. Before I had a notion of time and captivity. He didn’t want to be a prison guard; but, my age, he had a wife and new baby girl. In high school, he had had a tryout with the Cubs, then got his girl pregnant and dropped out before graduation to work, copped a GED, and finally picked up the job at Huntersville Prison: simple enough if you could navigate the application and clear the PIN check. A shitty job with shitty wages, but stability and benefits. He was chipping away on a degree in Criminal Justice at Central Piedmont. He smoked reefer and drank malt liquor. Thin hair fell over his ears; he wore gold bracelets and necklaces with his uniform. The old guards didn’t like him. He thought every last bit of it was a farce.

We just rode around the day Clarence Vessel ran, relieved we didn’t run up on him. As dictated by procedure, Albert communicated over the CB to the other vehicles involved in the chase: 10-4 and What’s your 20? On his chest, he wore the silver Department of Correction nameplate: M.A (for Maynard Albert) Overcash. We crossed into Cabarrus County, stopped at a roadhouse for beer and corndogs, listened to Led Zeppelin, threw darts and drove back to the Unit.

I don’t know if Clarence was ever found. 60 to 70 percent of the men and women sent up go back to prison at least once during their lives – not even taking into account the ones who never get out. Those numbers seemed so absurdly impossible that I dismissed them – Albert’s kind of joke, a stab at irony. He worked third shift, all night – the dead man’s shift – when the prison unleashed its haints and diabolical. He’d hole up in the sergeant’s office, between the two wings of the cellblock, packed each with ninety convicts, bunked three-tiers high, some very dangerous men, and read Stephen King. Albert and I went to the Capri on opening night and watched The Shining. He insisted we sit in the first row. Those bloody, desiccated monsters hurtling through the screen into our faces. We were both twenty-three. He knew I was trying to be a writer. He had a drawer full of stories he promised to show me.

But for all that, he invested in the wrong person, forgot the first principle of his profession: Never trust a convict. Contraband (another term): a buzz, some tiny shimmer to elevate Albert above the yard into the book he was dying to write – maybe about a young white prison guard with a new family who gets roiled up with a black convict cook, perhaps the two are secretly in love, and sells his soul for a weedy lid of dirt-clotted home-grown.

Albert got popped. Ended up trailing time himself at a minimum camp in Anson County: 6 months active – like Clarence Vessel. Often that’s how it starts: a fellow catches piddling time behind an innocent high, wrong place, wrong time (same way Albert explained Clarence). Could happen to anybody: one lousy misfire and you find yourself a convict, sporting prison greens, in constant peril. Perhaps that life even becomes you.

After that first jolt, Albert flopped back and forth to the penitentiary, mainly possession and public drunks, dibbing and dabbing, and finally he ran. He’s out there somewhere, right now, his name on a fugitive warrant.

 

Freedom Drive

At Camp Greene, I picked up two inmates rigged out in street clothes for work-release interviews at Jack’s Steak House on Freedom Drive. A petite convict named Short Dog,

all mouth, never stopped, the almighty dozens – what the inmates termed jooging

a nervous conspiratorial laugh, toothpick, black leather jacket, and black toboggan.

Like a warhead. And a husky woman I had never seen before: Debbie, from the Halfway House on Park Road. Garish make-up, close afro, decked in hot pants, platforms, skimpy red tube cinching her considerable breasts, yet practiced in her dainty airs.

She and Short Dog lounged in the back seat of the state car: a blue ‘74 Valiant that bore the North Carolina Department of Correction decal on its front doors: a downward arrow that suddenly U-turned Heavenward, symbolic of the restoration engendered by a stretch in prison – the DOC at its most allegorical. The car had a bright yellow commonwealth tag and a CB that was to remain engaged whenever the vehicle was in operation. Along the drive shaft was a bracket to rack and lock a shotgun. I had switched off the CB. We listened to the radio. Autumn of ’76, Dylan’s Desire: “Hurricane” and “Joey.” The inmates liked those songs – the blood and danger.

We plopped in a booth at Jack’s. Debbie, red lipsticked mouth, batting eyes, blush caked on her high brown cheeks, propped her big breasts on the Formica – a carnal chaingang icon – Short Dog grinning gaudily, balancing the shaker in a drift of salt, worrying that toothpick around his mouth like a compass needle. The manager asked them a few questions, and hired them on the spot. Inmate labor was cheap and dependable.

On the way back to the camp, they smoked cigarettes, and held hands. We dropped by the Dairy Queen and together slowly ate the white pristine cones. Short Dog, later on the yard, finally clued me that Debbie was no girl, but Dwight, a transsexual, not the same as a he-she, but an inmate who had crossed over prior to going down; therefore the State was obliged by law to keep the hormones coming and everything else, including, if and when, the irrevocable surgery.

Debbie – everyone called her the girl – wore Honor Grade fatigues on the yard, but come lock-down shed to teddies and camisoles, a straight-up female – you couldn’t tell the difference – with a vicious body and lingerie living in the penitentiary dorm with 180 men who hadn’t had a woman in years. And she fought like a gladiator.

Convicts arriving on the transfer bus figured they’d caught the best time on the State.

A nightmare for custody, the Department didn’t know how to classify her, what pronoun was appropriate. Technically she was not a woman, so they couldn’t transfer her to Women’s in Raleigh. She was clearly not a man.

I didn’t know a damn thing, and that was never more apparent than that afternoon on Freedom Drive when I could not distinguish a man from a woman. I was just driving the car, digging Dylan, and a 50-cent cone from the DQ. In fact, I had been thinking: Mother of God. But not a desperate or even imploring Mother of God. Rather, a prayer of thanksgiving, near euphoria, that my life was just starting and the world was so utterly strange.