Note: All names have been changed.

Trainer Howard explains that never, under any circumstances, are we to hug an inmate. Shaking hands is also against the rules. He recommends bumping knuckles, and asks one of the trainees to stand up. They demonstrate fist-bumps several times, to be sure that we grasp the concept.

We’re to keep hand sanitizer in our cars and apply it before and after each class—to fight off hepatitis and other contagious diseases that abound in the facilities. We’re not to discuss sensitive issues with the inmates—like suicide or Hawaiian sovereignty. If we enter the prison with a cigarette or a dollar bill, we might face felony charges. We’re not to allow physical contact between inmates during class (apparently, sex acts in larger classes have been an issue). We’re to have no contact with friends or families of inmates. In the event of a riot or hostage situation, we’re to remain calm.

Howard ends the evening with a story about one inmate beating another with a mop, then collects our TB test cards.

At the next session, Howard has a table full of props: knives carved from pencils, Bibles hollowed out for holding contraband, a shiv-proof vest made from crude paper-mache. His favorite is a club constructed from a magazine and a sock. Over and over, he slams it into his own palm—testing the weight, impressed with the design.

Finally, he gives us an incredibly easy multiple-choice test, and declares us all capable volunteers.

 

Main Street, Thunderdome

The Halawa valley is like many places on Oahu. Were it found in my home state of Virginia, it would probably be a protected area—a state park or bird sanctuary named for a minor politician or millionaire. But Halawa had the misfortune of forming on an island full of beautiful green valleys. That abundance, coupled with its proximity to downtown Honolulu, has made it home to our animal quarantine facility, a couple of beverage distribution centers, a rock quarry, and our maximum-security prison.

Chickens wander the parking lot. I rifle through my pockets—paranoid about contraband. On purpose, I lock my wallet, cell-phone, sunglasses, and pens in the car. On accident, I lock my keys in as well.

Inside the first set of doors sits a long reception desk with two kinds of late-model metal detectors and nobody manning them. As I would do for the next ten weeks, I walk around both machines to the next set of doors. Entering the prison is mostly a matter of pushing buttons and waiting for a buzzer. Sometimes the guards give me a visitor’s ID pass, more often they run out. One of the biggest challenges, on that first day, was explaining why I didn’t have a car key to turn in at the front.

Nicknamed Thunderdome, the prison’s architecture is something a Victorian novelist might have a field day with. After the buzzer-pressing and heavy-door pushing, I enter Main Street—a long concrete outdoor lane that runs up both the actual valley and the man-made valley formed by the facility. On either side are the modules where inmates live. Grey walls go up at odd angles and are strung with razor wire. A couple of towers stand on either side, topped with gun turrets and tinted glass. At the far end is the quarry, where one wall of the valley is sheared down to its brown and gray center. Main Street sometimes shakes under my feet as they blast away. The learning center lies behind an unmarked door at the far end. The whole experience reminds me of walking down a giant throat.

 

Head Count

Some months earlier, I’d decided to try teaching a fiction-writing class in prison. After a few calls and emails, I got in touch with Wendy, director of educational programs at Halawa. She put me on the schedule, got me into training, and had me send over a course description.

On that first day, I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t sure if there’d be a chalkboard in the room. I wasn’t allowed to carry pencils, and hoped there’d be some available. At training, I’d gotten the impression a guard might be in the classroom with me, and might even monitor the content of what we read and wrote. Even after teaching there for months, it’s still unclear to me whether or not the students are allowed take papers back to their cells with them.

We settled into a routine that worked fairly well, and didn’t break too many rules. Each week, I brought in photocopies of a short story, and we spent the first third of the class reading aloud. This began as a matter of necessity. Right away, I enjoyed it. Some of the students were low readers. Others struggled to pronounce certain words. But their classmates followed along, turning the photocopied pages, laughing or sighing when the moment called for it.

Most were stories I’d taught many times before. I’d nearly memorized my clever thoughts on them. But in this context, it was like hearing them for the first time. If you have any doubts about the power of short fiction, you must witness this part of the class: a group of grown men, hunched over a few photocopied pages, listening to one of their module-mates struggle through a sentence, desperately waiting for a break in the tension.

We were always short on time. Some ritual known as “head-count” occurs before class and constantly runs long. I’d prepare for an hour and a half but often had less than forty-five minutes. It killed me to cut short the readings, but sometimes it was necessary.

In general, the students gave insightful comments on what we’d read. Their perspective was refreshing—not fogged by other University classes and worn-out critical vocabulary. They weren’t as obsessed with symbolism as so many of my undergraduates seem to be. They were, curiously, prone to moralize in an unforgiving way. Their sympathy was hard won. They had little patience for flowery language or self-effacement.

After the reading and discussion, I’d give an in-class writing exercise of some kind. (The learning center did indeed offer pencils, provided I collect them all before the students left.) I had to dig deep into my bag of tricks for appropriate exercises—ones that didn’t touch on the sensitive topics I’d been warned about in training. Some students asked for help spelling words—another first for me. But once the exercises were over, a few always volunteered to read, and I was consistently surprised by how well they were able to use the prompts I gave as a jumping-off point into their own interests.

One of my students was obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys, and managed to work them into most of his exercises. Sheldon had a thing for leprechauns. Quite a few wrote about childhood. Every once in a while, somebody might describe life behind bars, but most considered it a boring subject. Only Pono wrote about criminal acts, but he did so in an exaggerated, action-adventure style. He was in love with the ganster potboilers from a novelist named Kwan, and the influence showed. I once asked Pono how he got hold of those Kwan novels. Apparently, mail-in book ads still run in the backs of certain magazines. When Pono has enough in his commissary account, he sends off for one.

 

Good Surprises

After my first class, Wendy asked if I’d been scared. Apparently, my students were on the larger, more physically intimidating side. I hadn’t really noticed. In fact, it was fairly impossible to generalize about the class. Locals and Mainlanders were pretty well mixed. Every major race was represented. Some were much older; most were around my age. I was surprised by how many had served in the military. Several were as articulate and personable as any colleague at my university.

Most of the surprises were good ones. A dozen students were on the list for the class. Nine showed up regularly. Only one was a committed troublemaker—not unlike most college courses. A few might have come only for a change of scenery and a chance to pass notes. But most of them genuinely wanted to learn this craft.

When asked to provide a course description, I’d cobbled together some sentences from syllabi I’d used in University courses. Later on—after speaking to veteran teachers—I second-guessed this. Many of the writing classes that take place behind bars are open-ended, not genre-specific, and therapeutic. I wondered if I shouldn’t change things around.

Wendy talked me down. She felt I should teach to my specialty, and required a high-school level of reading and writing for all students. In hindsight this may well have been a masterstroke. Initially, I’d not wanted the class to be overly exclusive (or under-enrolled). But after spending some time in the learning center, I found that most of the educational resources in the facility are devoted to GED training—which is heavily incentivized by the parole board. Students like mine—who’d completed high school or the GED—had very few class offerings. In a time like this—of shrinking state-budgets—they had almost nothing that wasn’t focused on religion or substance abuse.

 

Halawa Review

When I first asked around about starting this class, many people suggested I include some sort of final project. I’d gotten hold an anthology booklet of student work from a program in the women’s prison. It had apparently been a great motivator.

My class had no budget, and would already cost me a lot of printing and gas. I figured I could make an online anthology of my students’ work. I’d done similar things for undergraduates, and it tended to offer a sense of closure and accomplishment. The inmates would rarely if ever be able to go online, but they could share the web address with their loved ones more easily than printed matter.

In the fourth or fifth week, I explained that each of my students would have a story published online. I laid out the due dates and offered to read anything ahead of time, if they wanted. Thanks mostly to Sheldon’s insight, we were able to schedule computer time in the Learning Center to type up their stories. Working in Google’s free sites program, I started building a template for the Halawa Review.

This move—towards online publication—was both the joy and sorrow of my endeavors in the prison. The motivation it generated amongst the students was off the charts. Attendance and overall engagement galvanized. If anything, it grew difficult to keep their attention on our readings; everyone wanted to ask questions about their upcoming stories.

It became clear to me that if I were to teach the class in the future, I would need to leverage Halawa Review as much as possible to give these students a purpose. I can’t really imagine the course working without it or something like it.

 

Final Weeks, Fatal Errors

In the final weeks of the class, things took a turn towards the tragic. Sheldon—one of my best and most motivated students—mysteriously disappeared. Up until the last two weeks, he’d never missed a class. At one stage, he’d offered to help other students buy paper and pencils from the commissary. I’d returned a twenty-page draft of his story (with my comments) just a week prior. It was his best leprechaun piece thus far, with strokes of jealousy and court intrigue reminiscent of Shakespeare. I later learned that he’d been put in solitary confinement, and then moved to a higher-security wing whose residents were not permitted classes. The teaching staff speculated it was contraband or a fighting offense—and that I wouldn’t see him for a while. If I’d just kept his handwritten manuscript—or if he’d managed to get thrown in the hole a week earlier or later—he might have had a piece in our online journal.

Another of the regular students had his cell shaken down by the guards. A long manuscript was confiscated, without explanation. He started over on the story.

A major error on my part: Many students complained that they didn’t know how to type or were unable to come to the sessions provided. Against my better judgment, I told them that—as a last resort—they could give me their handwritten story and I’d type it up at home. These were mostly students who didn’t do much writing in class. I figured I had a spare hour or two to type up ten to fifteen pages.

Pono’s was the first story to come in and was over forty pages, written in a miniscule hand (From the commissary, paper isn’t cheap). It took me well over ten hours to type up. Two of the three computer sessions we’d scheduled were inexplicably cancelled—and hard to reschedule around the Thanksgiving holiday and the state’s furlough Fridays. Even the students excited about typing wouldn’t have a chance. For a moment there, it looked like I would either have to pull the plug on Halawa Review, or personally commit hundreds of manuscript pages to word processor. I wondered if there were enough hours in the next week for this.

This was our penultimate class. I was broken in half by frustration. A couple inmates seemed to find it a little hilarious that I might have to do all this typing for them. Benjamin, one of my most helpful students, walked out of the room. I was ready to give up. I asked them to write down a bio for the Contributors’ Notes section of Halawa Review. They didn’t seem to get it. “I’m just some asshole from Waipahu!” one student shouted. Had this all been a mistake?

In the end, thanks to Benjamin—who also worked as a clerk in the learning center—we were able to schedule a few sessions on the computers. Arrangements were made so that Wendy would send the files to me. It looked as though our online anthology might happen after all.

 

Bureaucracy and Broken Promises

The night before my final session, I refilled my printer with the colored ink it had not tasted since its first days in my possession. I ran off full-color copies of the Home, Contents, and Contributors pages for each of the students, along with a monochromatic version of their story. Each of the students who still attended regularly would get a similar packet. The next day, I limped my way down Main Street, wondering what would go wrong next.

The final class went sour even before head count was over. Benjamin—my model student and the learning center clerk—was shy and quiet, but a diligent writer. He’d been working on his story for weeks. The distance and melancholy in his work reminded me of late modernism. His creepy final scene at a darkened tollbooth was so vivid and cinematic, I’d not been able to get it out of my mind.

Apparently, Benjamin had printed out his story on a machine reserved for staff. Director Wendy discovered this right before my final class. He was sent back to his cell.

Once the other students arrived, a few were disappointed with the printouts. Some thought they’d receive a booklet, or a copy of everyone’s story. I apologized and explained that I just didn’t have the resources for something like that.

I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I think that the mention of my limits struck a chord with several of the sharper ones. They seemed to realize that I was doing this on my own time and my own dime, that I had another full-time job quite apart from this. That’s not a card I’d ever intentionally play, but there was a somber moment of quietude, then a rush of thanks, followed by inquiries about when I’d be teaching the class again.

Before they left, I managed a bit of internet-proselytizing that I didn’t think I had in me. I told them they could give this web address to anybody in the world. That their friends and families could read their stories and their bios, that it would be there forever, couldn’t get taken away by the guards or used to roll cigarettes by a cell-block bully. They seemed impressed. We said goodbye; I broke Howard’s rule about shaking hands several times over.

And within minutes of making them that big promise—of their stories being out there online for all posterity—I managed to break it.

I should start by saying this: I’d been completely upfront about my plans for the Halawa Review. I’d mentioned it in my original course proposal, to the students on a weekly basis, and often to the director. Wendy said several times that there might need to be an approval process or waivers involved. My answer was always: Fine, just let me know.

It’s always been my tendency to ignore bureaucracy until it becomes practically or ethically impossible to do so. I wasn’t against the formal approval process, but I wasn’t going to pre-empt my class for it either. In this case, I didn’t really need anything other than a blessing. It looked like I could ignore it indefinitely. As I dismissed that final class, I wondered if anyone in the administration realized that I’d followed through. I’d go home today, the students would share the site with their loved ones, and the bosses would probably never catch up.

The problem was Benjamin. I held the printed-out web-version of his story in my hand—the only one I’d not handed out. It wasn’t simply the formatted and colorful evidence of his weeks of work; it was my only means of getting him the URL for Halawa Review. Had it been a lesser student, I might not have bothered. But he’d been so excited; I couldn’t see my way clear to denying him.

I stood for while on the tile floor of the empty classroom, under the fluorescent lights. At last, I walked the across the education center Wendy’s office, handed her the printout, and said only: Give this to Benjamin.

She turned through the printed pages of Halawa Review for a second, then freaked out, saying she didn’t realize this would happen so fast.

It was our last class, I responded. When did she think it would happen?

She insisted I take the site down, something I didn’t even know how to do. She called my cell phone several times on my drive home, leaving messages about liabilities and victims’ families. Though she didn’t mention it, I think her job might have been at stake.

That was one of the worst evenings of my life. With a heavy heart and piles of freshman composition essays stacked up all around my desk, I dug through the menus on the Google Sites program, until I found a way to make Halawa Review “private.” At that very moment, my students were off calling their wives and mothers, their aunties and uncles, their children and lovers, spelling out the letters and slashes that led to their work. I was close to tears as I took that site down, guilty of exploiting that fundamental truth that keeps society unfair: it’s easier to let down those who are used to being disappointed.

I remember wishing there was some way to personalize the cold error message that all those families would see, some kind of explanation. What would they think when they saw that screen? Would they believe it a lie or a failure or both—one more thing their convict relation didn’t follow through on?

That might have been the moment I finally understood my reasons for starting this class. In part, I wanted to be a better person. And now I’d become a promise-breaker, a misleader, and a jeopardizer of jobs. But I’d also done it because I believed in writing classes. Teaching the subject to college students is a wonderful thing; I’ve always felt lucky have the opportunity. But I’m sure I’m not the first to find it disappointing sometimes, to see university students consider it little more than an easy grade. The writing classes I took as an undergrad changed my life—saved it, you might say. Certainly, there must be some populations who could still get that much out of such a class, some would-be writers still in search of redemption. If that’s what I’d gone to Halawa looking for, I’d found it.

The following morning, at my University day-job, I was to give the final class of the semester to a fiction-writing workshop which I’d probably neglected more than usual in favor of the prisoners. I’ve never been able to take myself seriously when it comes to end-of-semester speeches. But after I collected their papers, I felt the need to say something.

Throughout my education, I’ve heard stories of writers who were silenced, exiled, sentenced to death, locked away, and so on. I always thought of those as human-rights problems that just happened to involve writers. But now, after Halawa, it seems a totally separate kind of cruelty—like denying a painter brushes or a musician strings. I tried to explain this to my students: that the chance to write and share our writing had come to strike me—in the last twenty-some hours—as a great and awesome privilege, one we should be thankful for and always wield with the proper gravitas. Not everyone is so fortunate. It suddenly sickened me to think of how much time I’d spent seeking greater and more prestigious publication, never pausing to consider what a great gift it is to have the work out there at all, available to others in any form.

Hopefully those Juniors and Sophomores got something out of it.

As I write this, Halawa Review is still offline. But there are signs of hope. I spoke some higher-ups and answered their questions. (They were particularly concerned about the possibility of me making money off the site—which got lots of screen-front laughs from me.) It has been approved to run as a pilot project. Now, I’m apparently waiting for a round of signatures from either officials or inmates or both. The holidays haven’t helped speed things along.

They want me to come back and teach the class again as soon as possible. I begged off the winter session, citing a long trip to the mainland but also because I’m too burned out. I agreed to be on the spring schedule—something I might be able to leverage if Halawa Review doesn’t get the green light soon.

 

Recidivism

During training, Howard warned us about identifying too much with inmates. In most cases, he explained, incarceration was not the result of a single mistake but a long pattern of behavior. Recidivism is more the rule than the exception in Halawa.

I remember the words of a veteran teacher after my first class. I’d told her that I was impressed by how kind and interested my students were. She said something like: “I know it. They’re all good men, smart and capable; they just make bad decisions.”

So what this comes down to is a problem of decision-making and consequences. Could it be that recidivism is a crisis of imagination? If so, then what course could possibly be more appropriate than one on fiction?

Early in the term, we read a story by Mark Richard. I told my students about an interview I’d read with the author years earlier. When asked why he wrote fiction, Richard had said that—due to a childhood spent in body-casts and hospital beds—it was imperative for him, from an early age, to create a universe where he had absolute power, in which he was God.

My hope is that, for ten Monday afternoons—their pencils scratching the single yellow leaves torn from a legal pad—my students were able to create such a universe, and to find some comfort there. This much is certain: As they held their heads close to the paper and hurried to finish in time to share a few sentences, they taught me that these small acts of creation still matter.

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TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 and How the Mistakes Were Made. He is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He teaches writing at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. More info at www.tylermcmahon.net.

8 responses to “The Road to Halawa”

  1. […] The Nervous Breakdown thenervousbreakdown.com/tmcmahon/2011/01/the-road-to-halawa/ – view page – cached Teaching fiction-writing behind bars, Teaching fiction-writing behind bars […]

  2. Really great essay, Tyler. Totally fascinating. I’ve thought of doing this myself, but have never followed through. Or more likely was just too scared. I did read Wally Lamb’s anthology of his prison class writings with great interest a few years ago. And would love to check out the Halawa Review if it ever gets the final OK.

    I’ve admired your understated prose in other essays, but it’s particularly apt and effective in this one.

    • Thanks Sean!

      I’m very hopeful that Halawa Review will be back online soon (though I doubt it will happen fast), and have future issues.

      Starting a project like this is strange. At first I made a ton of calls and seemed to be getting nowhere. But the second I talked to the education director, it was a done deal. From there, all I had to do was go to those trainings and not have tuberculosis.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    Tyler, this is a fine piece, but of course a sad one.

    I wonder if you know the novel “The Tattoo,” by Chris McKinney. I found it interesting on a several levels. I can’t remember if it’s mostly set in Halawa or another prison, but I think it must have been Halawa. I’d look it up, but the book’s on the mainland.

  4. The Tattoo does take place into Halawa!

    I found out about it partway through my class. It’s funny: one of the students from my university course did a presentation on The Tattoo, just coincidentally.

  5. Alison Aucoin says:

    Exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks!

  6. […] McMahon battles with bureaucracy in a prison; loses that one, but wins with the […]

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