One reviewer of Crossing The Yard wrote that this book was “hard to put down”. To the contrary, I put this book down often because what I had just read was too upsetting, or made me too angry to continue reading at that moment. I needed time to process what I had just read.
Richard Shelton is Regents Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Arizona where he was director of the Creative Writing Program and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. In other words, the man can write gooder than most of us.
Because I have an abiding interest in most everything having to do with Tucson and Southern Arizona, I read Mr. Shelton’s 2007 non-fiction titled Going Back to Bisbee. This is a memoir about his return to the small mining town where he was once a young elementary teacher. They say you can’t go home again, but he did, and took his many fans with him on a grand adventure. ‘Tis a delightful story, particularly for those of us who are familiar with that weirdly wonderful little city an hour and a half drive Southeast of Tucson.
Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteercould not be more different from Going Back To Bisbee. “Crossing” is NOT delightful. It is about Mr. Shelton’s 30 years of experience teaching poetry and creative writing to Arizona inmates, some of whom had committed hideous crimes and were either on death row or serving multiple life sentences.
Many of Mr. Shelton’s shared memories are about redemption and readers are likely to find these surprisingly frequent episodes heart-warming. One of Mr. Shelton’s success stories is Ken Lamberton, a former inmate and the author of Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, which we recently reviewed.
More often than heart-warming, are the stories that are heart-wrenching. These stories detail Arizona’s hope-crushing, demeaning, and corrupt prison system designed to turn human beings into either vegetables or monsters.
In the last chapter, the author lays the blame directly at the feet of “tough on crime” Arizona legislators who pander to fearful, willfully ignorant, and indifferent Arizona voters. We voters sanction a justice system that puts non-violent, often poorly educated or mentally ill criminals in cages with vicious prison gangs. It mets out extremely long, soul-draining sentences for non-violent, relatively minor drug-related infractions.
Arizona’s vast prison system is euphemistically called Department of Corrections. Mr. Shelton’s 30 years of experience teaching inmates puts the lie to the concept of “corrections”. Within Arizona’s prison system, there is little to no effort made to turn young, amateur criminals into productive, law-abiding citizens and responsible parents with marketable skills. Most often, what “corrections” occur is older, career criminals teaching the young ones how to get away with robbery and murder when they are released on an unsuspecting public.
Do I recommend “Crossing the Yard”? NO. Not unless you are open to facing the utter injustice of this brutish system, educating yourself and others, and willing to do something about it. If you have a finely-honed sense of justice, this book is an eye-opener. It will make you angry.
Richard Shelton continues to lead prison workshops and is editor of the journal Walking Rain Review, that features the work of current and former inmates.