Cruel and Unusual Punishment
How Do We Get Books into the Hands of King County Jail Inmates?
Six years is a cruelly long time to go with nothing to read except the Bible and Danielle Steel. But that's exactly how long inmates at King County Correctional Facility have gone without essential reading materials—funding for the jail's library was cut in 2007. These days, the inmates hang their hopes on a lonely book cart pushed around on no discernible schedule, but even the cart is fleeting and irregular: Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the book you want is there; more often, it isn't. And if you do get your hands on a book, chances are good it will slip away. Books have a way of disappearing.
The Golf Pencil Group, named for the maddeningly dull pencils permitted in the jail, is a coalition of volunteer teachers and tutors who advocate for prisoners' educational rights: the right to writing, reading, and learning materials; to creative and educational support; and, perhaps most importantly, the right to a few hours spent each week in the safe, forgiving space of a classroom. Last week, the group held a fundraiser at the Black Coffee Co-op on Capitol Hill to raise money for classroom books and other much-needed services. (Dictionaries. Dostoyevsky. Decent reading glasses.) Slam poet Michael Hood and local poet Jay Thompson have been teaching a creative-writing class at the jail for the past 18 months, and they read poems written by their students. "Closed, because the universe is such with its secrets," one poet described herself. "Flat, because I hurt." The poems deserved a larger audience. There should have been more people at the reading (we numbered 30, at most). By the end of the night, the donation jar was stuffed with cash—but you got the feeling there should have been 10 jars and a line of people signing up to tutor inmates (those interested in tutoring were encouraged to send an e-mail to email@example.com).
Life in jail, Thompson told me before the reading began, is "the lunchroom at the most brutal high school you could imagine," and the class he teaches with Hood is as much about creating a safe space as it is about actually writing. Apart from a lone television shared by all, inmates spend their days without technology and without access to the support they need. (One inmate's haiku: "What can we do the whole day today? It is easy to decide: Eat. Watch TV. Sleep.") Life in jail is hard, and life out of jail can be even harder, so providing this kind of support is crucially important. "It's worth emphasizing how trapped the inmates feel," Thompson said. "There is no program that says, 'Oh, you just got out of jail? Let's help get your life back together.'" Seattle Central Community College provides GED materials and three qualified teachers—whose classes produce more GEDs than any other jail in the state—but the inmates sometimes need additional tutors to help them with the material, and the demand for tutors outstrips the supply. Add to this a recidivism rate of 60 to 77 percent, and the situation seems especially bleak. There's a good chance of seeing the same writers show up in the same class over and over again. "Three out of four, three out of five people who leave us will come right back in again," said Thompson. "It's heartbreaking."
As the setting sun spilled through Black Coffee's tall windows, people found their way to couches and spots on the floor between toy rocking horses and wooden puzzles. Pawns advanced on a chessboard. Poets and musicians took the stage one by one. Thompson reminded us that it's not all bad news: King County Council members Kathy Lambert, Larry Gossett, and Joe McDermott helped raise $150,000 for inmate services just last year. The one-woman symphony who performs as Led to Sea donated the night's album proceeds to the Golf Pencil Group. Compared to the musicians, Hood was small at the mic, with a high voice and bright eyes. He spoke gracefully and with wild conviction, despite the fact that the words he spoke were not his own. They were the words of an inmate, a Yakima Native woman and "self-described rez rat" who may be transferred to a prison soon. "Inhale defeat," she said, through him. "Exhale rage."
This story has been updated since it was originally published.