Former Community Alliance Editor Visits State Prison Creative Writing Guild

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Screen shot of Mike Rhodes' book, Dispatches from the Warzone. Available online at: https://www.amazon.com/Dispatches-War-Zone-Mike-Rhodes/dp/1519608020

By Boston Woodard

It was great to meet my friend of 12 years for the first time. Mike Rhodes, former editor of the Community Alliance and author of Dispatches From The War Zone, spoke to members of the Creative Writing Guild (CWG) inside the California Medical Facility (CMF) State Prison in Vacaville California. After several months of communicating with both Mike and the prisons administration, a gate clearance (approval) was permitted for his visit.

I became a contributing writer for the Community Alliance in 2005 during Mike’s tenure as editor and have been contributing articles about the prison system ever since. Although we had never met in person, we were in partnership illuminating an otherwise secretive prison system from the inside out.

Having Mike Rhodes as guest speaker at one of our Creative Writing Guild weekly meetings was a great experience for the thirty or so members present during his talk. Among the long list of social issues Mike has dedicated much of his life, prisoner’s rights advocacy is among them.

Articles about the death penalty, prison medical and mental health issues, recidivism, racial discrimination, and First Amendment rights stories often appeared in the Community Alliance under Mike’s leadership. Mike’s action to publish prison issues continue today under the guidance of Hannah Brandt, the current editor of the newspaper.

Because there was no writing group at CMF when I arrived a few years, I sought permission to create one. CMF’s Chief Deputy Warden Dan Cueva allowed outside guest speakers to attend the weekly group. The CWG’s sponsor is writer Thais Shubin who secures gate clearances for guests.

With the assistance of author Amy Friedman, Executive Director of POPS the Club (www.popstheclub.com), the Creative Writing Guild has had a flow of guest orators in 2016.  Amy will be visiting the CWG in early 2017.

Authors Amy Wallen, Patrick O’Neil, Bruce Bauman, Talk Radio host Peter B. Collins and Orange County Register columnist Marla Jo Fisher were some of the CWG speakers.  Journalism, politics, policing, personal stories and creative writing tips and techniques were discussed during the visits.

In late 2016, authors Wendy Campbell and Ronald D. Malone held a four-week writing workshop. Campbell and Malone’s zeal and resolve working with guild members were “generous and amazing” said one member.

On December 8, 2016, Mike Rhodes began his talk on how to create a newspaper at the behest of several prisoners wanting to start a prisoner publication at CMF. “I was particularly fascinated by one question I got during the Q&A part of my presentation,” said Mike. “One of the aspiring journalists wanted to know how you can tell the truth when whatever you write is subject to censorship.”

Prisoner journalists are concerned about everything they write (in a prison publication) would have to be approved by a prison staff person who oversees the project. Another question was about censorship and how they can handle controversial topics with honesty and integrity if they can’t write about the inevitable inconvenient truths that are sure to come up?

Mike’s suggestion to those aspiring journalists was how to be creative in how you confront censorship. “Perhaps the story you need to tell can be told as a work of fiction or in a poem using strategic words, so that everyone understands the issue and what is going on,” he told them.

“It makes me appreciate, as difficult as conditions are for journalists outside the prison walls, that we can still publish a newspaper like the Community Alliance without a fascist overseer who censors every word,” said Mike. “But then again, we are not very far into the Trump administration yet.”

“There are, of course, no easy answers about how to be an investigative journalist in a repressive and authoritarian environment,” Mike told the writers, “but with the election of Donald Trump, those of us outside prison walls may face some of the same challenges.” CWG members as a whole agree that staying within the law and honesty are paramount in all journalism, including jailhouse journalism.

Years ago, Mike brought copies of newsletters that eventually became the Community Alliance as we know it today. Early copies of the Community Alliance were passed among the group members to view. Some guild members took notes and were fascinated not only by the fierce dedication of those who created the Community Alliance to become a reality but also by the light shed on the downtrodden, whose needs are almost always overlooked and/or purposely ignored by government entities and mainstream media.

Mike spoke about his newly released book Dispatches From The War Zone. He talked to guild members about self-publishing; writing, rewriting, copy editing, and some of the problems and foibles associated with the publishing process as well. Several guild members are presently writing books of their own so the information provided by Mike about self-publishing was “invaluable” according to one member.

When asked about Mike’s visit, Creative Writing Guild facilitator Cole Bienek said, “Mike Rhodes’ experience with grassroots activism—working to effect change within my community, wherever that community happens to be—helped me to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the massive problems facing global society.”

Mike told guild members, “I was impressed, as I walked in the reception area [of the prison] waiting to get in, with how the staff at this facility looks just like the people you would see in any grocery store, at the library or any other workplace. Just regular working class folks who are as caught up in the Prison Industrial Complex and not that different from those who are locked behind the razor wire and guard towers every day.”

Guild writer Charles “Red” Walden was “impressed with Mike Rhodes’ wealth of knowledge and candor when it comes to important social issues, more often than not, overlooked by most mainstream media.”

As a college visiting lecturer, Mike was grateful that, “the prisoners who attended my presentation are exactly like the people I interact with every day. Although, I will say that they were more attentive than most college students I have spoken to and asked some of the most insightful and intelligent questions I have ever been asked.”

Guild member Bobby Polete spoke about Mike’s talk as “inspiring, informative, serious but not surprising.” Polete said Mike’s “words of encouragement into writing, no matter the style type, has sparked many {here} to expand their horizons.”

Dan Tilbury, one of the Creative Writing Guild’s facilitators said, “Mike’s presentation was incredibly informative. The information provided regarding starting a newspaper was invaluable to anyone who hopes to pursue a career in writing.”

Before Mike’s meeting with the Creative Writing Guild, he was given the opportunity to tour CMF’s hospice unit (the first prisoner hospice in the U.S.) and speak with some of the Pastoral Care Service (PCS) volunteers and nursing staff. CMF’s eighteen-bed hospice unit provides all the care and treatment necessary to afford terminally ill patients a comfortable atmosphere during their final days.

Mike said he was, “amazed by the quality of care and the attention given to the patients” in the hospice unit. Mike also mentioned how “very clean and well-kept” the hospital unit was. “I’ve seen hospitals out in the free world that didn’t look nearly as well.” Mike spent time talking to some of the nurses and commended them for the dedication and effort they put into their skill as medical providers for the patients.

Mike told registered nurse L. Nolasco, “It takes a special human being to give as much as you all do to provide the comfort level you do to those prisoners in your charge.” Nurse Nolasco enlightened Mike on the challenges and prudence it takes to make hospice patients feel as comfortable as possible. The Pastoral Care Services hospice unit has been managed by Program Director Chaplain Keith Knauf, for more than twenty years.

When asked about Mike Rhodes visit, Tilbury said, “I was impressed with Mike Rhodes’ fierce advocacy for the downtrodden and marginalized.  His long record of service and sacrifice to benefit the least fortunate is an outstanding example of a crucial component of democracy.”

Mike and I talked about seeking permission for us to return sometime after my release so we can continue the dialogue about journalism, how to publish a newspaper and write a book.  I look forward to that.

*****

Boston Woodard is a prisoner/freelance journalist and author of Inside the Broken California prison System.  Boston has been a contributing writer for the Community Alliance since 2005 and will be unchained and free soon.