By Boston Woodard
When people work at the same job for many years, live in the same locale, shop at the same stores, attend the same schools and churches, become friends and associates with those living close by and share similar joys and agonies, it’s all relative to life in America. It’s easy to relate to another’s journey when you’ve walked the same path for so long.
After spending a long time in prison, it’s true that life’s dealings are much like those in the free world. Prison is a microcosm of everything life on the outside extends including a heterogeneous group of individuals with disparate personalities, attitudes, desires and talents, aggregated in a small but interesting and sometimes dangerous world. This free-world prison connection, albeit worlds apart, has a common theme: When there is opportunity to express one’s natural or erudite abilities, creative and artistic aptitudes will emerge.
I’ve crossed paths with some very interesting (and some not so interesting) people while serving my sentence. Medical doctors, psychiatrists, engineers, stevedores, clergy, politicians, salespeople, various entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, writers, poets, publishers, editors, judges, numerous law enforcement people and a multitude of eclectic laborers.
These people are from every religious, racial, national and international background imaginable. Of those individuals with whom I have had an opportunity to acquaint myself, none impressed or amazed me more than those who are determined to make a conscious choice to remold themselves into someone better than they were before. Not an easy task to accomplish while behind prison walls.
The responsibility of self-rehabilitation becomes even more difficult when prison politics or mandatory prison yard codes interfere. Making personal change additionally arduous while being proactive in self-rehabilitation are the efforts by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [sic] (CDCR), with deliberate intention, to eliminate positive life-changing opportunities for prisoners that once thrived in the prison system.
Recently, while reading the July 2010 issue of the SJRA-ADVOCATE (a great prisoner advocacy newsletter), I came across an op/ed article written by an old friend, Spoon Jackson.
In the late 1980s, Spoon and I, as well as hundreds of other San Quentin prisoners, were shackled, crammed into prison transportation buses and shipped to New Folsom State Prison when San Quentin was converted into a “reception center” for the new arrivals into the prison system from northern California. That’s when, as the old convicts say, “San Quentin stopped being San Quentin.”
I haven’t seen Spoon for more than 15 years, when we met ain at another prison where I was editor of the prison newspaper. At that time, I was so impressed with Spoon’s writing ability that I featured several of his poems on an entire page of the newspaper. Spoon’s work was articulate, imaginative, real and revealing. A gift no doubt. Spoon’s ability to sequence events into unfettered truths and sensibilities of life and being in prison is achieved with eloquent realism.
For most of the 1980s at San Quentin, many of us were heavily involved in the Arts in Corrections program, which was abundantly available back in those days. Jim Carlson, then San Quentin’s arts facilitator, was who many of us turned to for artistic guidance.
While Spoon was driven to his interests in poetry, writing, art and acting, I was becoming actively involved in San Quentin’s music, art and literacy programs. Like Spoon, I was also involved with the Transcendental Meditation group and was executive secretary of San Quentin’s Toastmasters “Speak Easy Gavel Club” #202, which we started with the help and sponsorship of Dennis Jones and outside volunteer Arbor Stennet.
As a fledgling writer (literally still learning how to read better), I was able to write some small articles over a period of time that the editor of the San Quentin News at the time, Joe Morse, graciously published in the prison newspaper. The only notable poem I’ve ever written was titled “Who is Santa Claus,” which Judith Tannenbaum, a great teacher/poet/
author at San Quentin in the 1980s and co-author of By Heart with Spoon thought was great. Judith thought my poem was worthy enough to display in San Quentin’s visiting room for all to enjoy during the holiday season.
Memories of that poem are as clear today as ever thanks to Judith. I didn’t have the insight or ability Spoon possessed to continue on the poetry path, but I am still proud of my one good poem.
Reading Spoon’s article “On Prison Reform: Keep Fewer Behind Bars, Offer Opportunities for Self-Rehabilitation,” made me recall all the opportunities we (as old school San Quentin prisoners) had to help change our lives.
“These are the programs that allowed many of us to change ourselves,” Spoon explained in this article.
Retrospection of Spoon’s accounts of “checking out all the books” we could from the prison library, “writing down (word) definitions” and “studying the dictionary” brought to mind more of the effort we put into embracing all of those opportunities.
The list of self-initiated programs we immersed ourselves in has given many of us life dividends beyond what we could have hoped for. Some of us are on a learning journey to make sense of all this, to truly understand what it means and what we can do as humans to make some sort of contribution, maybe a difference.
Spoon talked about his role as Pozzo in the 1988 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at San Quentin. I remember it well.
While downstairs in San Quentin’s education building, some of us musicians would sneak from the band room down the hall to watch Spoon, Twin, Danny and the other actors rehearsing for this huge prison production of Waiting for Godot. If memory serves me well, the late Samuel Beckett himself got to see the film of the San Quentin play at his home in France.
Waiting for Godot was the first and only full-blown professional play I have ever witnessed (to date) in my life. An experience I’ll never forget. Spoon’s ability to transform into character while playing the pretentious Pozzo was uncanny and unforgettable. The play was seen by San Quentin prisoners and audiences brought into the prison from around the Bay Area and was written and talked about internationally for years.
Spoon is the co-author of By Heart with Judith Tannenbaum; one of the most dedicated, sincere educators I’ve ever met in prison. By Heart is a two-person memoir that explores art, education, prison, possibility and the power of poetry to heal.
I am not surprised that Spoon has never been indecisive about what he wanted to do while incarcerated. Spoon can define his surroundings in an artistic way that makes it clearer to all of us. He is one of the rare and all-important voices speaking out from behind prison walls, one of which I am both proud and privileged to know. You should get to know Spoon as well.