George Franklin practices law in Miami and teaches poetry workshops in Florida state prisons through the nonprofit Exchange for Change program. His poems have been published widely in journals, and he is author of the collection Traveling for No Good Reason. His poetry has appeared previously here in Cagibi, and also his co-translations of two poems by the Colombian-born author Ximena Gómez.
In this essay, “A Room and Some Chairs,” Franklin reflects on his experiences teaching in prisons. The essay is followed by three of his poems inspired by these experiences.
- A Room and Some Chairs (essay)
- Friday (poem)
- This Week (poem)
- On a Day in March (poem) — this poem originally appeared in Cagibi Issue 3, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
A Room and Some Chairs
I’m a very lucky man, and one of the reasons why I count myself so fortunate is that I have the opportunity one day a week to teach a two-hour writing class in a medium-security prison. I’m not paid for teaching this class. I do it as part of a writing program called Exchange for Change. I was one of the founding board members for the organization, but as soon as I could, I got back into the classroom. I taught for fourteen years at colleges and universities before becoming a lawyer, and for me, the classroom is an amazing place where people actually have permission to sit around and talk about ideas. There’s solid statistical evidence that prisoners who take classes have a significantly lower recidivism rate than the ones who don’t, but statistics have never had much to do with what, how, or why I teach. My teaching is not about giving back or helping with anyone’s rehabilitation either. It’s about the pleasure I take in teaching writing, most often poetry, to a group of students who need it to help them survive as human beings in a place that strips away much of the humanity the rest of us take for granted. The truth is, these men and women—most of the time, I’ve taught men—are fun to teach. They’re smart, they read, and they’re constantly on the alert for phoniness or pretense of any kind.
I don’t want to give the false impression that I have special knowledge of prison life. I don’t. Prisoners have that knowledge, and they pay a price for it. The experience of teaching in a prison is quite different from being a prisoner. After class, I walk to the gate, turn in the body alarm, and get back my driver’s license. Then, the gate opens, and I walk to my car. Prisoners don’t have that option. They go back through another gate to their dormitories—most prisoners in Florida live in sweltering dormitories—to be counted, probably for the second or third time that day. They go back to being numbers. As an assistant warden told me once, “My job is to feed them, house them, and keep them from getting out.” He consciously left out things like educating them, protecting them, counseling them, giving them job training, and anything else that might improve their lives inside or outside.
It’s about the pleasure I take in teaching writing, most often poetry, to a group of students who need it to help them survive as human beings in a place that strips away much of the humanity the rest of us take for granted.
The first thing you notice teaching in prison is that your stereotypes are all wrong. Some students come in to the program barely literate, but others have graduate degrees. You’ll mention Rilke’s “The Panther,” and someone will start to recite it from memory. (Yes, that happened. The same student also declared that Yeats was his favorite poet.) Other students will have studied physics or read some Aristotle. You find yourself quickly putting aside your assumptions. In a poetry workshop, you may go in thinking you’ll be teaching how to write a basic modernist free-verse poem and find out the students want to learn about prosody and sonnets. (My response: “How geeky do you want me to make this? I can go full-geek, and we’ll discuss everything from quantitative meter on down.”) Students anywhere often surprise you, but our own views of prisoners are so full of false images from television, movies, and the ten o’clock news that students inside are certain to surprise.
I want to write that it’s just like teaching a college writing workshop, but it’s not. I can’t ignore that when my students go back through their gate, they enter a world that is dangerous and filled with misery. If a prisoner looks the wrong way at a corrections officer, he’s liable to be written up and sent to confinement, and while he’s in confinement, most if not all his possessions, including letters, photos, and journals disappear. (Administration will tell you that the possessions are carefully inventoried, but prisoners will tell you they vanish.) I taught for a while at a prison that made national news a few years back when the guards boiled a mental-patient to death in a shower because he’d soiled himself. The death was classified as accidental, and no one was prosecuted. There is also gang violence, a lot of it. If you aren’t a member of a gang when you go into prison, from what I can tell you may well be before you get out. The reason is that you need people watching your back.
Many of my students have been lifers, which means they probably killed somebody. I don’t know because I don’t ask or look them up online. I don’t want to know any of my students as persons who committed this crime or that one, who did something to someone that I would find hard to forget. For the time they are in my classroom, they are students, not felons. If they choose to talk about their histories, I don’t stop them, but I don’t seek it out. We’re in that room to talk about writing, usually theirs, and it’s hard enough to write a good line of poetry or a well-crafted sentence. Sometimes, though, the past comes up in that writing. I get the sense that a number are conflicted about their lives before prison. They know that issues like drugs and alcohol helped bring them to this place, but they miss the people they were and the lives they had before they came here.
Prisoners who are serving life sentences occupy an unusual place in prison and in the classroom. They’re respected because they know how to survive in prison better than anybody else, and they’re also perceived as having nothing to lose. If they were to kill someone in a fight, they wouldn’t spend a day longer locked up. In the classroom, they have a special authority. You rarely see it exercised, but they’re definitely treated with respect. Most exhausted all their appeals years ago. Now, they focus on living what remains of a life, here. Their lives are without a future and tautological: what they have is what they have. There is a prison up north that is just for geriatric prisoners. If they survive regular prison, that’s where they will go to die. It takes a very particular kind of honesty and courage to go on living under those circumstances. Or, maybe they really don’t have anything to lose.
There is a motto I see painted on one wall or another at all the prisons: “Inspiring Success by Transforming One Life at a Time.” I’m not sure what to feel when I read that line. If the men I teach have been transformed by prison, it’s in ways that don’t seem to me to inspire success. I think they’ve learned exactly what the state wanted to teach them, that it’s bigger, crueler, and more ruthless than any individual could be. If prisoners do get out, they’ll carry their conviction and their time served with them for the rest of their lives. Employers will, at best, be reluctant to hire them. If they were handicapped before by having grown up poor, that won’t be any different when they get out. If they had addiction problems before, it’s unlikely those will have gone away either. So, in a way, all prisoners are lifers. Some sentences just continue on the inside, and some carry on outside the razor wire and the fence. It’s no wonder that one of the first stories I heard when I began teaching was how every mirror you pass in prison has dried spit on it. There’s a lot of self-hatred going around.
Many of the prisoners become religious. In Florida prisons, it’s one of the few available ways to live. There are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chaplains, and the chapel is air conditioned. And, these are human beings without a lot of options. If I sound cynical, I apologize. Teaching poetry is not far removed from encouraging people to find consolation in religion. Aren’t I asking my students to believe that learning to articulate their experiences inside—and before—will matter? There may well be a faith of poetry, of writing in general, that there is something particularly human about our relationship to language, and if we engage with language, we can somehow overcome our circumstances.
Some semesters, I teach Robert Frost’s great poem “Acquainted with the Night.” When my father was dying of cancer and my mother was lost in dementia, I used to recite that poem like a mantra, and it helped. But, it didn’t help by reassuring me that everything was going to be all right when it wasn’t. It helped by demonstrating that if you can write about what is happening, it means you’ve survived it. At least, so far. At least for today.
Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
by Robert Frost
The poem is a terza rima sonnet, and notice that it ends by repeating the first line. What I believe happens between those bookended lines is that Frost lays out in uncompromising terms how bad things can get, how there’s nothing he can rely on. Then, the repetition of the first line: “I have been one acquainted with the night.” What’s uncanny is that when we hear the line repeated, coming after his experiences, it sounds slightly different. Same words, but it’s different. The words are a little bit heavier, filled with the experience of the poem, with having survived. It’s that slight difference that I’m asking students to trust. This is a big ask because the difference in the way it sounds may just be an effect that can be explained by linguistics, or maybe it’s just an auditory hallucination on my part, or the power of suggestion. So, I shouldn’t be snarky about the chaplains because I’m in the same business.
I don’t know that writing can make my students’ lives better. It’s possible that I’m making them worse by encouraging them to be more aware of themselves and the world they inhabit. I’m certainly not making their lives less painful. I don’t even think that I’m offering them hope for anything different. The best I’ve got is a room and some chairs where we can sit and talk about books and writing for two hours every week, the way human beings have been sitting and talking—and even laughing—for thousands of years. It may not be much, but it beats the alternatives.
It’s late afternoon, and the clouds are
Moving in from the Everglades. Heat
Still clings to the black asphalt and the
Pavement when the first drops break against
The roof. I spent the day teaching down
At the prison in Homestead. There was
No one manning the gate today, and
It was easy to get a parking
Space. For the students, it wasn’t so
Easy. Most were late to class. There’d been
Another stabbing in the dorms. A
Thief from one dorm had gone next door. He’d
Stolen there before and must have thought
He could get away with it again.
He didn’t. A helicopter came
And airlifted him to Jackson. They’re
Good with stab wounds. The guards locked down the
Dorms until they got him out and found
The guy with the knife. He was hiding
In his own dorm. It all took less time
Than you’d think. In class, my students read
Poems they’d written and brought in to
Discuss. We talked about narrative
And how hard it is to make poems
Real. Some of these students are lifers,
But their poems aren’t about prison.
They’re about memories of a life
Outside, doing coke in a motel
On Biscayne Boulevard, of naked
Girls and air conditioning, of cars
Skidding into canals, heroin,
Dreams that you have over and over
Again. No one mentioned the stabbing.
One student says, “Inside, you don’t have
Friends. You have associates. Even
Your best friend will eventually
Betray you.” He’s done 27
Years already, so I guess he’s got
A right to his opinion. He talks
About the gangs the way people on
The outside talk about the weather.
“Wherever you got gangs, they’re gonna
Fight over turf.” He’s one of the ones
Who walk around with a quietness
In their chests. It’s almost like they’re not
Breathing. They’ve spent a long time staring
At the linoleum tiles, at the
Electrical outlet where they plug
In the TV, at a copy of
The Qur’an in Arabic. Late at
Night, they may recite a few verses.
If they do, they don’t talk about it.
They know when they wake up tomorrow
They’ll see the same faces, eat the same
Food, meat that’s gone bad, margarine and
Grits. They know what not to think about
As well. One of the quiet ones says,
“Tell me the truth, when you finish here,
Don’t you walk a little faster out
That gate than when you were coming in?”
I say, “Yeah, leaving always feels good.”
On a Day in March
It’s risky to drive past the airport.
It makes me want to go home and grab
My passport from the bedroom drawer,
Fly to Madrid with Ximena,
See Velázquez’s Head of a Deer
At the Prado, walk with Eduard in
Barcelona. (He’ll show us where he
Buys his scarves.) We could even take a
Train to Paris, circumnavigate
Île de la Cité at night, gargoyles
Staring down at us from cathedral
Walls. But, it’s a fantasy. Between
Debts and a leaking roof, travel seems
Unlikely. I’m already teaching
This year at a women’s prison.
We’re Reading an El Saadawi novel
And maybe Antigone, stories
Of characters who don’t compromise—
While my students sit in their baggy
Blue trousers and work shirts, thinking back
To when they were still outside and wore
Whatever they wanted and could go
Wherever their money would take them.
They admire Firdaus who killed her pimp,
And I think they’ll feel the same about
Antigone and her loyalty
To her dead brother. Here, everything
Is a compromise. Coming to class
Means risking a strip search. Someone tried
Last week to smuggle in drugs, so guards
Took them all to medical after
A poetry class to pee in a
Plastic cup and be searched. Some—maybe
Abused, angry—don’t want to go through
That twice, so they’ve stayed in the dorms and
Asked other students to bring me their
Papers. Outside the high razor wire
And the gate, I give back the body
Alarm and, after a stare, get back
My driver’s license. The sky stretches
Uninterrupted by buildings or
Trees. It’s as intensely blue as I’ve
Ever seen it. A passenger jet
Swings in a wide arc toward the ocean.
About the Author
George Franklin’s manuscript Traveling for No Good Reason won the 2018 Sheila-Na-Gig Editions competition and is now in bookstores, and available online from the publisher. A bilingual collection, Among the Ruins / Entre las ruinas, translated by Ximena Gómez was published in 2018 by Katakana Editores, and his individual poems have appeared here in Cagibi and also recently in The Threepenny Review, Salamander, Pedestal Magazine, Matter, and Typishly. He practices law in Miami, where he also works as a facilitator and as general counsel for Exchange for Change.
Cagibi Issue 5