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Off The Shelf: For a brief time on Max Yard, they are writers, not convicts

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Editor's note: David Scott Milton taught writing in the prison where Kenneth Hartman, the author of "Mother California," is incarcerated. In this Sunday's book section, Carolyn Kellogg reviews "Mother California."

When I first came into the system, I had no ax to grind over prison reform. I was not an activist, nor was I passionately pro-convict. My house in Tehachapi is on a mountain top overlooking the prison. From Max Yard 4B, the lights on my house were all the life the men could see at night. The men used to call it "Star Wars" because it looked like a space ship floating the dark. They never knew it was my house: We were advised not to tell the men where we lived. They thought I was from Los Angeles.

I had just undergone a divorce and I used to stare down at the prison and wonder about life behind those concrete walls. I met the associate warden in town and told him I was a writer and had taught playwriting at USC. It turned out he was a USC graduate. He asked if I would be interested in teaching at the prison -- it had only been open a few years and they had no programs on the Max Yards. Would I consider working on the Max Yard?

I told him yes, then asked what it meant to teach on a maximum security yard. What had the men done?

"Murder, most of them," he said.

"How many guards would be in the classroom with me?"

"Oh, you'd be there by yourself, but we'll give you a little remote device which is an alarm. Of course, it's only good if they're trying to do damage to each other: If they're after you, you're done."

So I went onto the yard and in a short period of time I realized that my ideas about prisoners, and murderers in particular, were wrong. My ideas about punishment were wrong. Yes, there were some very bad people on the yard, Ken Hartman among them. Ken was probably as tough and mean as anyone on the Max Yard at Tehachapi.

I had some high profile inmates in my class: Lyle Menendez of the infamous Brothers Menendez; the assassins of the Mexican mafia godfather, Rudolfo Cadena; Geronimo Pratt, the Black Panther leader who was eventually released after serving 27 years.

The class was unusual in a number of respects. It was one of the few places on the yard where blacks, whites and Mexicans associated together. I told the men I would treat them not as convicts, but as fellow writers. And they must relate to each other while in class as fellow writers. I came to realize early that many of them, if not most, had a great yearning for redemption. Almost all wrote about their lives and, as happens with writers, they revealed very deep things about themselves.

I began to sense that the value of bringing art into a prison is that it humanizes the men in a profound way. Most of them, like Ken, had buried their humanity with their crimes. As they wrote, they opened to each other and to me. I remember telling people that there was no doubt many of the men I dealt with were extraordinarily dangerous. But I discovered also that even the worst had a spark of goodness and honor in them. Without consciously working toward it, I found myself attempting to fan the sparks of humanity through the inmates' work.

I would spend a good deal of time -- we even spoke about in class -- trying to figure out how to work with the system so that men could be redeemed, so that they could contribute to their families and society as a whole. I remember one day mentioning to the class that, as I knew them, most of these men probably could be released and never commit another crime. But out of the dozen men in the class, one would murder again. And none of us knew which one. As a result, none could be released.

A member of the class, a long-term lifer, told me that after Jack Abbott murdered a waiter on the Lower East Side in New York, he burnt up all of his writings knowing they would never help him get out of prison. Well, Ken, living in that world, having been one of the worst of the worst, discovered that if you could find the men who had a strong pulse of humanity, who knew what honor was and cherished it, you could help the honorable impulse grow. Redemption could occur.

I remember one day when Ken was reading from his autobiography something stunning occurred. We all sat around a library table, a dozen or so of us. The men would read their work aloud and we would comment on it.

Ken was seated directly to my right and Joker Mendoza was on my left. Mendoza was one of the Cadena assassins. Before coming onto Yard 4B, he had been in solitary confinement for 17 years for his own protection. I was told by Tiny Contreras, who had led the Cadena assassination and was also in the group, to be very careful of Mendoza. He had killed seven men while in prison.

Ken was reading a section about his childhood. He had a dog that misbehaved and his father had taken the dog out and killed it. Ken was three or four, I believe. He wrote that after that happened he cried himself to sleep. Joker said under his breath: "Sissy."

Ken looked up from the manuscript. "What did you say?"

"Sissy," Joker repeated, louder this time.

I was seated between the men. Mendoza was a leader of the Mexicans on the yard; Hartman, a leader of the whites. Any instant, I was expecting shanks to be drawn.

"Wait a second," I said. "Just wait." I turned to Joker. ""We're writers here. We react as writers in this class, not as convicts. As you all know, as I've encouraged all of you, writers must reveal what is deepest, most sensitive, most painful in themselves. We will not behave like convicts here."

We took a break. Mendoza and Hartman went out onto the yard together. I expected the alarm to sound and one or the other, or both, to end up stabbed. I watched through the window. They were in heated discussion. A few minutes later they returned to the class and Hartman continued reading.

I have no idea what the two men talked about, but I do know some sort of rapprochement occurred.

Milton is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. He teaches at USC.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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