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Writing Dangerously

The Cornell Prison Education Program provides sanctuary behind bars


Picture a box of dark, stagnant air five stories high with walls of stone and windows glowing dimly like pillars of ice. The floor is puddled pavement; the lid is the frozen night sky that presses down overhead, making you feel very small as you walk the hundred or so yards from one end to the other. Behind the heavy glass you glimpse the guts of the place: the cellblocks with their rows of barred cages that seem to stretch into infinity. Muffled shouts from behind the windows seem aimed at you—in jagged tones of longing, hilarity, and who-knows-what anguish. Hundreds of men you can’t see are in there, watching your every step.


When at last you reach the classroom area indoors, the empty prison yard’s chill fades from your bones. The radiators hiss softly, and these fogged windows hide all views of walls and bars; you could be in a school in a poor neighborhood in the Fifties, with its exhausted blackboards and porcelain water fountains in the corridors. Warmth radiates from the students. They file in with grins on their faces, shaking your hand and joking—but politely, politely—with your beautiful nineteen-year-old teaching assistant, for whom they’ve spent the week rehearsing their greetings. She’s the only civilian woman some of the men have spoken to in years, and you’re the first teacher many have known whom they didn’t hate for making them feel stupid and ashamed.

Welcome to Auburn Correctional Facility, the nation’s oldest operating prison, built in 1816, and now visited on weekdays by volunteer teachers from Cornell. I’ve been giving fiction- and personal essay-writing classes here for three years. Auburn, a maximum security institution, has broken my heart repeatedly, but it’s also given me the most exhilarating teaching experiences I’ve had anywhere.

The students are the brightest of the prison’s 1,700 inmates; all of them have high-school diplomas or GEDs and have spent a great many hours with books as their favorite companions. Some have read more Russian classics than I have; they’ve inhaled Shakespeare, Plato, Charlotte Brontë, as well as tons of paperback Westerns, crime thrillers, and plenty of porn. Latino, Indian, black, white, young and old, they’re wildly eclectic in their interests and constantly hungry for activities that challenge their minds. No wonder I like them. Aside from the chaotic lives they’ve led and the brutal crimes most of them have committed, they’re a lot like me and my writer friends.

I’ve learned what their offenses were by going to the Department of Correction’s website and Google News, but soon I’m so busy I nearly forget their backgrounds. Occasionally, I’ll find myself marveling at a student’s deep sensitivity and suddenly remember that he’ll be making license plates in here forever because he emptied his pistol into a 7-Eleven clerk during a robbery. That’s when I feel awful—what a horrific waste of lives, both my student’s and the clerk’s! And for what? Why? It drives me crazy. Then I get back to work on the man’s writing project.

These questions are much more burning for my students than for me. Some grapple with them in their essays and stories, but indirectly and cautiously. I usually don’t encourage them to write about their criminal activities, which are depressing for them to dwell on. I give them class exercises that challenge them to examine the parts of their lives that have given them some insights, some pride, maybe even some laughs. Like getting a crush on a neighborhood girl, dealing with bullies, handling a family member’s problems.

The stories I get at the prison aren’t much like the ones I see in other classes. One student’s first love became a teenage prostitute, a bully was a rival gang member who left him for dead with stab wounds, and one family problem resulted in a mother’s death from a heroin overdose. The students know, though, that spilling their pain onto paper isn’t enough. They want to use their new writing skills to transform their material—to create essays and stories that allow them to find some meaning and dignity in their lives.

Edward Hower

After reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” a story about a man leaving his parents’ family to get off drugs and become a musician, I asked my students to write a letter that a troubled younger brother might mail to an older one about his struggles. A few students wrote angry, defiant letters justifying their reckless adventures. Most wrote more introspective ones, explaining how bad breaks and worse judgment had led them astray; they hoped that they could still be valued as human beings.

When the men read aloud, I heard some voices crack—in a place where, normally, showing emotion can brand you as a pussy and put you in grave danger for your life. But my classroom wasn’t a normal place in the prison, as my students often told me. Here they could show feelings without being scared or ashamed; they trusted me and their fellow students to keep it a safe place for them. Though most of them are black or Latino—as are about 90 percent of Auburn’s inmates—members of different groups were unusually supportive of each other, too.

The students wanted to dig into the meanings of their letter-writing exercise. After reading his paper full of bad-ass bravado, a man called Harry listened to the critical discussion he’d inspired and suddenly asked, “Hey, do you think the criminal lifestyle—all the danger and excitement—is as addicting as the heroin the brother uses in Baldwin’s story?” Many of the students nodded gravely at him. Now he understood “Sonny’s Blues” in new ways, and so did I. It wasn’t a grim realization; the jolt we all got from having that insight was powerful, and empowering. Sonny could keep working at playing the piano, despite carrying the burden of his past troubles, and we could find the courage to keep writing stories ourselves.

I gave the men an exercise in which they were to describe a toy they’d treasured as a child and then to use it as the object of a conflict in a made-up story. Several wrote about superhero action figures who, in their daydreams, had helped them vanquish childhood enemies and rescue girlfriends in distress. “Does writing give you super powers?” I asked. “Hell, yes—that’s why I’m taking this class!” one student answered. And so it does, I’m convinced; the most powerless people in the world get to fly through space (and through prison gates), right the wrongs done to them (or atone for the ones they’ve done), and experience the elation that comes from successfully imagining a character into life on the page.

Inevitably, one guy wrote about a teddy bear. I told the class that I’d assigned this exercise in workshops in several states and overseas, and in every single one somebody had written about a stuffed bear. I was just marveling out loud, but one student asked me if I was trying to show them that they were part of an international community of writers. I hadn’t thought of this, but of course it was true—they had joined this community, and I could tell that the stone walls that surrounded them had just gotten a little bit more porous.

I invited guest writers to come to the class and talk about their work. Jeanne Mackin read the students a ghost story, then asked them to write about strange happenings that they’d heard about. Some reported on spirits that had been spotted in cells near the storage room where “Old Sparky”—the first electric chair used in the U.S., in 1890—was reputed to be kept. One student named Jack wrote about visiting a conjure woman in the backwoods of Georgia where he’d grown up. This led to a discussion of how folklore can inspire new stories; the wonder old tales evoke is similar to the way people still feel when reading good fiction.

Novelist and English professor Helena Viramontes discussed her first-person story about a mother’s anguish at holding her dying baby. A somber subject, and several students offered her commiseration. “No, no,” she said, “this didn’t happen to me! I just got the idea from a photo I saw in a magazine.” The students were amazed and asked if all writers could put themselves in the place of anyone they saw. “Pretty much,” she said. “But I couldn’t have written about that character if something in the woman’s picture hadn’t woken up my compassion—the way it did you guys when you read it.”

The men liked the idea of becoming another person for a while—something every writer enjoys doing. The following week, I brought in copies of photos from Robert Frank’s book The Americans. Each student picked one that interested him to write about. A picture of a man staring out at the Mississippi River captivated Benny, a lifer who’d spent time in the South as a boy. He read aloud from his narrative about an old man who believes his life is ruined when his home is destroyed in a flood until he comes upon a woman and her child, whom he’s able to pull to higher ground. This was one of many redemption-themed essays the assignment inspired. “Great photo,” the author said.

Poet, essayist, and professor Kenneth McClane ’73, MFA ’76, discussed his article about Martin Luther King Jr., whom he’d met as a child with his father, a prominent Harlem doctor. The students, who’d been reading Barack Obama’s memoir, were enthralled by the idea of meeting such an important historical figure. “You guys have known people who were important to you, too—in your families, your neighborhoods,” Ken said. “Think about it.” They did, and came up with essays about adults who’d had powerful influences on them as kids. Some of these people had been positive role models, but others had been drug dealers and gangsters, whom a few of them still looked up to. Some said that these people had betrayed them, and now they hoped they’d do better for their own kids. I hoped so, too, but at the same time I realized that many would never get a chance to influence their children at all; their families had stopped visiting them years ago. Still, I could see that all the men were beginning to view themselves as role models for other prisoners. Several reported that, as students, they were getting more respect from their block-mates. 

The men liked the idea of becoming another person for a while—something every writer enjoys doing. I assigned the class a chapter from The Language of Clothes, a book written by another visiting author—my wife, Alison Lurie, an emerita English professor. In it, she explored messages about inner qualities that people communicate, consciously or unconsciously, by the outfits they wear. She brought in pictures for the students to write about. Later, she said she’d heard that even people who have to wear uniforms, like nurses or soldiers or prisoners, find ways to make themselves look distinctive by creating subtle alterations in their clothing. “Is that true here?” she asked.

I’d hardly noticed the students’ baggy “forest green” uniforms—drawstring pants, work shirts, hooded sweatshirts—since the first class. But now I did, as they wrote about the ways some men tried to look laid-back by leaving their sleeves loose, while prisoner leaders rolled up their sleeves to show they were ready to defend turf. Gay prisoners wore their pants higher than gang members, who wore them far down on the hips, despite a poster on the corridor walls outlawing this fashion. Physical descriptions of characters in the students’ stories improved dramatically after Alison’s visit.

I gave the men a chapter from one of my novels to read; in it, an old man in a mental hospital did such credible impressions of a preacher that the other patients, and even the staff, came to listen to his sermons. “Was he just crazy, or was he on to something?” I asked. As they debated this, I heard rhythmic drumming from a room up the hall where Native American prisoners were having a service with their visiting chaplain. In a moment of synchronicity, a student recalled a character in a Sherman Alexie story I’d assigned—a misfit whom other members of his Indian tribe considered both a madman and a wise prophet. Many students had known neighborhood eccentrics, whose behavior they wrote about with fresh insights.  

“Hey, look—she’s at it again!” a student named Jackson said, pointing through the window to a room across the hall where Clarice, the official Pagan chaplain of the Auburn Correctional Facility, was sweeping the air with her broom and wafting the scent of burning sage toward our classroom. The men liked her, a woman with waist-length gray hair who wore “witch shoes” and dresses decorated with arcane symbols. They decided that she resembled the Holy Fool in Native American and European traditions, and also the conjure women and Santeria priestesses in African-based lore. The students, who often preferred to stick with realistic fiction, let their imaginations roam further into fantasy in their next assignment.

James McConkey, another visiting writer and retired English professor, discussed one of his autobiographical stories about spending parts of his youth in Arkansas and rural Ohio. His shame at being poor and homeless, he said, had felt like a “psychological prison” to him. One student said that learning to deal with this kind of mental prison was the only way to survive inside a physical one; creative writing was the best way he’d found of doing it.

‘The more of your programs we have,’ the superintendent told me, ‘the less these guys are going to be using their minds to get in trouble on the blocks.’Friends have asked me what I think the point of teaching prisoners is; that man’s insight is part of my answer. Another part comes from John Crutchfield, my only student so far to publish his work; a chapter of his memoir-in-progress recently appeared in Epoch, a literary journal published at Cornell. “The training and criticism I got in class shaped a genuine confidence I’d never had before,” he wrote. “Writing helped me build a new identity.”

Auburn’s superintendent, Harold Graham, one of his field’s more enlightened administrators, welcomes educational projects like Cornell’s, which is funded by a grant the from Sunshine Lady Foundation, a project of Doris Buffett, the sister of Warren Buffett. “The more of your programs we have,” the superintendent told me, “the less these guys are going to be using their minds to get in trouble on the blocks. The place will be a lot safer for everybody.” I see his point and agree with it—but I hope we can do more than tranquilize our students.

Helena Viramontes, who has also taught prison courses, has told me she hopes to “give a voice to the silenced people” in her class. Having written about Mexican Americans in the barrios of East Los Angeles, she feels as if she’s going home, in a sense, to help bring out messages that not only need to be spoken but to be heard.

Jim Schechter, the Cornell Prison Education Program’s director, believes that prison classes help just-released prisoners to navigate their difficult re-entries into society. Professor Pete Wetherbee, who founded the program in the early Nineties along with Paul Cody, MFA ’87 (a former CAM associate editor), and Professor Paul Sawyer, told me that inmates who won’t be released soon find in the courses sanctuaries where they can keep their sanity. One of my students said simply, “Now I know what it means to think outside the box.”

A few men still give me gangbanger melodramas, full of casual shootings and rough sexual conquests. I have to tell them that, frankly, I don’t much like these stories. Action-adventure and porn are very limited genres; what interests me—and most of the students, too, once they catch on—is exploring the emotions surrounding conflicts and sexuality, feelings everyone faces. Most prisoners have hardened themselves against troubling emotions, and still need to be hard outside the classroom to survive. But my students are as sick of living in a vicious, unfeeling culture as I am of reading about it. And most of them gradually become eager to explore, in their writing, the inner lives of lawbreakers and their victims. John Crutchfield’s essay wasn’t engaging because of the details about drug addiction and burglaries that appeared in its early drafts, but because of the ways he learned, in later drafts, to understand the effects his illegal activities had on the relationship he was trying to sustain with his girlfriend, and the pain he felt when it ended in a prison visiting room. His story was hell to write, he told me, but he’d seldom accomplished anything that made him feel so good in the end.

When I watch my normally shut-down students enjoy becoming writers…well, I have to admit that it’s a terrific high for me. Sharing the trials of creating stories with men who are discovering what a liberating process it can be encourages me to keep at my own writing, too.

When I first started coming to the prison, a student who’d been working on his autobiography for years told me that the reason he was serving a life sentence was that he’d killed another prisoner who’d tried to steal his typewriter. A true story? Doesn’t matter—it illustrates a commitment to writing I’ve never found anywhere else.

Edward Hower ’63 has published seven novels and two books of stories. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, Smithsonian, American Scholar, and elsewhere.

Books Behind Bars

Cornell program educates inmates—and guards

Edward Hower is one of more than forty Cornell professors, grad students, and undergrads who teach inmates through the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), an initiative of the Office of Land Grant Affairs. This year, eighty-five Auburn inmates—sixty of whom are full-time students working toward an associate’s degree at Cayuga Community College—are enrolled in Cornell-run classes. Courses are also offered to forty students at Cayuga Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility with about 1,100 inmates in Moravia, New York.

Since the program began in 1995 with four courses, CPEP has expanded to offer thirteen classes each year in such subjects as biology, political science, and theater; the most popular include genetics, physics, and a class on the politics of hip-hop music. A literary journal called Writer’s Block allows Auburn inmates to publish the poetry, stories, and creative nonfiction they create in class.

Additionally, CPEP is one of just two programs in the U.S. to offer classes to corrections staff; each semester, about ten Auburn officers enroll in a Cornell course held offsite at Cayuga Community College. “These classes came about as an answer to criticism within the security ranks,” says CPEP executive director Jim Schechter. “The corrections staff don’t see higher education institutions providing them or their children with economic or educational opportunities—so they couldn’t understand why convicted felons would be accorded that right.”

A number of prominent professors and administrators, including President David Skorton, have spoken at CPEP’s monthly lecture series. Some Cornell faculty, staff, and students have led extracurricular activities at the prison, including a theater workshop run by emeritus professors and a crocheting group led by molecular biology professor Robin Davisson.

Because most prisoners remain in the program for at least several years, only ten to twenty new inmates are allowed to enroll each fall. CPEP screens participants, all of whom have a high school diploma or a GED, with an entrance exam each spring.  Participation is a privilege; bad behavior can mean suspension or expulsion from the program. “Every spring 100 to 125 men sign up for the exam,” Schechter says. “Some actually transfer from other facilities around the state to sit for the test in the hope that they can get into the program.”

— Amanda First ’12