Bards Behind Bars

Reading Sartre aloud inside a maximum-security prison

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

In my early 20s, having received an MFA in creative writing from Brown University, I sought to cobble together a living by teaching. Although I had taught an undergraduate class as part of my fellowship, I hadn’t yet published a book, so the only such work available to me was intermittent and, often, unconventional. I spent the first summer after I graduated not working with words but performing the same kind of maintenance and handyman tasks that had helped pay for college—this time for the university from which I had just received an expensive degree. Some of the rooms I cleaned and refurbished had recently been vacated by the students I had just taught.

As my summer maintenance work came to an end, I found a part-time job teaching creative writing at the state prison in Cranston, Rhode Island. Twice a week, I’d drive to Max, as the maximum-security facility was known, a three-story gray-brick building that was topped by an imposing green cupola and surrounded by razor wire. It had been built in the 1870s and expanded several times since, but little seemed to have changed since the 19th century except for the gates, which were now operated by electricity. I would park behind a chainlink fence and, upon entering the building, place everything except my teaching materials in a locker. Then I’d present my credentials to the first of many guards whom I would encounter on any given day.

The inmates were suspicious of me at first, asking whether I was there “to observe the animals” or betting that I would simply stop showing up, as had so many of their previous instructors. The prison officials did their best to contribute to this attitude, telling my students that I hadn’t arrived that first day, when I was already sitting in the classroom waiting for them, or deliberately delaying me so that I would be late. Sometimes they would ignore me when I presented my teaching ID; other times, they would let me through one set of rolling, barred gates, only to leave me trapped before the next set of gates while the warden wandered off to get a cup of coffee. But I persisted. And though the inmates gradually began to accept that I could be relied upon and didn’t have a hidden agenda, I was still a puzzle to them.

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Tony Eprile is the author of Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories and the novel The Persistence of Memory.


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