Teaching writing to maximum security prisoners was supposed to be a temporary gig for novelist Chris Belden, but six years later, he is still spending a day each week at the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown.
â€œIt has been a way to learn about people, learn about teaching and to see how people can grow,â€ the author of the acclaimed 2015 novel â€œShriverâ€ says of the volunteer work that has become an essential part of his life.
â€œI havenâ€™t yet written about the experience in any form, but it has certainly influenced me â€” my life and how I see the characters in my work,â€ Belden adds of his Thursday mornings with prison writers.
â€œWhen I tell people I do this, itâ€™s an immediate attention getter. They want to know what itâ€™s like. â€˜Are you scared?â€™ People are pumped from all of the movies and TV shows theyâ€™ve seen about prisons.â€
Belden admits he was slightly anxious at first â€” â€œThere was a fear of the unknownâ€ â€” but he has never once experienced anything that has made him regret his commitment.
â€œSome of the guys in there are not necessarily friendly or outgoing, but thatâ€™s rare. Overwhelmingly they are happy Iâ€™m there,â€ he says.
Belden jokes that past experience trying to teach groggy college students at 8 a.m. classes makes him appreciate the enthusiasm of his prison writers all the more. â€œI know when someone doesnâ€™t want to be in a class, but my Garner students thank me regularly, sometimes profusely.â€
The proof of the value in what Belden does can be seen in â€œSentences,â€ the literary journal that he edits, collecting the best work of his students â€” nostalgic tales of happy childhood moments, angry accounts of time lost in confinement, vivid memories of the joy to be found in one beautiful autumn day on the outside.
The Ridgefield novelist started at Garner to fulfill a third-year thesis project in the MFA program at Fairfield University. He had to find a second subject that was not connected to his creative writing submission. A thesis dealing with the teaching of writing was eligible, and when Belden saw that social justice work was a subcategory, he applied to be a volunteer at the Newtown facility.
The writer became part of a long tradition of prison writing teachers that has included another Connecticut notable, the best-selling novelist, Wally Lamb. After Belden completed his Fairfield University assignment, he realized he did not want to give up his Thursdays in Newtown. Writing is a natural extension of the intensive reading done by many prisoners. In maximum security cells, there is little else the convicts can do to fill the seemingly endless â€œfreeâ€ time.
â€œThe guys are very interested in reading, and they write all kinds of crazy stuff based on that … and science fiction. A lot of what could be called urban fiction â€” life on the streets, social justice. Fantasy serves a real purpose for them, too.â€
Belden says he has learned most of what he knows about prison life indirectly, because the men donâ€™t generally like to talk about their lives outside class.
â€œIâ€™m interested to see how prison works and doesnâ€™t work, but a lot of it is still mysterious to me, even after six years. I hear stuff, but they generally donâ€™t talk about why they are there,â€ he says of the crimes that caused his students to be imprisoned. â€œSo I donâ€™t ask about that.â€
Like all writers, Beldenâ€™s students want their work to find a connection with readers, so the literary journal â€œSentencesâ€ is an important part of the class, along with readings where special guests are invited to hear the prisonersâ€™ stories and poems.
â€œSentencesâ€ receives some funding from the Westport Writers Workshop, where Belden also teaches.
â€œTo me itâ€™s super important when youâ€™re writing regularly to have readers. And the guys want their work to get out there â€” to have some kind of outlet for what they do. We all need that.â€
A Christmas memory
As you peered toward the staircase, you got a quick glimpse of a shadow downstairs in the living room, where a majestic Christmas tree stood. Could it be? Was he really there? … You peeked your head around the corner, and to your astonishment and disappointment Santa was nowhere to be found, but under the tree, wrapping a present was your mother.
An after-prison story
He pulls up to his babymotherâ€™s house and sees his son sitting on his bike in the front and talking to his cousins and uncles that are his age. He gets out of the car and smiles to himself as he reads his sonâ€™s lips: â€œIs that my daddy?â€ He closes the car door and his heart softens as his son jumps off his bike and runs toward him and says, â€œWhat up, Dad?â€ â€œEverything, baby boy. Everything.â€
What is lost in prison
One day I looked back and my youth was gone. What I have lost along the way has been scattered from prison cell to prison cell … all over America, pieces of my soul I will never get back. A living death, when I look around my cell I see nothing but a coffin.