Writers take guests on emotional journey

By Eddie Herena

Stories by incarcerated writers swept members of the outside community into a world behind prison walls.

Sponsored by the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project, the reading was an opportunity for the incarcerated writers of San Quentin to share their work. Many of their stories articulated personal struggles within the criminal justice system and challenged the social stigma of incarceration, while others were imaginative expressions through spoken word or fiction.

Nearly 60 guests arrived to listen to the readings by members of Zoe Mullery’s creative writing class Brothers in Pen. Mullery has been teaching the class for 17 years, and this was the 11th annual public reading.

“I came here three to four years ago, and it was a real transforming experience,” said Tammy Cabading, who sat in the front row in the small performance space just beyond the Lower Yard in San Quentin. “It helped me understand my ignorance concerning criminal justice,” she added after hearing all 21 stories on Nov. 12.

“I love how the stories are really, really deep,” said guest and comedy writer Mike Larsen, who has written for the mid-’90s sitcoms Ellen, The Drew Carey Show and Real Time With Bill Maher. “Some of the guys are great writers and could very well be professionals if they weren’t here (in prison).”

Larsen has been visiting the creative writing class for about a year and is writing the “forward” for the “Brothers in Pen” next anthology.

For second-time guest Jennifer Zilliac, prison was always a traumatic place due to a painful, personal experience in childhood, but readings like the one on Nov. 12 have helped her overcome her fear.

“Listening to the writers was so moving; so much humanity was expressed. I feel really connected with the incarcerated here,” she said.   

Bringing together collective experiences, these readings helped the audience challenge common beliefs about prison and extend an ear to forgotten Americans, bringing forth what Mullery calls “the best form of love.” The readings allow the public to learn and consider issues in the criminal justice system from the experts – the prisoner himself, the man who lives it, and lives to tell it through writing.

“Wisdom comes from people who have hit rock bottom,” said Mullery’s sister and faithful supporter, Jennifer Martin.

The guests listened to stories of transformation, made possible through the art of writing. These stories often stay within prison walls, but many of the citizen participants left the event committed to relaying these stories to the outside world, to a society where most Americans don’t hear such stories and may not understand the realities of the prison system.

Darly Wells, an artist who attended the reading, said she was inspired by the writers of San Quentin. Wells’ exhibit Viral, now in San Francisco, explores how modern technology may increase information about police brutality but has not yet contributed to changing the policies and culture surrounding police misconduct.

Wells attended the reading in search of “inside voices” to enrich her exhibit and was particularly drawn to the pieces Stopping Animals, by Rahsaan Thomas, and What Do You Stand For, by Thedo “Noble” Butler.

“I’m going to follow up on these guys,” Wells said.

All the stories will be published in the sixth and latest anthology, which Mullery hopes she will no longer have to sell out of the back seat of her car. The new anthology can be ordered online by early 2017. See www.brothersinpen.wordpress.com

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