Many people in the San Quentin writing community are familiar with East Oakland Times and its publisher, Tio MacDonald. Dime after dime goes to his Global Tel Link account to keep in tele-phone contact with the more than 120 people in his literary group of incarcerated people all over the state.
A few months ago, I got my hands on one of his publications, Learning Curve, by Death Row inmate Johnny Duane Miles. The story was powerful, but it was the pref- ace really caught my attention.
JH: In the Introduction of Learning Curve, you said that you correspond with around 120 inmates. How do you manage that?
TM: The East Oakland Times is a full-time endeavor.
I accept calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. In 2018, I spent over 740 hours on the phone with incarcerated people. The only way I could imagine creating liter- ary works beneficial for both citizens and inmates was to be fully available to the people willing to work with me.
Many people call just to talk. Death Row inmates have a profound need for relationships outside of prison. My work is a balance between an act of compassion for individuals and a concentrated effort to develop writings of literary and public merit.
JH: What have you learned about taking risks in telling the stories of incarcerated people?
TM: I believe that, as people, it is in taking risks that we move forward. By risk, I mean anything done for the sake of others’ happiness or well-being, because, the most important lesson from my interactions with incarcerated people includes writing, phone calls, and visits to now over 25 people, is to take risk. The East Oakland Times is a type of Northern California built in a garage production. The currency at this point that keeps the lights on is the relationships I have formed with people, primarily incarcerated people. The risk I took to write my student and then to reach out to people at SanQuentin and other prisons has been for me a verification of the adage that it is better to give than receive. I understand that all people have needs, and here in California we also have wants, but life ultimately is in considerable proportion about how we treat and respect others.
JH: Why are you interested in the stories of incarcerated people?
TM: I pursued my correspondence with the incarcerated knowing two things, the reputation of present-day San Quentin as a rehabilitation- focused penal institution that heavily emphasizes the liberal and creative arts and that I wanted to create a publication with incarcerated writers. I had never interacted with persons in prison before reaching out to a student of mine, who is im- prisoned with a life sentence. Through correspondence, I began to meet the incarcerated people with whom I would produce a collection of uplifting stories for the people of East Oakland. The work was called Rehabilitation and has been distributed by hand, without cost to the recipients, to over 200 people on the streets of East Oakland.
After Rehabilitation, a few dedicated incarcerated ghostwriters and I developed the My Crime Series, which is a collection of biographies on the incarcerated. These stories are meant to candidly communicate the upbringing, life experience, character and motivations of the incarcerated in order to grant the broader public an understanding of the men and women in California prisons.
In my interactions with the incarcerated, I came to learn of the life experiences of men and
women in prison. I was shocked to hear of the abuses, influences, temptations and life experiences of many incarcerated people. TheMy Crime series is meant to produce empathy for the sake of California citizens’ better under- standing and better evaluation of who the incarcerated are and why each is in prison. The My Crime series accomplishes several goods in that the stories shed light on the mitigating factors contributing to crime in California and the subjects telling their stories gain a sense of giving back.
JH: What is public’s interest in stories from incarcerated people?
TM: The reviews on the My Crime series as well as Learning Curve, have been favorable. Looking at the incredible impact of the pod cast, Ear Hustle has had is encouraging. I aim to create 20 My Crime series books so a wide range of life experiences can be brought to public attention.
East Oakland Times, LLC
P.O. Box 11572
Oakland, CA 94611