Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer
by Richard Shelton



book review by Jeffrey Hillard
June 2008


Professor and poet Richard Shelton is a maverick. I will be candid at the beginning of this review: if there was a Hall of Fame for volunteer workers in prison, for prison ministries, or for innovative thinkers whose goal is helping inmates and formerly incarcerated inmates in various ways, Professor Shelton would be one of the strongest candidates for such a Hall, and would likely be voted in.

Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, Shelton’s fascinating new memoir that spans his 36 years as an intensely dedicated prison teacher, should be required reading for every person that works, mentors, or associates professionally with inmates or formerly incarcerated individuals, even if one does not care for poetry.

Why? Because Shelton clearly and convincingly dissects the evolution of the prison industry during the last 30 years, at least as it exists in the southwest region of the U.S. A volunteer or corrections officer can learn more from this personal narrative about the intricacy of prison life from an “outsider” than perhaps any recent book exploring the recent history of American penal institutions. Crossing the Yard is a seminal book.

To think that Professor Shelton, at one point early in his writing and teaching career at the University of Arizona, was not at all enthusiastic over teaching a poetry workshop in a state prison when presented the opportunity. He’d received a letter from an infamous Arizona inmate on death row requesting a visit; the inmate was fond of poetry. Shelton hesitated. He did not think he was up to it. He cherished the campus life and his writing workshops and literary courses in the university’s creative writing program. Shelton could not see how he could logically carry his knowledge of teaching poetry into a prison environment and have any success at reaching inmates.

It was a cautious start, as Shelton chronicles in Crossing the Yard. Stress the word “Volunteer” in Shelton’s life, for he spent many, many years crossing the desert southwest to get to a prison. This was long before the Arizona Commission on the Arts kicked in some funds to help with a couple workshop book projects. Although Shelton eventually received a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts to teach (and in a few cases team-teach) workshops, his story evokes how a routine grew into a loving commitment. He realized many of the men in his formative workshops were serious. Some, like Charles Schmid and J. Charles Green, were dedicated poets. They studied craft as if they were in one of his university workshops. Shelton has put many thousands of miles on his car over the 35-plus years he has been driving to prisons to teach inmates poetry.

It was Charles Schmid who first interested Shelton in making a poetry-in-prison connection. Schmid, convicted of murder, sentenced to be executed, and confined at Arizona State Prison in Florence, wrote Shelton asking him to visit upon reading a book of his poems. Shelton visited Schmid and realized his true interest: Schmid was serious about writing poetry.

Shelton formed a workshop in 1970 soon after his meeting with Schmid. Interestingly, Shelton’s relationship with Schmid continued even after the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in 1972. After a number of appeals, Schmid was eventually paroled and Shelton kept in close contact with him. However, Schmid was subsequently violently murdered, an occasion that devastated Shelton who had mentored Schmid, helped him polish his first book manuscript, and largely gave him a reason to live.

There were many others in Shelton’s continual workshops that intermittently inspired Shelton himself or provoked problems because of their frustrations, prison anxiety, or illness. For instance, take J. Charles Green. He was a prominent prison poet, in Shelton’s view. Very gifted. But, Green died suddenly and young in prison of presumably hepatitis due to his drug use. Shelton was deeply torn by his death. He did not like to lose such a talent.

The reader can surmise that Shelton was an amazingly dedicated teacher. But the tone of Shelton’s writing is layered with humility. He shares myriad stories of prison violence that he observed and heard about during his stints. These stories are never sensationalistic. One begins to understand that the more violence Shelton hears about, the more he cares for his workshop writers to embrace the tranquility, positive energy, and refuge poetry offers. With each turn of violence Shelton learns about, it seems the workshops – particularly at Florence – become more crucial to these few inmates’ survival. The group work is survival. It is renewal and transformative. Several writers in his workshop live for Shelton’s visits. Yes, as I mentioned, Shelton writes with the touch of humility. We know he is fostering their learning curve, but he is careful not to take too much credit. It gives the reader more reason to appreciate Shelton’s narrative.

Yet he can be blunt, both of individual students and of the criminal justice system. An inmate, Stephen Francis Xavier Dugan, frustrated him no end. Dugan was a bizarre and brilliant inmate – an attorney incarcerated at Florence – who apparently exhausted Shelton’s patience especially upon his release. He would badger Shelton to read his work and play mind games with him. Even in prison, Dugan published four books of poetry and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Writer’s Fellowship.

There was frequent danger in holding some of the workshops. Over the years, Shelton learned that more than one inmate felt the need to carry a weapon in prison and even in the workshop. He frequently wondered why an inmate carried a shank (hand-made, sharp-tip metal object) into the workshop. He discovered, in one case, that it was for protection. Yet Shelton always maintained and expected decorum amid the talk of poetry, amid the writing. At any time he was teaching a workshop, the men expected Shelton to arrive when scheduled and he did so promptly; one of the underlying themes of the book is Shelton’s dedication to teaching these men and how genuinely they received it. As a result, he made immeasurable impressions. They reacted to his teaching and insistence, and he challenged them.

Many of the inmate writers found outlets for their work in literary journals and anthologies. Shelton never hesitated in emphasizing outlets like publication. He wanted their voices to be heard. As the memoir progresses, it’s clear he treated his prison teaching with as much an eye toward advancing one’s work toward hopeful publication as he would a university creative writing major.

The inmates are regarded as his “students” in the book. During one stint, he brought in guest writers such as W.S. Merwin (a friend and regular visitor to Shelton’s home), Patricia McConnel (a formerly incarcerated individual herself), and Terry McMillan to speak to his workshop students. There was also the COSMEP Prison Project Newsletter in which a number of Shelton’s student-inmates appeared. It was edited by renowned literary activists Carol and Joseph Bruchac, whose work with fostering writing among incarcerated individuals is legendary. Shelton writes: “I have a copy of an old COSMEP [“Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers”] Prison Project Newsletter dated Spring/Summer 1981. The issue features ‘Arizona’s Incarcerated Writers,’ and on its front page is a photograph of Will Clipman and four of the men in the Arizona Correctional workshop [taught by Richard Shelton].” Other poets like William Aberg, a student of Shelton, were extremely talented and went on to publish books.

Shelton formed lasting relationships with several inmates, several of whom have been released. One of the more outstanding of his student-inmates and a very special case portrayed in the memoir is Ken Lamberton, who has gone on to publish popular poetry collections and anthologies. 

“I don’t believe in prisons,” writes Richard Shelton. He has a point. His own endurance as a teacher in prison was challenged and often by former, inimitable warden Harold Cardwell himself. It’s a known and documented fact now that Cardwell allowed indiscriminate violence to persist in his facility. He sanctioned violence as a way to communicate to inmates that he was solely in charge of their lives, and that he had unabashed control over them. In fact, Shelton bore witness to the origin of the Aryan Brotherhood in the Arizona prison system. The Brotherhood was formerly called, at its inception in Arizona, the High Wall Jammers (in 1976).

Yet, in spite of the obstacles, this is a success story. The efforts of Nancy Pierce of the Arizona Commission on the Arts to raise poetry awareness in prison through the likes of Shelton are significant. Shelton helped start Walking Rain Review, a literary journal showcasing his students’ poems. There are the Santa Rita (prison) and Cimarron Unit workshops Shelton started. There are many books that have been published by his student inmates and formerly incarcerated students.

Richard Shelton has clearly saved lives with his teaching, mentoring, and hope-giving. What’s most unique about Crossing the Yard is that, like the best poetry, it is not sentimental. Shelton’s prose has an edge that one can appreciate. For me, a diehard volunteer in jails and prisons, I could not stop reading about how his personal belief system gave him the strength to always perform the work he was called to do.

book cover