For most of the last three years, Tracy Schlapp and Danny Wilson have been working with a group of writers incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. Schlapp and Wilson’s writing program comes out of their nonprofit Bridgeworks Oregon, which is focused on art and music in prison.
Some of the writers in custody are serving long sentences, life sentences without the possibility of parole. Some have children — and grandchildren — they won’t likely ever see on the outside. More than 70,000 children in Oregon are impacted by incarceration.
The storytelling group is called Ground Beneath Us, and it uses prompts that come from school children’s questions — questions they may be too uncomfortable or afraid to ask an incarcerated family member directly. Some of the men’s essays and poems are published in the new anthology called “Prisons Have a Long Memory.” Schlapp is the creative director of Bridgeworks Oregon. She edited the anthology with Wilson, and she joins us to tell us more about the program and the process.
Kyle Hedquist’s essays appear in the book, and he served on the editorial board. He now works as a lobbyist with the Oregon Justice Resource Center after being granted clemency by Governor Kate Brown last year. He also joins us to share about how he spent his time the 28 years he served, his writing and his commitment to creating community.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For most of the last four years Tracy Schlapp and Danny Wilson have been working with a group of writers incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. The group stemmed from an earlier project to recreate Johnny Cash’s famous performance inside California’s Folsom State Prison. The storytelling group is called Ground Beneath Us. It uses prompts that came from the questions of middle and high school students. The resulting essays and poems have now been collected in an anthology called “Prisons Have a Long Memory.”
Tracy Schlapp joins us to talk about it. She edited the collection and is the creative director of the nonprofit Bridgeworks Oregon Kyle Hedquist joins us as well. His essays appear in the book. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1995. He served 28 years behind bars before he was granted clemency by Governor Kate Brown last year. He now works as a lobbyist with the Oregon Justice Resource Center. Welcome to you both.
Tracy Schlapp: Thank you.
Miller: Tracy first, you spent a lot of time over the last five or six years in Oregon prisons, not just the state penitentiary, but a lot of others as well. What started you out on this series of projects?
Schlapp: I have a very dear friend, Reiko Hillyer, who teaches inside out programs through Lewis & Clark.
Miller: We’ve talked about it a little bit, those are programs where people who are incarcerated and college students take classes together.
Schlapp: Correct. And she teaches a history of incarceration class. She was in my studio, and she saw a postcard that I had made that said “I’m encouraged by your presence.” And she said “I need some of these cards.” And I said “oh, what for?” And she said “I want to give them to the guys that I work with inside.” And she got this look in her eye. And I thought, I want to feel that way about my work.
Miller: Did you in the end, skipping forward five or six years?
Schlapp: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I just feel so privileged to have the opportunity to work with people that are working so hard at uncovering themselves through writing, but just also in conversation.
Miller: Did you have a connection to the corrections system before you did this work? Some kind of personal connection?
Schlapp: No personal connection.
Miller: So did you have preconceived notions from fiction or news media about what was going to happen when you stepped inside prison walls?
Schlapp: Of course you do. A picture is created for us, and it brings to mind the roughness of a place. But also, I was just so curious to get past that and see who I was going to meet. And I had come into contact with some people that had been doing work inside, and trusted them that this was an interesting place to explore.
Miller: As I noted in my intro just now, the first project before the writing group was that you helped put together a band to recreate Johnny Cash’s famous Folsom State Prison concert, which was in 1968. And you eventually put on concerts throughout the state of Oregon. I want to listen to part of a song from one of those performances. The band is called Luther’s Boots, and this is “25 Minutes To Go” recorded at Coffee Creek, which is Oregon’s only women’s prison.
Luther’s Boots [Song playing]: Well, they’re building the gallows outside my cell.
I’ve got 25 minutes to go.
And the whole town is coming just to hear me yell.
I got 24 minutes to go.
Well, they fed me some beans for my last meal
With 23 minutes to go.
But nobody asked me how I feel
With 22 minutes to go.
And I sing for the governor and the whole darn bunch
With 21 minutes to go.
And I called up the mayor, but he’s out to lunch
With 20 more minutes to go…
Miller: That is the band, Luther’s Boots, playing “25 Minutes to Go,” written by Shel Silverstein [and] recorded at Coffee Creek. Tracy, what stands out to you now, four or five years later, from those shows?
Schlapp: Well, as you can hear in that recording, you can just hear the joy, the clapping, the enthusiasm. We just started a program at Coffee Creek with a group of women to do some writing as well, and there was just these moments of connection that comes [from] having everyone listen to this music at once. And so that really always resonated, and kind of held me as we were moving through the project.
Miller: Kyle Hequist, what was it like for you to listen? You weren’t at Coffee Creek, but you did hear a performance by the same band when you were behind bars. Do you remember what it was like to hear live music?
Kyle Hedquist: It was pretty incredible. OSP had a history of bringing in different bands over the years, some big name bands had come in through the seventies and eighties, but that had kind of gone away. It had been about 10 years since we had a band come in. And of course, I didn’t know Tracy or Danny or anything about a band called Luther Boots. And they wanted to do this whole Folsom Prison Lineup, and I thought to myself “well, I don’t know what to expect,” but it sounded pretty cool to me.
Miller: It was something to do too, I imagine.
Hedquist: Yeah. And it was something that the whole prison was able to partake in because it happened on our main activity yard.
Miller: Is that unusual, to have everybody there do something at the same time?
Hedquist: Yes. Usually, because of the way the yard structures are, not everyone is outside all the time. They may be working, they may have other obligations. But this was such a large event that it garnered the attention of hundreds. I mean, 800 or 900 guys were out there stomping, clapping, hooting, hollering. And it was just fun! You heard Tracy talk about this atmosphere of just joy. And that’s something that you don’t experience on a daily basis, but it was something that was brought to us, and I was enthralled.
Miller: You said you didn’t know who Tracy was, or her creative partner in this Danny. Why did you decide to take part in Tracy’s writing group?
Hedquist: Well, part of it came during the event. I was the Lifers Club president at the penitentiary, and so I was helping to organize this event along with some other club presidents. This was all in an effort to raise money for the Healing Garden Project. And so it was really a concerted effort by all of the inmate-led clubs to come together and make sure that this event went off without a hitch. Because I was out and about and running around as I did, I just had the opportunity to meet Tracy and Dan, and they were just so energetic and had all these ideas, “can we do this, can we do that?” And of course, my head was like, “yes. How can we do this? How can we make it happen?”
Miller: How important had writing or storytelling been to you before you took part in this group?
Hedquist: So I want to say, like many other guys that I know, there’s times of reflection while you’re incarcerated. Not only reflecting on what brought you to prison, the choices that you made, the people that you hurt, but there’s also this idea of I want to write some of this stuff down so I don’t forget, or I can honor that memory.
What Tracy and Danny brought in was some structure. It wasn’t structure like you’d find on a college campus, but the idea that we could direct our writings, or that we could write about a topic as a group and then be able to talk about our writings as a group, and talk about editing, talk about messaging, talking about how are we answering these questions from these middle schoolers.
Miller: Tracy, why middle schoolers or high schoolers?
Schlapp: Well, like so much of this project, there was a thread, and we just kept on following it. They happened to send us these questions. We had started the storytelling project. Often you don’t want to start with a blank piece of paper. And so by handing these questions about what is life like? What does the food taste like? Do you dream at night? Are you afraid at night?
Miller: That was a striking question. And it made me think, I’m supposed to be this sort of sophisticated person who comes up with “smart” questions. I don’t think I would have asked that question to somebody who’s incarcerated, “are you afraid at night?” It’s a great question.
Schlapp: It’s a great question. And the thing was, I just basically handed out questions, and then I let the writers select the questions they wanted to answer. And so that was the other part of this, allowing them to sift through those moments. And Jimmy Kashi ended up writing a recipe for the book as a way of getting at not only what’s in the chow hall, but how he augments his passion for cooking in his block.
Miller: And his pride too. He calls himself one of the top 10 cooks behind bars.
Schlapp: I know, I know.
Hedquist: He probably is. He cooked for me many times. I love his rice balls.
Miller: Kyle, over the years we’ve talked to a lot of people who, most of them have been outside of prison, sometimes in as well, we’ve basically been taught this convention that you don’t ask people about their crimes. Certainly you don’t lead with it. But you did write about your crimes in an essay in this new collection. I’m curious why you made that decision to tell that story in a public place?
Hedquist: For me, I find it important for those of us incarcerated for whatever, to be able to talk about the choices and consequences that have impacted our lives in an effort to honor the memory of those that we’ve hurt, but also in an effort to prevent. There’s a real need from a lot of guys that are incarcerated, they want to prevent that next generation anyway that they can, whether it’s through storytelling, letter writing, presenting somehow. And with the limited mobility that the prison creates, I can’t go and talk to a group of high school students while I’m incarcerated. Maybe there’s an opportunity through an inside out class, or maybe there’s an opportunity like Tracy brought to us where we can write about this stuff that can be tough. These are not easy stories. Anyone in prison does not have a good story about how they got to prison. It’s a lot of hurt and trauma.
Miller: Kyle, you mentioned this earlier that one of the few things that you reliably have in prison is time that you can use in various ways, including perhaps to reflect on your life and your decisions that brought you there before. And you clearly did a lot of that. I’m wondering if taking part in this writing group changed the way those reflections worked for you? It wasn’t like you hadn’t already been thinking about your life before you met Tracy. So what did change?
Hedquist: Well, really, it was the line of questions. Like you mentioned earlier, “do you dream at night” or “what do you dream about” or “are you afraid at night” or “do you like the food that’s served in the chow hall?” Kind of these innocent-type questions. And for those of us that do think about, which I think most people think about, the choices that brought them to prison, those types of questions may not always be what we’re thinking about. So maybe we’re just thinking about the act that we were convicted of, and we’re not thinking about our childhood. We’re not thinking about the influences that surrounded us in our communities before the criminal act that actually brought us to prison.
Miller: It’s included in this collection, some of your writing about dreams in particular. It spoke to me. This is what you wrote: “When I first came to prison, my dreams included my high school friends and classes. I dreamt about school and the farm. These dreams seemed to last for years. The first time I dreamed of prison, I realized I was in prison dreaming about prison. I awoke in despair.” Do you dream of prison now that you’re out?
Hedquist: That’s a great question. I think I did at first. Many of my friends, almost all of my adult friends, are still incarcerated. Some have been released. There are times when I still dream about prison.
Miller: What’s it like to have most of your friends be behind bars, with you free here?
Hedquist: At first there was almost a sense of loneliness. After 28 years, you kind of develop a pattern, you develop habits. This is what I’m gonna do on Monday, this is what I’m gonna do on Tuesday, this is who I’m going to hang out with. And you realize quite quickly the world moves much faster out here, and you’re not surrounded by hundreds of men. I lived in a society where I was never more than three or four feet away from another person at any time. And that is not the case out here.
Miller: Tracy, when you created the writing and storytelling group, you made this very specific choice in terms of the syllabus to have the men read Grimm fairy tales. As in the Brothers Grimm, not lowercase g-r-i-m. Although they may be both. But Grimm fairy tales, written by Philip Pullman, the guy who wrote the Golden Compass. Why start with fairy tales for these men behind bars?
Schlapp: Well, they are these early stories that have kind of ambiguous morals. They often are considered like “don’t go into the woods because something bad will happen.” But [Pullman] writes a really excellent essay about following the path and not going too far off the path and knowing where you’re going in a story. And so that seems useful for storytelling. And then the other thing that seemed useful was the fact that there’s so many variations in a story. And I knew our writers were not just writers, they came from oral traditions, Native guys and Black guys. And so I liked the idea that they could read stories, but also there were stories that they had heard.
Miller: The classes that you held at the beginning, and the concerts that you put on, they were all in person. And then COVID happened. How did you shift?
Schlapp: Well it just became clear that I didn’t want to lose any momentum in these relationships. And so it was correspondence. Danny and I’d get in the car once in a while and drive down to Salem, and pick up stacks of paper and drive back. And the stories were in my studio with me, and I would just work on the stories. And I had this idea that we would be sitting side by side and we’d be talking together and working together on the stories, and that wasn’t gonna be the reality. And so what I needed to do was pivot and keep the momentum going, and so be a little more aggressive in the editing, and really make really big shifts that normally I would ask permission to make, and instead say “hey, what about this” to kind of keep the project going.
But also knowing that as lonely as we all were in our own homes, where we still had Netflix and so forth, these guys were in a very different situation. And so that’s that strand, maintaining that connection, just seemed really important.
And so we did end up having the opportunity to talk on the phone a little bit. But mostly it was just writing, to continue the relationship.
Miller: Kyle, did writing and storytelling take on different dimensions for you during the pandemic, when you were even more restricted in your exposure to the outside world?
Hedquist: For sure, the pandemic hit all the prison systems, hospital systems, it hit everyone. But prison is a place, like I said earlier, where you are only 4-5 feet away from other people. The pandemic didn’t change those parameters, we were still kind of stuck together. Having this writing project during that time, as reflected in many of the stories, we start talking about COVID, we start talking about what we see, what we hear. And so I think it was a strand that Tracy was able to maintain through a lot of effort on her part. But I was also knocking on doors and reminding guys to get their papers done because it was important. And I think it allowed us to finish this work. Had it not been for that effort, we may not have ever finished it.
Miller: People who’ve been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole are almost never granted clemency by governors. You were. What went through your mind when you got that news?
Hedquist: Oh, I would say some level of shock. Obviously I was hopeful. But as everyone around me, both inside and outside of prison reminded me, it’s not final until you actually see the paperwork.
Miller: I can imagine that being hopeful is a double edged sword. Both that it could give you a reason to move forward and to better yourself, but it could also set you up for being really disappointed.
Hedquist: Most certainly. And there were hundreds of guys that did not get clemency that had probably the same level of hope I did. And yet their answer was “not at this time.” And a great friend of mine, Trevor, once told me “there’s more hope per square foot in a prison than anywhere in the world.” And I believe that.
Miller: Tracy Schlapp, what do you think that you have learned from taking part in this class? This wasn’t an exercise in personal growth for you, obviously. But you’re still a human being who was being exposed to people whose lives were very different from your own. How do you think you grew from this?
Schlapp: Well, actually, it is funny because you don’t go into it thinking it’s about your personal growth. And then you come to realize that the guys are mentoring me, they are expanding my world view. They’re teaching me about hope. They’re making me rethink my assumptions.
Miller: What’s an assumption that you rethought, for example?
Hedquist: Well, there are a lot of assumptions about masculinity. Just last week, I sat in a group with a wide variety of men who really talked about their emotional life, and their willingness or unwillingness to talk about vulnerability, particularly in front of women. And I was like “yoo-hoo, lady present.”
There’s a kind of openness and a willingness to expose your flaws. And that’s a really great thing, as a middle aged woman, to have space for. Because so often you’re expected to kind of hold the line. It allowed me to just be more myself, I think.
Miller: Kyle, in the short time since you were released last spring you’ve started work for the Oregon Justice Resource Center. You married a woman who you met after you were released as well. What do you imagine year two is going to be like?
Hedquist: Well, I’ll tell you what, it was tough to even think that next month is a year. And it doesn’t really feel like that, it feels like six months. But working for OJRC, I’m a policy associate. So obviously I’m down at the capitol, working with legislators providing accurate information for them to review on different Senate bills. I feel like I’m still contributing to making society safer, to making the environment that a prison brings, putting a different face on that. Being able to share my experiences with legislators from a lived experience standpoint really drives home some of these, what we think of as criminal justice reform bills.
Miller: The sense I get from reading the many essays of yours that are in the book is that - you were young when you arrived, you were 18 - from an early time for you in prison, you had your own internal drive to make better choices, and to become a better person while you were behind bars. You had a kind of mentor who helped you arrive there. I imagine not everybody has that mentality when they arrive, or even after they’ve been there for a while. I’m curious, given that, if you were designing a prison system, or if you were an executive at the Oregon Department of Corrections, what would your priorities be in terms of making a system that lives up to its promise of actually rehabilitating people and preparing them well for their release? Because almost everybody is going to get out.
Hedquist: I think to start with, we have to reframe the purpose of incarceration. This idea that incarceration is separation from our families for a period of time, okay, that’s a given. If you’re sentenced to 10 years, you’re gonna be separated from society for 10 years. But like you just said, what happens that year 10? You’re now returned. So what are we doing for those 10 years? And that takes a lot of planning and priority.
But the opportunities that I was presented with are not available to every prisoner in every prison in Oregon. We have to have comprehensive programs. We have to increase ability for people to get a college education. We have to allow opportunity for individuals that are to that point, where they say “I want to be a better person. I want to make better decisions.” The Department of Corrections currently says “ok, good for you.” And that’s the end of the relationship. We need to come alongside those people when they’re at that point, and say “okay, this is how we’re going to get there,” so when they are released, they are better for society, and it creates a safer community.
Miller: Kyle Hedquist and Tracy Schlapp, thanks very much. Tracy Schlapp is the cofounder of the prison writing group, Ground Beneath Us. Kyle Hedquist took part in that program when he was serving some of his 28 years of a sentence that was life without parole. He was granted clemency last year by Oregon governor, Kate Brown.
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