Neto's Tucson: Writing professor helps inmates find a purposeful voice
Every Saturday, University of Arizona English professor Erec Toso packs paper, books and pencils into boxes, and drives to the classroom. But before he enters, Toso walks through a gauntlet of armed guards and locked doors.
His classroom is in the Arizona State Prison on Wilmot Road, southeast of Tucson. He voluntarily teaches writing to inmates.
For the past year, Toso, 53, has taught poetry and prose through the creative writing workshops that retired UA regents English professor Richard Shelton and his wife, Lois, began in 1974.
With the exception of a couple of Saturdays, Toso has met every week with inmates, at two different units, not only teaching but helping inmates develop their writing skills. Since the privately funded workshops' inception, a number of inmates have had their poems and stories published in various journals, including Walking Rain Review, produced by inmates and ex-inmates of the state's prisons.
"What makes this work is trust," said Toso.
It's a trust that goes both ways. The inmates trust Toso to show up every week and Toso trusts the inmates, will focus on metaphors, haikus, narratives and other components of writing and genres.
Since its started, the creative-writing program has produced successful writers, even if they remain incarcerated.
A few of the graduates have become published authors, including Jimmy Santiago Baca and Ken Lamberton.
Shelton and Lamberton are editors of Ocotillo Review, the workshop literary journal that will replace Walking Rain. The Lannan Foundation of Santa Fe and the UA Poetry Center support the workshops and publication of the journal.
While most people outside the prisons' razor wire fences dismiss inmates because of their crimes, Toso welcomes those who want to learn and write.
"They made mistakes," said Toso. "But that's only a small part of who they are."
Writing gives the workshop participants the opportunity to "free" themselves through their writing.
"Some guys come to the workshops because their lives depend on it," he said - not literally, maybe, but figuratively.
Toso said they are all motivated, much more than many of his UA students. There is a waiting list for the prison workshops.
The workshop writers are hungry to write and to have others, through the workshop critique process, help shape and improve their work, said Toso.
The inmates don't dwell on their prison experience in their writing but take a wider, deeper view. Toso called it "life writing."
Toso was born in Sierra Vista, the son of a career Army officer. But by high school his family lived in Wisconsin, where he attended college.
He returned to the desert to earn graduate degrees at the UA. He taught English in Mexico, and at Tucson and University high schools before joining the UA faculty. Toso authored "Zero at the Bone - Rewriting Life After a Snakebite," published by the UA Press in 2007. He also has published works in literary journals.
This is not Toso's first entry to teach in prisons. In the mid-1980s for two years he taught in prison through the Pima County Adult Education program.
Teaching literacy is what Toso does.
And he believes teaching writing to inmates serves us in the long run. It gives inmates a positive purpose, even in their confined lives.
The writing requires participants to get honest and self-critical, with a goal of making better choices. And the writing experience, he said, offers them redemption.
"It's a life-changing experience," he said. "Even if they never publish anything, it's time well spent."
Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at email@example.com or 573-4187.