“My Nephew and I Escape from Prison” By Kevin Ridgeway


My Nephew and I Escape from Prison

he’s technically inclined enough
at just six years old
to operate most tools 
building things like a filthy
Frank Lloyd Wright
obsessed with the idiosyncrasies
of each claw machine
he intends to break ground with
a shovel and begin digging
his hand like one of his
beloved blue print envisioned
crayola claws until there is a hole
big enough for us both to get
to the other side where I’ll be
charged with explaining to
people that we are prisoners
of a psychological spectrum
we refuse to serve needless
time we could spend building
things, writing poems and on
parole from the menace of
social stigma we are too
distracted by our gifted
obsessions to waste time
paying attention to as
we find the miracles in
the attics of our minds,
minds no one quite has
like the two of us.


About the Author: Kevin Ridgeway is the author of Too Young to Know (Stubborn Mule Press).  Recent work can be found in Slipstream, Chiron Review, Nerve Cowboy, Main Street Rag, The American Journal of Poetry, Big Hammer, Trailer Park Quarterly and So it Goes:  The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.


More By Kevin Ridgeway:

Sally with the Accent

Five Hundred Channels and Nothing On


Image Credit: Vincent Van Gogh “Prisoners Exercising” (1890)


“I don’t want this poem to be about the death penalty, but it is” By Rebecca Schumejda




Before my brother’s incarceration, I held many beliefs that I now grapple with; one is my once vehement view embracing an eye for an eye, the law of retribution. The idea once seemed simple, if you do wrong, you should suffer an equivalent consequence. The problem is I interpreted this guiding principle through the kaleidoscope of my own limited experience, an experience that did not take life’s complexity or the fallibilities of the justice system into account. The variables are endless, for example just pick up Anthony Ray Hinton’s new book, The Sun Does Shine, which discusses how he survived three decades on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. The number of death row inmates who were set free is absolutely staggering. Then of course, you have to consider mental illness and countless other factors when considering retaliation in lieu of a more magnanimous alternative.

Here’s the thing, I never thought I would be standing on line, shoes in hand, waiting to walk through a metal detector at a maximum-security prison to see my little brother. I never thought I would sit across from someone whom I once knew as the kindest, gentlest person and question every conviction I ever held about him and about all my perceptions. I never thought someone I loved would cause others, including myself, such intense pain by committing an inane act, an act still unfathomable to all affected. Here’s another thing, sometimes you cannot make sense of a tragedy no matter how hard you try. That aside, I want to believe that if you are willing to look at your experiences, even the most painful ones, as opportunities to learn then you will grow as a person and you may even be able to help others along the way. I have to constantly remind myself that good can come from a tragedy, that all is not lost. I use what I know, poetry, as a catalyst for thought and discussion, the chance to make people feel less lonely. I believe poetry is a good place to start any conversation.


I don’t want this poem to be about the death penalty, but it is

After our family’s hamster cannibalized three of her newly born babies,
I placed her into isolation, an old tar bucket I found in the garage.
I don’t tell my daughter this when she asks if she can get a pet hamster,
instead I remind her of the fish she fails to feed and the cat litter I clean.
I don’t tell her how I believed in the death penalty when I carried
that tar bucket outside, dug a hole in the snow, dropped the hamster in,
and buried her alive. I don’t tell her how, shortly after that, my parents
called my brother and I to dinner. Remorseless, I scooped a heaping
serving of mashed potatoes on to my plate and didn’t notice my brother
crying. I almost forgot how he left the table, without explanation,
ran outside, dug up the hamster with his bare hands, brought her into
his bedroom and rocked her for hours. I tell my daughter to ask her father
because I know he’ll say no. He doesn’t want to deal with another
caged animal who will eventually be forgotten by everyone except me.
I don’t tell her I believed in an eye for an eye until her Uncle,
that small boy who cradled that hamster, murdered someone we loved.
I remember their tiny pink bodies ripped apart and strewn over the woodchips.
I remember thinking what kind of animal could do something so disturbing?
They never even had the chance to open their eyes. I tell her to stop
begging, but I don’t tell her how our scent on the newborns may have
triggered the massacre, how the hamster may have feared a lack of resources,
or was in shock after giving birth. My daughter cradles this want in her
bones. She asks why not as if there is an answer that will satisfy either of us.


About the Author: Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Falling Forward (sunnyoutside press), Cadillac Men (NYQ Books), Waiting at the Dead End Diner (Bottom Dog Press), Our One-Way Street (NYQ Books) and several chapbooks including Common Wages, a joint project with poet Don Winter. She received her MA from San Francisco State University and currently lives with her family in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is a co-editor of the online publication Trailer Park Quarterly.


Image Credit: “Snow Scene” By Bruce Crane. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Review of James and Jonathan Humphries’s Windham’s Rembrandt

Windhams Rembrandt Humphries

A Review of James and Jonathan Humphries’s Windham’s Rembrandt

By Ira Kelson Hatfield

Several years ago, I found myself working weekends as a tech in a local drug rehab center in the Midwest. I was nineteen years old and fresh out of a three-year stint working food service. As far as experience… well, I got in on account of my father knowing one of the therapists. I remember that first day of work, sitting in the cafeteria for about twenty minutes and filling out the necessary paperwork that would make me an actual employee. After that, I was tossed unceremoniously out on the floor, amongst the patients, with little more than a good luck.

Over the next year or so, I became privy to a world whose existence had previously eluded me, and, as far as I can tell, still eludes the vast majority of that part of our society known as supposedly normal. There was a language there amongst the patients. In fact, it went beyond a language. It was a culture—unique and held together by the knowledge that addiction has a set of claws. Claws that did little to differentiate between class, age, or race.

For those fortunate enough not to find themselves working in such a facility, Windham’s Rembrandt, a memoir shadow written by Johnathan Humphries about his father, offers a doorway into the heart of this secret subculture. The book starts out much the same way as my experience, with James Humphries being dropped into the Texas penal system as an art instructor with next to no direction.

Humphries describes his first penitentiary stint as “a bit medieval,” commenting on the experience of putting his identification in a bucket at the front gate to be hoisted up to the guard tower for verification. He details his environment in the sharp detail of an artist, drawing the reader into the steel and wooden world he inhabited. The world he enters is one of distrust and false calm, and we see his artist’s eyes expressly in his description of the first class he teaches at his second institution of employment, referred to ominously as only the Psychiatric Treatment Center: “Steel cables and wheel bearings sang in a hissing exhalation, which ended in the heavy metallic downbeat of numerous doors closing in concert.”

At the Center, Humphries sees boys who grew up down the street from him mixed in with the kind of hard and ruthless looking men he had perhaps more stereotypically expected to see in such a place. He learns to discard his definition of a convict. He discovers an entirely new culture with its own set of norms and rules. It’s a harsh culture, one built upon aggression, fear, and ignorance. In the midst of this primal subculture, he is given a key piece of advice from another teacher named Mary Oliphant, “Never turn your back on your students,” she warns. “What they can get into, they will get into… and then some!Oh, and always be prepared to give positive advice whenever asked.” These words frame the way Humphries approaches his students throughout the remainder of the book.

From the beginning, Humphries lets the reader in on his insecurities, asking himself if he will even be taken seriously. Often times he is not. He points out that while they make no trouble, many of his students only come to class in an effort to get out of working outside. This lack of respect is mirrored in the practical jokes he must deal with. A swastika-laden Mickey Mouse is painted during a busy class and hung in the hall to incite violence. A papier-mâché .38 pistol is stuck in the face of a visiting Texas education agent. A tarantula is snuck into the room and dangled over Humphries’s face. As he draws the reader into the complexities of his world, Humphries details his frustration, and, more importantly, the lessons he learns in dealing effectively with an otherwise ignored subset of society.

From his pioneering experiences at the Ferguson Unit with a population of mostly first-time offenders all the way through his harrowing time at the Psychiatric Treatment Center, Humphries reveals to us increasingly dangerous encounters until the story’s pinnacle, during which he meets a convict named Albert—a mute giant imprisoned for cutting a woman into small pieces, piling up those pieces, and covering them with sugar and flour. Humphries dictates these surreal experiences with the straightforward and brusque diction reflective of his years of military service.  During his first interactions with inmates, Humphries describes the similarity in prison staring contests to the unwritten marine code he was accustomed to, “Men are always sizing one another, and when a man cannot look you in the eye he is either hiding something, not talking you seriously or is just plain blind.”

The skepticism with which Humphries is repeatedly confronted reminds me of the first time I met an art therapist. For the first several months of her employment, I too was skeptical. One afternoon I observed a patient as he attempted to draw a picture of a wolf—a representation of his addiction—his whole body shaking from alcohol withdrawal. In my mind, this had no real purpose. Later, I saw one such man pin up the picture he had drawn to represent his own addiction and, with each complement, he began to gain the confidence he so desperately needed to keep going. It was at this point I finally realized my own lack of awareness about the healing benefits of art therapy and started to give credence to the field as a whole. In much the same way, a great deal of respect from his colleagues is gained when, with continued patience and perseverance, Humphries manages to coax two words from Albert—the first words anyone at the facility has ever heard him utter.

When Humphries is questioned by a staff member as to why he’s willing to speak so freely to a former contract killer with a history of violence, Humphries replies, “Well, he feels comfortable in my class. So if a student wants to express themselves to feel better, why not?” Humphries remembers the experience, writing, “Something about what the E&R [Education and Recreation] man said didn’t sit well with me. I knew the men in prison had all done some sort of wrong, but there is more to a man’s nature than his actions.” This sentence is perhaps the best indicator of Humphries’s outlook as he wades through a prison system brimming with unique, complicated stories, each connecting somehow to the others only to, in the end, reveal a greater overarching message of humanization.

A champion for the voiceless prison population of the 1970s, this memoir creates as close an image as can likely be had of Humphries’s time in the Windham prison system. Perhaps the most powerful element of this book, however, is the peculiar mix of empathy and militant seriousness concerning the prison system and those locked away inside of it. The authors successfully create real people in a real place—complex prisoners who are rendered neither as misunderstood victims nor as irredeemable villains. Each man is his own self, a new story with its own title. The way Humphries draws these characters echoes back to the advice he was given from his colleague early in the book: He does not trust the men he works with, but he encourages them every chance he gets.


James and Jonathan Humphries, Windham’s Rembrandt. CreateSpace, 2012: $14.99 (print)/$8.99 (digital).


Ira Kelson Hatfield is a creative writing major at the University of Southern Indiana.  His poetry appears in the Apeiron Review, and he is an avid collector of hobbies. 

Location, Location, Location

A mural by graffiti artist Dolk at Halden Prison in Norway. Photo credit: FastCompany.com.

My cousin, Mark Unger, finds himself unexpectedly in prison, and has turned to writing as a sanity outlet. This essay was one of this year’s winners in a creative writing competition sponsored annually by the Prison Creative Arts Program based at the University of Michigan. The winning writers will be honored at a ceremony in Ann Arbor next month, and the winning works will be published in an anthology later this year.

I salute Mark, not only for his writing talent, but for the strength and grace with which he’s coped with setbacks that would plunge most of us into an abyss of despair. I’ll write more about the criminal justice system next month. READ MORE