Education Afield: Balloons


In the common area of the veterans’ dormitory at the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC) in Tucson—in the middle of a hundred bunk beds for a hundred men—Madeline showed up like a found object, a weird little thing of art that beautified the place. She wore a sweater over her shoulders to protect her from the January chill that creeped into the dorm. Beads of rain from a late afternoon drizzle clung to her black, wavy hair. And, even from across the dorm, I noticed that Madeline had kind, compassionate eyes. She never removed her gaze from the person with whom she was speaking.

On that first visit, Madeline welcomed a handful of us into the dorm’s small, stuffy library, which also served as our poker room on Friday nights. We sat in flimsy plastic chairs around a folding table and introduced ourselves to Madeline and one another.

There was Mike, an Army vet who did a tour in Vietnam and was such a grumpy and morbid old guy that we called him Grimm. He’s been in prison ever since he was discharged. Grimm made things with his hands—figurines and picture frames and miniature fighter jets, all from cardboard and Q-tips. Ruckus was a Marine who spoke passionately about protecting Mother Earth to anyone who would listen. Bill—a Navy vet we called Old School—enjoyed arguing. Chad, an infantryman, always obliged Old School.

“I’m not quite sure why I decided to join a creative writing group,” Chad told us, as he rolled his eyes in Old School’s direction. “But now that I’m here, I might as well broaden my horizons.”

And there was my best friend Nate—an Army medic who served in Afghanistan—and myself, a former Navy reservist. I was a journalist before my prison life, so I had some experience as a writer. I was the only one.

After we all said something about ourselves, we focused our attention toward Madeline.

Madeline told us that she had an MFA in Creative Writing and had been visiting state and federal prisons for at least fifteen years, engaging incarcerated adults and juveniles, inspiring them to write their lives and telling them that they mattered. She couldn’t tell us her last name because the prison administration frowned upon it, but Madeline endeared herself to us and began building trust among us by mentioning that she’d been kicked out of a few prisons. She also said there was something new that she wanted to try, something she thought might be well-suited for incarcerated veterans, who had all done at least one honorable thing in their lives and might like the chance to serve purposefully again.

“I’m here,” she told us, “because our rivers are empty and our prisons are full. I think that we’ve locked up some of the leaders that we really need.”

Empty rivers, full prisons. Those words became a mantra for our little group over the following months. It took a lot more than repetition, however, for us to believe we were “leaders,” despite our military service.


Over the past decade, rehabilitative programs designed for incarcerated veterans have been launched in prisons across the country. It’s easier, I suppose, for taxpayers to empathize with vets who’ve committed crimes than to identify with those in the system who didn’t serve. Maybe it’s this compassion people muster for those of us who enlisted or were drafted that explains why so many volunteers visited the veterans’ dorm at ASPC-Tucson when I did time there.

The local volunteers came to lead addiction groups or share their experiences dealing with PTSD. They’d show up and thank us for our service, wearing collared shirts emblazoned with stars and stripes and ball caps repping Navy, Air Force, Marines or Army. I didn’t pay much attention to them, though. I did my last eighteen months of a twelve-year sentence in the veterans’ dorm and, by that time, I’d had enough of all the introspection and self-loathing that talk therapy inspires.

And honestly, I felt a little resentment toward the volunteers who only came to visit those of us who had served in the military. I never saw them make their way into other dorms on the yard, where prisoners who had not served were warehoused. As if the only honorable thing someone could do was to enlist and volunteer to die for the United States.

Then Madeline arrived, offering something she offered to prisoners on every level. Maximum security, minimum security. Adults, juveniles. Veterans and non-veterans. Something she said we could accomplish through writing.

Madeline works as a climate and food justice warrior and water activist, trying to compel our part of the world to conserve and harvest as much of it as we can. With her husband, Madeline takes a group of University of Arizona students to Costa Rica every year. She’s also a poet and the creator of an inside/out program for juveniles incarcerated in the Pima County Detention Center. She works with kids at Pima Vocational High School, too, inspiring them to write poetry and essays on themes of sustainability and community. The writings are then exchanged, anonymously, with the kids locked up in detention, who respond in kind.

What Madeline hoped we would do was similar to her inside/out program for juveniles: pseudonymous correspondence on everything from climate change to criminal justice.

“Letters and art from you will circulate to young leaders in our community, anonymously, grouped into packets,” she told us. In addition to the written letters, the packets would include “stories about leaders around the world who are taking risks to save rivers they love,” Madeline said. “Children they love. Their neighborhoods.”

“So, this ain’t gonna be creative writing? You want us to write letters?” Grimm asked.

Madeline assured Grimm, and the rest of us, that we could write without limitations. Write a personal essay or a poem, if we were so inclined, or just a letter, if that’s what felt natural, since we all had experience writing letters from prison. She even encouraged Chad to submit his sketch art if he preferred it to words.

And then Madeline passed around a stapled set of poetry, letters and drawings she said had been created just for us. They were from school kids she visited every week—kids deemed to be “at-risk.” One girl who called herself “Youngster” decided to write about her angst over the current state of politics and the chickens she was helping to raise at school. She even drew a stick-figure of one of them “because you probably don’t get to see too many chickens.” A kid we dubbed “Playa” gave us street wisdom and told us to “always keep it 100.” Another boy, “Diamond,” wrote to us: “I feel what you feel. I feel lonely, hopeless, lost in a vast ocean of broken dreams.”

There was also an unlined page with a short list of names, submitted by a girl stuck in jail:




Just below the list, there were two sentences:

“These are all the people working on my case. None of them knows anything about me.”

Madeline asked us to digest what we’d read and, in a few days, write something to the kids in response. We each had a different approach—Nate wrote a letter about a strange dream he’d had; Chad drew a picture of sea turtles; Grimm offered a limerick he said was inspired by the legendary Richard Shelton, who Grimm met long ago when Shelton led creative writing classes at ASPC-Tucson. For my part, I wrote a letter to Youngster, the girl who drew us the stick-figure chicken.

Her letter had reminded me of something from my childhood. While growing up in Houston, Texas, my elementary school organized a special event every year that involved index cards and balloons. Teachers collected the names of all four-hundred children at Post Elementary School, jotted them down on blue index cards along with our mailing addresses, and tied them to strings that led to pastel-colored, helium-filled party balloons. I guess releasing them into the blue yonder above was meant to make the world a little smaller, more conceivable for third-graders. The hope was that the balloons would travel far away into the jet stream and touch down in exotic lands, and we would eventually correspond with other children and learn about each other’s lives.

This rarely happened, of course. I knew of a few kids whose balloons flew over Houston and ended up in someone’s backyard. Maybe they’d make their way across the county. One boy--only one, out of the hundreds of balloons launched into the ether over the course of my elementary school experience--received a reply one year from a member of the French Parliament. (He was probably visiting Houston, on vacation, when he found this kid’s balloon.) But, in spite of our collective hope and endearing naivete, most of us--including myself--never received a letter in response or any notification that our balloons had landed anywhere.

Over the course of a few years in prison, I sent letters to my teenage daughter. Letters of hope, letters of endless apology. Like the balloons I sent out as a child in hopes of getting back some measure of love, they were never requited.

But for some reason, I truly believed my letter to Youngster--in which I told her about the balloons, about my own daughter, and about hope--would be returned. My faith was rewarded.

“I don’t understand how you’ve been able to make it this far,” Youngster wrote to me. “It’s inspiring. Be brave, caring, amazing, bold, humble, encouraging, loving, hopeful, great. Basically, be the best YOU you can be.”

“Stay strong, warrior,” she concluded. “You got this!”

And she signed off with another stick figure. A little boy holding a heart-shaped balloon. A balloon that had finally come back to me.

Joe Watson is an independent journalist and researcher for the American Friends Service Committee. He will be teaching the Poetry Center community class "Narrowing the Distance: Nurturing the Talent of Prison Writers," which starts in January 2018.