TWIN FALLS — After more than 20 years in prison, Jason Burdett says he wants to feel part of something wholesome and good.
“It’s a very humane experience, and it’s way outside the lines of what you’d normally experience in prison, Burdett told the Times-News on Monday by phone from the correctional center near Boise.
Brown has volunteered at the prison since August. Every two weeks, he makes the drive to teach the three-hour creative writing class. It’s enrichment for the inmates, meaning they’re not receiving any class credits. Brown has about 25 men in his class, 10 of whom attend regularly and complete assignments.
Burdett said he and a few classmates have been in prison ever since they were teenagers. Burdett has been incarcerated since 1996, beginning when he was 18 years old. The Mountain Home man pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison in the death of his girlfriend’s 20-month-old son. The boy died from head and spinal injuries from being slammed headfirst against a wall.
The group of men who are participating aren’t your average prisoners, Brown said, and many are serving long sentences for violent crimes like Burdett’s.
“They’ve just reached a point in their prison life where they want to do something,” he said. “They want their lives to be meaningful. Some of them have been really rough customers.”
The class mostly focuses on creative non-fiction writing, Brown said.
“They write about their memories,” he said. “They write about their experiences in prison.”
Brown talks about Shakespeare and plot structures — “just basically scholastic stuff anyone can learn” — and brings a great presence, Burdett said. He said the experience has helped him feel part of something good, “rather than the typical prison experience.”
Brown plans use Burdett and other inmates’ writing to create a script. Local actors will perform it at 7:30 p.m. April 19 during CSI’s Stage Door Series at the college’s Fine Arts Center in Twin Falls. Brown is also trying to arrange a time a couple of weeks earlier where inmates can read their works during a performance at the prison. After the performance, Brown plans to continue volunteering. Oftentimes, inmates are used to meeting volunteers who come and go, he said, and eventually quit.
“I don’t want that to happen,” he said.
A couple of years ago, Brown and CSI’s director of community enrichment, Camille Barigar, started the Spring Art Experience at the college. It’s where Brown met a participant who works with prisoners. That sparked an idea to teach creative writing to inmates. In order to volunteer, Brown filled out an online application and went through a background check. That allowed him to go into the prison four times.
“Originally, I was going to go for four sessions, but it kind of became so rewarding and I saw the effect it was having,” he said. “I ended up doing it all the time.”
Once he hit the four-visit cap, Brown participated in an all-day training session in Boise led by the Idaho Department of Correction. He earned a “green badge,” which allows him to spend more time in the prison. The corrections department is “very conscientious of who gets to go in there,” Brown said, for the safety of volunteers and the prisoners.
Going into the prison for the first time, Brown tried to limit his expectations.
“I kind of, as an artist, I like to put myself in situations where I see potential but where I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. He said it challenges him and makes him a better person. “The first experience was just so incredible that I look forward to going every time.”
Initially, Brown extended an open invitation for inmates to participate in his class. The prison’s education department filtered out who would be a good fit. Brown often receives emails asking about adding more students.
“I have put that back in the hands of prisoners in the class,” Brown said.
He wants to know whether the person who wants to join would preserve the group’s vibe and be a positive addition.
“That gives them ownership of the class,” he said. “They take that very seriously.”
In order to continue participating in the creative writing class, inmates have to stay out of trouble and can’t have any recent disciplinary referral.
“They do have to keep on their toes a little bit,” Brown said. “So far, no-one has missed a class because of a disciplinary issue.”
During the class, inmates write about topics such as experiences that led them to prison and childhood memories. One inmate — who spent a lot of time in maximum security in solitary confinement — is working with Brown to write a one-man play.
“He just wants to get that experience out,” Brown said. “I think a lot of it is him dealing with it because that kind of experience changes a person psychologically.”
Creative writing helps inmates confront things in their life, and it’s therapeutic, Brown said.
“They want people to understand what it’s like to spend time in a prison,” he said.
Working with the inmates — and seeing the power art can have in any situation — has been a powerful experience for Brown. He said he has met inmates who have amazing, intelligent and creative minds.
As a result of the class, some inmates have pursued a satellite project by leading their own classes and encouraging other inmates to write, Brown said: “I’ve told them the best way to learn something is to teach it.”
TWIN FALLS — In the dark and through pouring rain, Luke Mickelson backed his truck and trailer up the driveway. Television celebrity Mike Rowe sat in the seat next to him.
This was far beyond what Mickelson, a Kimberly resident, had expected when he’d accepted that interview back in October — at the time, he’d been led to believe it was for a magazine’s web series. But in November, the Sleep in Heavenly Peace chief administrations officer got a visit from a full film crew and Rowe himself, right here in Twin Falls.
On Monday, the local nonprofit will be featured on the second season of “Returning the Favor,” a Facebook series hosted by Rowe. The actor is best known for his work on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” and CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”
But the best part is yet to be revealed — a special gift Rowe presented Sleep in Heavenly Peace; his way of returning the favor. Sleep in Heavenly Peace builds and delivers beds and bedding to children in southern Idaho who have none.
“This is such a game-changer for Sleep in Heavenly Peace,” said Scott Butler, president of the Twin Falls chapter. “It would blow your mind, the need in Twin Falls.”
Butler and Mickelson have known each other a long time. They grew up in Kimberly together, graduated high school together, and in May 2017, Butler agreed to head up the local chapter of his friend’s nonprofit.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace originated as a youth group project in Mickelson’s basement in 2012. But it wasn’t long before people stepped up to help, and the nonprofit was established. It now has more than a dozen chapters in the U.S., with plans to go international.
The adventure in Twin Falls last year started with a phone call.
“I had a really weird, kinda probing phone call asking what we do at SHP,” Butler said.
He later learned that Sleep in Heavenly Peace was being considered for the Facebook series, and he became the show’s insider.
When Mickelson got his interview the next month, he thought it was kind of strange, and he brought it up to his friend.
“I said, ‘Hey dude, there’s something big, but I can’t tell you,” Butler recalled.
Mickelson was being led to believe that an online magazine wanted to come out and feature his nonprofit for a web series. The magazine was based in New York.
“I was totally clueless,” Mickelson said.
As the dates for filming drew near, Butler told Mickelson he would need to take off three days of work. But his employer at the time wouldn’t let him.
“I quit my 18-year-old job, and I get no response from anybody,” Mickelson said.
Butler was still trying to keep his friend in the dark, but he felt bad. Mickelson had chosen to devote his life to his nonprofit, and he had no assurance of what would happen next.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t ask questions. People are not going to answer your questions. Just relax and it’ll be OK,’” Butler recalled.
Producers arrived at the same time Sleep in Heavenly Peace was hosting a training for all its chapter presidents.
“It was pretty much a cover-up to keep Luke off the scent,” Butler said.
The presidents were actually there for the show, but as more people got in on the secret, “we pretty much got put on a gag order,” he said.
When Rowe showed up and tapped on Mickelson’s shoulder during a build activity, Mickelson announced the celebrity’s presence to everyone.
But of course, they already knew.
“All of ‘em had these new T-shirts,” he said.
Rowe went with Mickelson the rainy night they made a delivery to one of the homes receiving a bed. The Twin Falls chapter receives about 10 applications a week for single beds or bunkbeds, Butler said.
Inside the home, Rowe saw the children had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Mickelson said he later expressed surprise, but most recipients don’t even have that much — just a pile of clothes or blankets on the floor.
Meanwhile, Butler coordinated all past recipients, volunteers, family members and friends that he could find to get together for a big reveal the next day. More than 300 people showed up to see Rowe “return the favor” and gift the nonprofit with something that will significantly impact operations moving forward.
That donation will be revealed Monday night, when the episode goes live on Facebook, kicking off the show’s second season. You can find episodes of “Returning the Favor” at facebook.com/ReturningTheFavor.
Mickelson doesn’t know exactly when the show will go up, but he estimates it’ll be around 10 p.m. Sleep in Heavenly Peace will host a reveal party and showing at 456 Madrin St. The event starts at 9:45 p.m. and everyone is welcome to attend.
JERUSALEM — In its most serious engagement in neighboring Syria since fighting there began in 2011, Israel shot down an infiltrating Iranian drone Saturday and struck Iranian targets deep in Syria before one of its own jets was downed.
The sudden escalation offers what could be a harbinger of what lies ahead as the Syrian fighting winds down and an emboldened Iran establishes a military presence that Israel vows it will never accept.
Israel has issued several stern warnings of late about the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli Cabinet just held a meeting near the Syrian border to highlight the new threats, which it attributes to Iran’s growing confidence given the success of the government of Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war thanks to their support.
Israel called the drone infiltration a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty” and warned that Iran would be held accountable for its meddling, raising the specter of a larger confrontation in an area that has remained largely stable since a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
“This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman convened the top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv for long hours of emergency consultations throughout the Jewish Sabbath to discuss their next steps.
Netanyahu said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and vowed to strike back hard.
“Iran seeks to use Syrian territory to attack Israel for its professed goal of destroying Israel,” he said. “Israel holds Iran and its Syrian host responsible for today’s aggression. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security.”
Israel also appealed to the United Nations Security Council to denounce Iran’s aggression and “put an immediate end to Iranian provocations.”
Israel would not confirm whether its aircraft was actually shot down by enemy fire, which would mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war.
Israel fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah — Lebanon’s Iranian-backed political party and militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction. Though Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, it has struck weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah — which is fighting alongside Syrian forces — almost 100 times since 2012.
But Israel has refrained from striking Iranian sites directly. Syria has also repeatedly said it will respond to Israeli airstrikes but has rarely returned fire. Both of those trends came to an abrupt end Saturday as a rapid escalation played out in the early morning hours.
At dawn, Israel said it shot down an Iranian unmanned aircraft that penetrated its airspace and then destroyed the Iranian site in central Syria that it said launched it. Upon their return, Israel’s jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the pilots of one of the F-16s had to eject and the plane crashed in northern Israel. One pilot was seriously wounded and the other one lightly.
In subsequent attacks, the Israeli military said it struck four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, causing significant damage. The Israeli jets again faced a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft missiles but returned home safely, as large explosions were reported in Syria and warning sirens blared in northern Israel.
Israel says the strikes destroyed the main command and control bunker of the Syrian military and marked its most devastating assault against Syria in decades.
Iran denied Israel’s shooting down of a drone, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasem calling the account “ridiculous,” while the joint operations room for the Syrian military and its allies insisted the drone had not violated Israeli airspace and was on a regular mission gathering intelligence on Islamic State militants.
Regardless, Hezbollah said Saturday’s developments signaled a “new strategic phase” in engaging Israel, which has been mostly off the guerrilla group’s radar as it has been knee-deep in the fighting in Syria.
Meanwhile, four more Turkish soldiers have been killed in northern Syria, the Turkish military announced late Saturday, bringing the day’s death toll to 11 in what has been the most lethal day since Ankara’s offensive on Syrian Kurdish militia began.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced earlier that a military helicopter was “downed” in the Afrin operation. Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan didn’t mention by name the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, but hinted they were to blame. The country’s prime minister walked back on the comments soon after, saying the cause of the helicopter’s crash was not yet clear and investigations were ongoing.