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Photo Illustration By PAT SUTPHIN, TIMES-NEWS 

Co-creators of the Idaho State Correctional Facility creative writing class Camille Barigar, left, and Shane Brown, right, pose for a portrait April 20 at the College of Southern Idaho Fine Arts Building in Twin Falls.

Sentences: Prison creative writing program allows inmates to find their writing voices, reflect on life

"How the f—- is this going to affect my life at all?”

It was on the first day of class at the Idaho State Correctional Center that creative writing instructor Shane Brown was confronted with this question from an inmate.

As the class of 25 quickly thinned out, the answer was clear: for some prisoners, not much. Inmates who questioned the importance of writing and art were quickly weeded out. Most were just trying to find a distraction, trying to find some way to escape the boredom that they found in the routines they repeated hundreds, possibly thousands, of times.

This was a class for the people who wanted to learn. This was for the inmates who really wanted to change. But the question still remained: What would they get out of this?

Brown initially planned to visit the Boise prison just four times. He prepared to teach the class and coax out strong writing so the inmates’ pieces could be performed by professional actors for the College of Southern Idaho’s “Stage Door” series put on by the school’s fine arts department.

Brown teamed up with Camille Barigar, the director of community enrichment, to put the program together. They figured the prisoners’ writing would make for a thought-provoking show touching on an aspect of humanity not often explored. They recruited Lydia Sakolsky-Basquill, founder of the dance troupe Project Flux, to add a physical element to the performance.

They were going to teach the class and use the writing for a performance at CSI. It didn’t start out as a way to let prisoners find their voices. The plan wasn’t to get them in front of a crowd to perform their pieces.

But after the first day of class, the trio did some soul searching. What started as a pet project turned into a mission.


CSI Professor Shane Brown leads a peer critique April 27 during a creative writing class at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. Brown was a co-creator of the program, along with Camille Barigar. 

Now, almost a year later, Brown, Barigar and Sakolsky-Basquill make the drive to the Idaho State Correctional Center every two weeks on their own time and gas. The trip, they said, was always worth it. They had grown protective of their students, and they couldn’t let them down.

“I don’t know when this project will end,” Brown said. “I want writing to reinforce the fact that they are human.”

Back to school

The creative writing class is the first partnership between the Idaho State Correctional Center and CSI. The results have been universally positive, said David Mehlhaff, education program manager at the prison.

An inmate once told Mehlhaff that the workshop is more than just writing – it gives him the rare opportunity to interact with people from outside the prison.

The creative writing class encourages reflection on who the prisoners are, what their existence means and why they committed the acts that landed them in prison. There is often a shift in how they view life, Mehlhaff said.

“This isn’t a traditional class,” Mehlhaff said. “It gives them a voice for their soul.”

The highest level of traditional schooling offered in Idaho state prisons is a GED diploma. According to Idaho Department of Correction data, almost half of Idaho inmates enter prison without a high school diploma or GED certificate.

“I’ve worked with the department for 24 years,” said Julie Oye-Johnson, director of education services at the prison. “The change that comes with inmates after education is incredible. They learn to have different views of themselves.”


Byron Lee Sanchez collects his numerous folders and notebooks April 27 during a creative writing class at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. 

Brown’s class isn’t the only college-level class taught at the Idaho State Correctional Center – there’s also a debate club put on by volunteers from Boise State University. To participate in extracurricular classes, inmates must have at least a GED diploma and must be free of disciplinary offenses. Oye-Johnson said it’s a rare opportunity for higher-level classes to come into prison, so most participating inmates take it seriously.

“You’ve got a place where these guys are outside, figuratively, of the barbed wire,” said Marla Archibald, the prison’s academic instructor.

Archibald loans her classroom to the creative writing class. She appreciates that Brown treats the students like adults, which is hard in an environment where so many inmates spurn continuing education.

“A lot of convicts just give up,” Archibald said. “They ask ‘what’s the point of learning?’”

A benefit with the creative writing class, Archibald said, is that the students have to be vulnerable in front of their fellow inmates. Brown’s class offers them a unique chance to get outside of their cliques and coexist. Through writing, they can share their pasts and their fears.

Under normal prison circumstances, Archibald said, “Guys who are vulnerable here are chewed up and spit out.”


On April 6, there are six days left until the prisoners perform. Brown, Barigar and Sakolsky-Basquill make their bi-weekly trek to Boise to help the students practice.

At the prison, Archibald’s classroom sits down a corridor with gray walls. The classroom is bright and the walls are adorned with football stickers to honor students who passed GED courses.

The inmates, sitting at their desks before class starts, joke about what they’ll wear to their performance.

“I’m thinking of wearing my greens,” says Daniel Alonzo, Prisoner No. 115560.

“That’ll be embarrassing if we wear the same thing,” says Jacob Dumars, No. 97876.


Joshua King laughs as he brainstorms ideas with other members of his creative writing class April 27 at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. King is a common source of comedic relief in the class. 

When the trio of class instructors arrives, Brown stands at the front of the class and delivers an impromptu speech. He encourages the class not to be intimidated by the audience. He says to perform successfully, they must trust one another.

Before beginning rehearsals, they must first address the elephant in the room: the absence of Michael Wright, No. 66753.

Wright was a prominent figure in the prison’s black and Islamic communities but had recently been moved to Karnes County Correctional Center in Texas because of a lack of space and mattresses in Boise. He was one of four students in the class transferred to Karnes County.

Jeff Ray, the prison’s public information officer, said county jails typically handle overflow prisoners from the state correctional center. But Idaho’s swelling incarcerated population left no room for Wright and the others in county jails, Ray said, so they had to be moved to Texas.

Wright’s absence was felt that day. The inmates wanted Wright’s friend to come in to perform his pieces, but the three Twin Falls instructors were adamant that the other inmates perform them instead.

“I’m not talking about getting the voice. I’m talking about the representation,” said Jason Burdett, No. 56361.

Burdett is a large man with a layer of tattoos covering his body. He has been in prison for more than 20 years, and he’ll be there for the rest of his life. He said he’s seen a lot of people break down in prison, but he’s one of the fortunate ones who found a purpose.

In 2011, he started doing some heavy self-reflection on who he was. He learned to crochet, learned braille, and took every class he possibly could. Burdett became a positive force within the prison walls.

“I don’t want to be in here, but while I’m here, I can do good,” Burdett said.

Aside from the occasional teasing at one another’s expense, there is a real sense of camaraderie in the class. Everyone is on the same level. No one is exempt from criticism, but there is an unquestioned star among them.


Byron Lee Sanchez writes down comments on one of his pieces as he is critiqued by his peers April 27 during a creative writing class at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. Sanchez often stole the spotlight with his unique stories

Byron Sanchez, No. 112101, has a dark, thick beard, and tired eyes that belie his razor-sharp wit. And can he ever write.

After high school he had a scholarship to study English at the University of Rochester. He passed on the full ride, however, because of the death of his mother. Nothing sounded worse than trying to play the part of a happy college student.

The class buzzes when it’s Sanchez’ turn to read his newest work. He writes droll stories about saloons, hilarious odes to his favorite tobacco brands and heartbreaking stories from his past. His selected pieces for the performance are a sampling of all three.

It’s almost time for the main event.

‘A night of sunshine’

The audience files into the meeting area on April 12. Rows of chairs are lined up, facing a podium and a row of chairs where the inmates sit. Alfredo Roman, No. 20279, plays guitar in the back corner. As a jazz musician, he appreciates getting back into his comfort zone.

Brown heads up to the lectern first. He tells the audience he’ll keep it short; brevity is the soul of wit, after all.

“I’m so proud of these guys. They wanted to have a voice,” Brown says. “In class, we talked about writing for your audience. Gentlemen, this is your audience, and this is your purpose.”


Alfredo Roman listens to the peer critique of his story April 27 during a creative writing class at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. Roman, a jazz musician, played guitar at the prison performance. 

The audience applauds, but Brown bristles.

“Before we start, can we hold applause until the end of the show?” Brown says.

When the first reader finishes, someone in the back of the room claps a few times before trailing off, remembering Brown’s strict instruction. For the second reading, Jason Burdett reads his piece, “The Challenge of Writing,” about his begrudging relationship with writing and facing himself. When he finishes, a woman in a bright pink jacket claps thunderously and unapologetically.

Brown, turning to face the audience, gives in. “What the hell. Clap,” he says.

The room erupts into applause.


Joshua King laughs as he brainstorms ideas with other members of his creative writing class April 27 at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. King is a common source of comedic relief in the class. 

Joshua King, No. 69192, shares his insecurities with the audience. Byron Sanchez reveals that he is the next great American western writer. Michael Wright’s classmates read his story about holding onto his first memory of his father.

Christopher Shanahan, No. 51937, with bright eyes and a wide smile, reads his piece titled “Stars,” about how thankful he is for finding a semblance of redemption and for finding his voice. As he shares his story, the only sound in the room is the dull hum of nearby vending machines.

“We’ve been with him during this journey,” Dave Shanahan, Chris’ father, said after the show. “It’s amazing to see where Chris is now.”

Daniel Alonzo is the final performer of the night. As the youngest member in the class, he writes with a raw honesty that makes his piece ideal for punctuating the show’s message.

“I’ve been in and out of jail since I was old enough,” Alonzo stares at the audience. “But I’m tired of it.”

When Alonzo finishes, the crowd offers a resounding ovation.

Visitors gather around the inmates, swarming the most popular people in the room. The inmates share thoughts about their lives, their writing processes and who they think they are. For some, this is largest outside community they’ve seen in decades.

“I hope they do it again,” said Janice King, Joshua’s mother. “People tend to forget them in here.”

“If it gives them a night of sunshine then it’s worth it,” said Sue Reneau, Joshua’s aunt.

CSI performance

On April 19, Magic Valley actors performed their version of the prisoners’ writings at the College of Southern Idaho. This was the show Shane Brown had been preparing for since the inception of the project, before the plan was hatched to have prisoners read their own works in Boise.

This time, Camille Barigar gave a short speech before the show. She said working with the inmates has been the most compelling intellectual experience she’s ever had, and she and Brown consider the inmates friends.

“We couldn’t spring them every night to perform,” she said. “So we’ve got these guys from Twin Falls reading for them.”


Performers run through their lines April 18 during the 'Sentences' rehearsal at the College of Southern Idaho Fine Arts Auditorium in Twin Falls.

The set was designed just like the one in the prison. The audience stared down the performers, but behind the performers was a screen showing the authors’ prison identification numbers. The inmates said they wanted to own their identities, so the screen showed their numbers while the program provided their names.

The writings were grittier than at the prison show because of prison rules on writing involving swearing or any sort of seedier side of prison life. The CSI show featured the unedited writings that included men defecating in the shower, dealing with gang violence and not being able to send letters to their families.

The polished actors were a contrast to the inmate’s inexperienced performances. But the message was delivered. The inmates’ voices were heard.

And just like 125 miles away at the Idaho State Correctional Center, at the show’s conclusion, the performance received an uproarious standing ovation.

‘This is what’s real to me’

The next time Brown traveled to the prison, everything had settled from the inmates’ performances. The writing had been read at CSI, and Brown was back to his normal routine of teaching at the prison whenever he could.

On April 27, the group met in the chapel. There was a television on the wall with a two-hour screen saver-like stream of coral reef fish and relaxing music.

The decision was in: Brown planned to continue the class. He would bring in more teachers and try to grow the performances.

“Before this class, I barely spoke,” Roman, the jazz musician, said. “But you have awoken something in me.”


Christopher Shanahan, right, workshops his homework assignments with the other inmates April 27 during their creative writing class at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. Shanahan silenced the room when he read his piece, titled "Stars," at the prison performance. 

It took the class a while to gain its focus as the inmates reflected on the surreal experience from 16 days prior. For a brief moment that night, they were a part of the world again. The next moment, they returned to their cells and played hours of dominoes.

“That wasn’t real,” Burdett said. “I’ve been here so long, this is what’s real to me.”

King said his wife called him the day after the performance, absolutely beaming. She thought the experience would be freeing for him. But it’s easier to feel free when you can leave after the show.

There in the chapel, Roman read a piece about his time with Keith Wells, the first person to receive the death penalty in Idaho since the punishment was reinstated in 1976. In the weeks leading up to his death, there was speculation in the prison about whether music would be played on the speakers in the moments before his death. It wasn’t. Roman’s piece pondered life in prison and whether they were fortunate to be alive.

“What a penalty,” Roman read, “to die in slow motion.”

Prison creative writing

Almost one year ago, Shane Brown and Camille Barigar headed to Boise to begin teaching a creative writing class to inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Facility. They intended to make four trips up to the prison, enough time to gather some good pieces of writing, which would be performed by local actors for an event at the College of Southern Idaho. That was all it was supposed to be.

Instead, it transformed into something totally different. The class became an outlet for prisoners to reflect on who they are, why they did what landed them in prison, and what life really means. The show at CSI still happened, and it was a hit in Twin Falls, but the inmates stole the show in Boise. The year of teaching and writing culminated in an April performance where the inmates read their writings in front of family at the prison, providing them with a brief glimmer of hope and camaraderie. SEE STORY ON PAGE E1

Researcher investigates Arkansas burial ground mystery

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — John Samuelsen hopes to solve the mystery of Crenshaw.

The prehistoric Caddo village in southwest Arkansas has a burial ground that contains at least 114 human skulls and 238 additional jawbones.

But no bodies.

Since its discovery in the 1960s, researchers have debated the meaning of the skull-and-mandible cemetery, as it has come to be known.

Many of them believe that it contains trophies of war — heads and jawbones of enemies from far-away battlefields.

But in 2016, Samuelsen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, argued strongly for a different hypothesis.

He published a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science saying the burial ground could contain the remains of people, or their relatives, who lived around Crenshaw, possibly farming the more rural areas. After they died, their skulls and jawbones could have been returned to the village for ceremonial burial, similar to the custom today of the deceased being returned to family plots or church cemeteries for burial.

Transporting only skulls and jawbones would have been easier than carrying back bodies or full skeletons, especially at a time before the Caddo had horses.

Crenshaw was a large ceremonial center from about A.D. 700 to 1400 along the Red River in Miller County. It also was a large village for most but not all of that time, Samuelsen said.

Around A.D. 900, the Fourche Maline culture at Crenshaw began to decline with the beginning of Caddo cultural traditions in the area, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

“After about A.D. 1000 and for the next 400 years, the site is thought to have been used primarily as a ceremonial center, occupied by only a few Caddo elites and their families,” D. Glen Akridge of the Arkansas Archeological Society wrote for the encyclopedia. “The dispersed Caddo population may have returned to Crenshaw at various times during the year to conduct ceremonies, to bury their dead among relatives at their ancestral homeland, and to mark special occasions.”

“I guess you could draw an analogy with the big cathedral towns of medieval Europe,” said George Sabo III, who is chairman of the board of trustees for the Caddo Heritage Museum in Binger, Okla.

Sabo is also director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, part of the University of Arkansas System that studies and protects archaeological sites in the state. He’s Samuelsen’s boss and graduate adviser. Samuelsen has worked for the survey since 2004.

The remains in the skull-and-mandible burial site date from about A.D. 1253-1399.

Samuelsen, 36, of Tampa, Florida, has developed a method of examining lead isotopes in tooth enamel that he believes will determine whether the remains in the skull-and-mandible burial ground belonged to locals. It will be employed in conjunction with a method that he has previously used to examine strontium isotopes in tooth enamel. Lead has six isotope ratios, compared with one for strontium, making it a better marker for the research.

If the remains of local people are buried in the burial site, the lead and strontium isotopes in their tooth enamel should correspond with those of non-migratory animals that lived in the same area at about the same time, Samuelsen said.

Lead and strontium are elements that occur naturally and would have been in the soil and plants. Humans and animals were both eating plants in the same areas, so it doesn’t matter if they weren’t eating the same plants, Samuelsen said.

“You’re assessing the human’s location based on the ratio of lead in animal teeth,” he said.

The research will include tooth enamel from deer, rabbits, possums, raccoons and squirrels. Some of the enamel samples will come from as far away as Illinois.

The university in Fayetteville is one of the few places that has equipment capable of doing the research, said Samuelsen, referring to a Nu Plasma multicollector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, which measures how much of each isotope is present in lead or strontium.

Samuelsen will work closely with Adriana Potra of the UA’s Department of Geosciences because some of the isotopic work will be done in that department’s metal-free radiogenic isotope laboratory. It’s a “room inside a room” with HEPA-filtered air. Lead contamination is common now, so it’s important to conduct the research in a clean-lab environment.

Other UA researchers who will be involved in the project include Erik Pollock and Barry Shaulis.

Samuelsen has received a $14,750 grant from the National Science Foundation to do the research, which he estimates will take a year and a half.

He did a pilot study involving five samples from the skull-and-mandible burial site, 13 burials at Crenshaw of entire bodies and samples of tooth enamel from 56 animals in southwest Arkansas.

Samuelsen said the pilot study verified that his method of analyzing biologically available lead works, but the full study will include 60 additional samples from the skull-and-mandible burial site and 80 more animals from Arkansas and primarily other states.

Samuelsen said the skull-and-mandible burial ground at Crenshaw is the largest site of its kind in the United States. There are a few smaller skull burial sites in the U.S. and Mesoamerica. He said researchers have generally believed the remains in those sites to be the victims of warfare.

Whether those buried at the skull-and-mandible burial ground are Caddo ancestors is important to the tribe, Sabo said.

“They need to know where the people buried at Crenshaw came from,” he said. “If they came from within the region the Caddo inhabited in the past, it’s very likely those are the remains of their own ancestors. ... That information is crucial to modern Caddo decisions about how and where to rebury them.”

The Caddo prehistoric territory included western Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, northeastern Texas, northwestern Louisiana and the southwestern corner of Missouri.

Phil Cross, the Caddo Nation’s tribal historic preservation officer, didn’t respond to telephone messages and emails on April 20.

The Crenshaw site is on private property, and researchers try to keep its location a secret. It’s not open to the public, but the Caddo Nation has given UA researchers permission to study the site.

The remains of the skull-and-mandible burial ground were uncovered due to farming practices in the 1960s. Then looters dug in the area for some time.

Crenshaw has long been known as an American Indian site. It was explored by Clarence Bloomfield Moore, an amateur archaeologist from Philadelphia, in 1912, according to the encyclopedia article by Akridge.

Arkansas archaeologists conducted official excavations of the Crenshaw site during much of the last half of the 20th century.

Samuelsen said there appear to be at least seven burial grounds at Crenshaw, but the others contain full skeletons.

Researchers unearthed another unique find at Crenshaw: a pile of antlers from at least 1,021 male white-tail deer.

Steve Conner, Courtesy of CSI 

CSI softball players celebrate a home run from Tristin Evans (15) against the College of Southern Nevada on Saturday at First Federal Field in Twin Falls.

Dartmouth embraces historical accountability

CONCORD, N.H. — As educational institutions across the country wrestle with their ties to slavery, Dartmouth College is taking a closer look at the darkest corners of its history.

The college plans to launch a “historical accountability” project this summer, which aims to better understand how marginalized groups, including African-Americans and other underrepresented students, have been treated since college was founded in 1769 by Eleazar Wheelock.

The institution will award fellowships to three undergraduate students to research the college’s historical record. Another team of students will work with faculty to map the archives and figure out ways to incorporate Dartmouth’s history into the college’s curriculum.

“We want to dig into the past that we’re not as proud of, but that shaped this place and created the culture that is still present,” said Jay Satterfield, head of the special collections library at Dartmouth. “By confronting our past failings, we’re better moving forward.”

The program drew inspiration from other institutions coming to terms with their past. Among the first to do so was Brown University, which exposed its past link to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in a 2006 report. Four years ago, the Ivy League school celebrated its 250th anniversary and presented a slavery memorial that evoked a ball and broken chain, fashioned from cast-iron, sinking into the Earth.

Dartmouth is approaching the same milestone next year, which was one of the inspirations for taking a closer look at the school’s troubled history.

Wheelock was a congregational minister from Lebanon, Connecticut. His legacy lies in having carved the original campus out of the New Hampshire wilderness and teaching Native American students. But according to Morgan Swan, with the Rauner Special Collections Library, some archival discoveries could highlight the role Wheelock’s slaves played in building the original campus and how Dartmouth strayed from its mission to educate Native Americans.

Other potential projects could include Dartmouth’s first female students after Dartmouth became coed in 1972, transgender and gay students prior to the shift and the treatment of Asian students during World War II.

“While there is a story to tell about slavery and Dartmouth, there are others to tell about Dartmouth and Native Americans, Latinos, women, the LGBTQ community, religious minorities and many other perspectives the students will help to identify,” said Christianne Hardy, special assistant to the college’s president.

The college is approaching the concept of historical accountability in a more dynamic way than other schools by putting the project into the hands of students instead of historians. Satterfield is confident that by giving students ownership of the project, the impact will be powerful.

The program tackles only one of the goals laid out in a diversity initiative launched two years ago by Dartmouth, but many hope that by confronting its past, the college can work toward creating a more inclusive future.

“If we shy away from these types of stories, we’re doing a disservice to education,” Swan said.