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.”