Embedded in the hillside, the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center is a vast, rectangular three-story construction, built with beige cinder blocks that blend in well with its surroundings. There’s no one in sight.
After instructing my taxi driver to return in 90 minutes, I activate the intercom next to the weekend entrance. “Who is it?” asks a female voice.
“Greg Cummings. I’m the author giving a talk to Unit 4 today.”
“Greg Cummings. Amy Cheney arranged my visit…”
“Hang on a minute hun.”
While I wait for clearance into the prison, Mountain Mike’s escape story comes to mind.
When Mountain Mike escaped a minimum-security federal correctional facility called William Head on Vancouver Island, he fashioned a raft from a coffin used in the prison’s amateur theatre production of Dracula, then paddled out across the Juan de Fuca Straits towards the Canadian mainland.
The coffin disintegrated and Mike sank to the bottom of the cold straights. “I was sure I was a goner,” he recalled, “but a divine light beaconed me upward again. And then I found the strength to resurface and swim ashore.” He had a couple of weeks of freedom before the Mounties caught up with him.
I heard about Mountain Mike from one of his fellow inmates. It was October 1983, and I had just watched a performance of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by William Head on Stage (WHoS), an inmate-run prison theatre company – the only one in Canada that invites the public into the prison to see their shows. I was struck by the force of the cast’s performances, playing to a packed house, unbound by their incarceration. I had never seen such savage intensity in the eyes of actors.
Amy Cheney and I connected by chance, in July 2013, while I was googling mentions of my novel. In a piece titled ‘On the Shelf with Amy Cheney’ that was posted on the Children’s Book Review blog, Cheney is asked which books are most frequently checked out of her library. “Right now it’s War Brothers by Sharon McKay—anything about child soldiers my kids can relate to. Gorillaland by Greg Cummings is also doing well. Everyone has read Coe Booth, Simone Elkeles, Alexander Gordon Smith and Ishmael Beah. Action, relevance and overall great stuff.”
Her love of literature, and a tearaway nature led her to a career in the California correctional system, turning young minds on to books. “One of my students who never read before said when she heard me talk about books it sounded like candy, and she wanted some.”
Yesterday, pushing a cartload of my novels through the corridors of the Juvenile Hall, zig-zagging between cell units and the library, she seemed protected by a forcefield of persuasive intent, like a Jedi knight.
I was supposed to arrive in time to give three talks on Friday, but a mega-storm over Texas delayed my appearance by twelve hours, so I was only able to give one. Hence a second visit has been arranged. It being a Saturday, I’m now flying solo.
Every door has a buzzer and an overhead camera. I press the button. After a moment the door unlocks and I’m able to turn the handle. I pass through several empty rooms and corridors, repeating the process again and again. The final door slides open on its own. A guard in a darkened control room peers through the reinforced glass at the contents of my rucksack, takes my Canadian passport via a drawer in the wall, and then asks me to sign the register. I’m in.
Notwithstanding the two nights I spent locked up in British holding cells – for separate offenses – and the previous afternoon, this is my first time entering a correctional facility since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In the belly of the facility six windowless units house dozens of young offenders whose ages range from nine to seventeen. Most are serving long sentences. They’re all locked up when I enter Unit 4, a sky-lit two-story common room surrounded on two levels by cells. I introduce myself to a woman in uniform seated behind a raised console. She smiles, shakes my hand. She is expecting me and directs me to an adjacent classroom.
With a mix of anxiety and enthusiasm, I scan the colorful displays pinned to the classroom walls. The vibe is encouraging without being too condescending. Then, one by one, a coterie of teenage boys saunters in, comprising a range of heights, builds, ethnicities, and attitudes. Each one introduces himself, shakes my hand, then finds a seat. It’s like an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter.
“I’m here to talk about gorillas,” I holler, hoping the resonance of my voice will calm the room. “The band or the ape?” asks a round-faced Latino kid. He is a picture of candidness. On the faces of the others I see genuine interest, though many appear ambivalent, and a couple have only come to socialize. “The ape,” I smile.
During a gorilla slide show, I tell them how a silverback gets his name, the politics of gorilla groups, and their similarity to humans – that we share 97 per cent of our genetic makeup with gorillas. A wiry black kid at the back of the classroom raises his hand. “Is it true that you can get a blood transfusion from a gorilla and survive?”
“Good question,” I reply, surprised by his grasp of the subject. “Yes, you could potentially survive one transfusion from a great ape, providing the blood type matched.”
I do my impression of a charging silverback. Starting from a squat position, I utter a series of hoot sounds, rapidly slapping my chest in quick succession, and with a loud bark I leap forward, to uproarious laughter from the kids. “And what do you do if a silverback charges?” I ask, catching my breath.
“Bounce! Bail ass out of there…”
“No. If you run you are sure to die. You must stand perfectly still and act submissively, avoiding all eye contact with the charging silverback.” Incredulous laughter.
I read a chapter of Gorillaland, the story of Dieudonné, a child soldier who, after years in the service of the rebel warlord General Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba, is forced to witness the execution of his parents. In the aftermath of an earthquake he takes flight with the general’s diamonds, his heart set on freedom, and runs all the way to Uganda, only to have it all tragically end in the jaws of two hungry lions.
“Aw what? No way! The kid gets eaten by lions? What happened to the diamonds?”
But my hour is up. As they leave the classroom some of the kids give me a ‘bro hug’ and thank me warmly. I am touched.
Life is about choices and prospects. Young people make mistakes and face tough challenges as they try to revive their prospects in life. It’s the same for every one, whether or not you are imprisoned for your mistakes.
The difference with inmates is that they are given few choices after incarceration. Punishment is king. This absence of volition is an obstacle to inspiring them. On the other hand, they are a captive audience. Turn these young minds on and I know they will read my novels, and maybe one day write their own.
Come Spring 1984, five months after I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I was working for Stage II, a theatre group established for, and by, ex-offenders, after their release from William Head. We were staging One For The Road, Harold Pinter’s bleak one-act play set in a prison in a fictitious totalitarian country, which had premiered in London and New York in the two months previous. Ours was the world’s first amateur production, and the company was excited about blazing such a trail in stagecraft.
Stage II faced unique challenges, like keeping the actors in one place. A month before opening night one of our principles went AWOL, hitting the road for greater freedom, and in total violation of his parole. No one in the company harbored any ill will towards the guy. He did what he had to do. We found someone to replace him and hoped the new guy would last. He stole the show.
Working in the theatre with ex-offenders I watched men struggle to temper their emotional intensity through artistic expression. Often the roles were reversed: the tenderhearted newspaper salesman on stage was once an armed robber. Having the freedom to express oneself is not the same as freedom itself.
In the eyes of the young men that came to hear me talk at the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center I saw souls that were drowning. I think I understand. I hope my talk and reading, a career milestone, provided some resuscitation, however briefly.
Also posted on Reaching Reluctant Readers