The Circus of the Damned.

AuthorCoskran, Kathleen

WE MET ON THE PHONE: JIMMY, AN INMATE AT THE OAK PARK Heights Correctional Facility, Minnesota's only level five maximum custody prison; me, an adjunct faculty member at Hamline University in St. Paul. He had earned his GED at El Reno Federal Reformatory in Oklahoma, and--despite his lack of undergraduate credits--talked his way into my graduate level writing class. He couldn't attend the three-hour class meetings in person, so I audiotaped each session and mailed him the tapes. He called me every Monday from the prison education director's office to discuss the readings and assignments.

I was nervous before that first call, but Jimmy Colvin made it easy. He sounded distinctly Southern, warm and friendly--a gregarious Louisiana Bayou boy talking to an introverted Georgia girl, both of whom ended up in the frigid north. I'd done it the easy way by marrying a Minnesotan. Jimmy's road was considerably harder: He had been bloodied by fellow inmates at the United States Penitentiary in-Leavenworth, Kansas, and transferred to Minnesota for his safety.

In our weekly talks, Jimmy was responsive to everything I suggested and so grateful to have contact with somebody on the outside. A veteran of multiple escapes from juvenile facilities, he was writing a novel based on his escape some years earlier from the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, colloquially known as Angola. The chapter he submitted to the class was written in the voice of a boastful, muscle-bound narrator with an unfortunate fondness for adverbs and adjectives. It was awful, but we read it; I mailed him the tape of the class's frank discussion of his manuscript.

The transformation was notable: Jimmy made the biggest improvement from first draft to revision that I had ever seen. The chapter was beautifully re-imagined and rewritten. Not only had he heard what had troubled me and his classmates, but he also understood what we saw as powerful and engaging.

Jimmy was a good student in other ways: enthusiastic, incisive, an appreciative reader of the assignments, and genuinely helpful in comments on fellow students' writing. I gave him an A. He had earned it.

That was twenty-five years ago.

Today, Jimmy is still incarcerated, at Rayburn Correctional Center, a medium security prison in Angie, Louisiana, where he works as night orderly for his unit key, the central area between four dorms. He keeps the key clean. When an inmate is sent to the hole, he transports their locker and mattress...

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