Outsider on the Inside
By Steven Womack
SEPTEMBER 29, 1997: At 3 in the afternoon on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1989, I stood in the parking lot of the old Tennessee State Prison and anxiously decided that I was going to draw the line at body cavity searches. After all, they weren't paying me for this gig. I was a volunteer. In fact, it had been my own idea.
I had maneuvered my way through the bureaucratic maze of the Tennessee Department of Corrections and had finally found the person who could green-light my desire to work with inmate writers. That didn't, however, give anyone the right to stick a Vaseline-coated latex-gloved finger up my rear in a search for contraband.
As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted. In retrospect, security at "The Walls" was pretty lax, especially in comparison to the new, sterile, modern penitentiaries that dot Tennessee's landscape nowadays. A hand-held metal detector and a quick patdown was about it. Then, with the clanging of the Gate 4 sally port's metal bars behind me, I was in the main yard surrounded by guys with white stripes up their pants legs.
Once a week for the next four years, until The Walls was converted from prison to movie set, I would traverse the long sidewalk through the main yard past Death Row to the prison school. It was there that I met Woody Eargle.
Woody served 15 years for a crime that, under current Tennessee law, would probably have netted him half that much time. Unfortunately for him, he was convicted under the old Class X felony statutes, whose harsh terms put criminals with problematic pasts away for decades at taxpayer expense, even if they'd committed relatively minor offenses.
Like a great many other inmates, Woody Eargle is an intelligent, well-spoken man who has a history of being his own worst enemy. A screw-up at an early age, he continued pushing the societal envelope until society came down on him like white on rice. In and out of jails and prisons for years, he finally bollixed things up badly enough to do some serious time. That apparently got his attention. He began reading and writing, and he wound up editing several prison newspapers. He wrote a novel, a rollicking epic of a crime story, and then began another. He sold a few magazine pieces and managed to make an extra buck or two, which is fabulous money when you consider your day job in prison brings in about 30 cents an hour.
Woody has an astonishing sense of humor, and he laughs a lot. A thin man, he looks about 15 years older than his actual age. A lifestyle of career crime and prison takes a toll on the human body. He was one of the first inmates to join my fiction-writing workshop and was one of only two or three who stuck with the group for the entire four years. He hasn't sold his novel, and I can't tell you whether he ever will. But I can tell you that it was a fun story with some great spots in it, even if it was a bit rough around the edges.
He also successfully conquered the substance-abuse problems that seem to plague nearly all the residents in TDOC's custodial care. In my four years of volunteer work in the system, working with perhaps two dozen inmates and knowing many more of them casually, I met precisely one man who was not in prison as a direct result of drugs or alcohol. That's not 1 percent, mind you, but one person.
Substance-abuse problems among prisoners were then endemic, and they probably still are. If I'd ever had any inclination to experiment with hard drugs, the only place I knew to get them was behind the walls of the Tennessee State Penitentiary. And until we as a society begin treating substance abuse as a medical problem, rather than a legal one, the prisons are going to continue to fill faster than we can build them.
I became a volunteer teacher at the penitentiary because I thought I had something to contribute, some knowledge or experience about writing and storytelling that would give these guys an outlet for their obviously troubled lives. The irony is that I learned infinitely more from them than they ever learned from me. As a free-world civilian, I had a lot of misconceptions about crime, criminals, and prison life. I assumed that prison was a jungle, a violent Darwinian hell where only the strong and psychotic survive. Life at The Walls, though, was fairly laid-back.
Some of my memories of those four years ring sweet even now. I announced at the end of one evening that I was canceling class the following week because Elmore Leonard was having a book signing at Davis-Kidd and I wasn't about to miss it. The guys went nuts. Elmore Leonard was their hero, the best in the business, the one who had the walk and the talk down cold. Was there any way they could meet him?
I didn't figure TDOC would let me take these men on a field trip, so I called Leonard's publicist in New York. Mr. Leonard wrote about criminals, I said; how'd he like to meet a few real ones? To my surprise and delight, he agreed. The day of his signing, he went with me out to The Walls and spent the afternoon with the inmate writers. I have a diptych in the hallway outside my office: On one side is a handwritten letter from Elmore Leonard thanking me for the visit (he signed it "Dutch"); on the other side is a framed color photo of Elmore Leonard with all of us taken outside the prison school. It was a marvelous day.
Though not what I expected, prison was still, by free-world standards, a violent place. Only two areas were considered sacred at The Walls: the chapel and the school. You don't kill anybody in chapel or at school. But one day a scuffle broke out in the hall outside our classroom. The inmates in the workshop jumped up immediately and, almost as if they were in a fire drill, they locked the door to the classroom and formed a line around me. Strange, to feel safe and protected in a place like that.
The Walls had character. There was a distinct, indescribable, and curiously inoffensive smell to the place. It was loud and metallic, busy and frenetic. My sense was that the guards were there to keep a lid on things, while the inmates basically ran the joint. From the outside, the old prison looked like a combination of a medieval fortress and a grand castle; Disneyland's evil twin. The joke among the inmates was that anyone could escape from The Walls. The problem was where to go after you did.
Eventually, the old prison had to be closed. Tennessee moved into the era of modern corrections practices and was busily building prisons that would institutionalize inmates so quickly and effectively that they would never be any trouble to anyone. They would also never be able to survive on the outside again. Many, if not most, of the criminals going into the TDOC system now will never come out, at least not for very long. Talk about job security. When RMSI--the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution--opened, I was asked to continue my inmate writing workshop. But they scheduled it for early Saturday mornings, and I don't do early Saturday mornings. By then, anyway, I was tired. The stress levels in both my personal and professional life had accumulated, and my emotional involvement with some of the men had become a painful weight. I couldn't do anything to help them, and that hurt. It was time to move on.
I've stayed friends with several of them, including Woody Eargle. I attended his parole hearing and was happy to hear of his release. I've talked with him many times since his release.
As his words reveal, it's tough out here. It's a free world in name only. Very little of it is free.
Good luck, Woody. I hope you make it.
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