Category Archives: Prison Life

It’s All About Corrections… or not

Another piece of poetry written by Gordon Grilz. He carefully plies his words and speaks the truth of private prisons. The almighty for profit beasts that warehouse human souls with no concern for positive programming to help eliminate the horrific recidivism rates, at least those in my state of Arizona.

If a private prison has 1500 beds and the state fills 750 beds, the state still pays for all 1500 beds. Isn’t that a fine example of fiduciary responsibility with tax payers funds?

I recently learned that one of our oldest Senator’s in this illustrious state has taken funds from a private prison to the tune of over $30,000.00. I trust the information as it came from a religious website that is adamant about social justice.

Gordon Grilz


The prisoners on the
make-work crew
are creating crop circle designs
in the dirt with their rakes
at ten cents an hour.
Modem hieroglyphics
record their histories
on the institutional landscape.

From the other side
of the canal bank
we hear the report
of gunfire as the guards
sharpen their skills
at the shooting range
pop pop pop
pop pop pop pop pop

It’s a parallel nightmare
in an overcrowded prison,
battleship gray building
full of double bunks
and no hope,
a human warehouse
where failures are stored
out of sight
out of mind.
When there is no more room
Arizona leases storage facilities
in other states
exporting its
throwaway population.

At night the desert reverts
under the shadow of the saguaro
as coyotes reclaim
their territory
from men with their
chain link obsession.


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A Lifetime of Regret

If you’ve visited here before, you may be familiar with some of inmate Gordon Grilz work that I have posted.

Words woven with regret
seeking forgiveness
growing old in prison

His words are haunting. He does not dismiss his crime. Every morning the barren Arizona prison landscape reminds him of his crime and subsequent punishment.

Gordon Grilz

The Distance Between Us

Jealousy narrowed my vision
until I could no longer see myself
without you
blind and wounded
I traded five minutes of rage
for a lifetime of regret

I keep searching for another ending
the only closure I have
is a photo of your grave

Last night
in the secret of the darkness
you came to me
in mesquite smoke on the wind

I wanted to tell you things
but the coyotes were prowling
outside my cell

You whispered
In my ear
but I was caught
in the spaces
between your words
slipping past the desert moon


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Reflections & Recollections

Employment as a prison librarian had its challenges. There were the days when the yard was closed for one reason or another. It could be found contraband of a dangerous nature, mass movements, serious medical conditions or quarterly searches that would or could cause the yard to close.

I have been privy to minor as well as major disturbances when the yard closures have lasted for days at a time.

I had an occasion when there was a stabbing in the library I supervised. “Books to die for” I chided after all was said and done. In reality, no one died. It was, however, a frightening experience.

Prior to the actual event, things in the library “just didn’t feel right.” I used the radio and asked for a security presence, specifically someone who spoke Spanish. “Code 20?” came the response, “Code 4” I replied, “I would just like to have someone in here who speaks Spanish for a minute or two.”

Shortly thereafter, two inmates attacked one other then stormed out of the library. I again keyed the radio and initiated the department’s emergency response system. That single act prompted most of the remaining patrons exited (read RAN) out the library door. They knew full well the library would soon be teaming with corrections officers.

I utilized the department’s standard emergency response system to lock down the yard, get medical to respond and then I promptly handed the incident off to the first corrections officer through the door! In short order the entire yard was teaming with corrections officers and the K-9 units.

When the officers arrived and secured the library, they cuffed up the library clerks as well as anyone else who had not run out of the library. They were taken outside to a chain link fence. They were all patted searched and escorted to the detention unit’s recreation pens.

The library books were flying off the shelves. I was surprised to find some of the books had secret cut out areas. One was in the shape of a small floppy disk and the other would have facilitated a syringe. I learned a lot that day. Some were things I never wanted to learn or ever have to witness first hand.

After being interviewed by a security supervisor, I contacted the unit Captain to let him know the library clerks were not involved in the incident. In fact, truth be told, the clerks had immediately jumped up from their desks and surrounded me – as if to protect me. I was astounded and very humbled by their act. One of the clerks was an older inmate who had medical issues. I wanted to ensure security was aware of his condition, his medical needs and that he would not be left in the sun due to the medications he was taking. I wanted to be sure all those in the recreation pens were being provided water and sun screen. No need to worry – my co-workers were taking good care of them all.

A security supervisor explained that it was imperative the library clerks be moved out with the other inmates and treated in like fashion. Otherwise they may have been considered to have been colluding with the ‘enemy’ and then placed in harm’s way.

Indeed, these eyes have witnessed much and they have forgiven much. I have learned to appreciate and heed the gift of fear. When the hair on the nape of my neck stands up, it does so for a reason and it alerts me to be cautious and pay close attention.

Not too long ago, we arrived early at the bus terminal to pick up my mother. She was coming for a weekend visit. I walked around and as is my custom, I observed people. Yes, my number one sporting event – People Watching. This is a leftover habit from the prison years. It is one of hyper vigilance, an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.

The entire terminal was a village of sorts. What moved me the most was seeing the number of at-risk persons. It appeared to me the bus terminal is to the economically disadvantaged what the airport is to the middle and upper class citizens. I wrote that out, didn’t I? In this land, this country of opportunity where there is purportedly no class distinction, it became abundantly clear there is indeed an unspoken caste system.

There were teenaged males riding low-rider bikes and asking for handouts. There were the drug users, perhaps not identifiable to some, but I recognized them, the Tweakers, especially.

The terminal was a veritable village of tribes and cultures. Spanish was spoken as well as the native tongue of the Tohono O’odham peoples and of course, English. The Tohono O’odham were previously known as the Papago people; however, they have largely rejected this name. It was applied to them by conquistadores who had heard them called this by other Native American bands and it was considered to be derogatory.

As the buses arrived, they would dock at their designated “port” and persons began exiting the vehicle. They invariably would seek out a familiar face and if not found would settle on a bench, pull out a cell phone and call someone to presumably ask them to come and pick them up.

I was amazed to see different cultures and races mingling and sitting with one another. Perhaps it was my years from prison where the inmate population was defined by race and thus divided as such, but it surprised me to see everyone “mixing it up,” so to speak. It was also comforting. As children of God, we are all of the same tribe! “red and yellow, black and white…

After of bit of downtime and perhaps an exchange of drivers, the buses were boarded with yet another set of travelers for their next destination. There was a lot of activity and conspicuously absent was any sign of security or police. For all appearances, it was as if the people were self-governed and may have taken care of any security issues themselves.

One could gaze upon the groups of people and discern family units. Mothers with small children herded them onto benches and quietly begin nursing infants. No one appeared to be offended as would be the case in a more formal setting. Churches, prison visitations, and restaurants often isolate nursing mothers who are performing a loving, nurturing act of feeding their child.

When the weekend was over, we returned Mother to the bus terminal. It was the same village only with different faces.

Since we now knew where to head for the incoming bus, we found a bench and sat with others. There were some children eating homemade burritos, wrapped in aluminum foil. They promptly disposed of the foil on the ground and I retrieved it for the trash receptacle. The mother chastised her children in Spanish and another young man thanked me for tending to that task. I nodded in the affirmative and offered a smile.

Mother removed the bus fare from her purse so she would have it in hand for the driver – no tickets for this ride, cash only. She sat there while we chatted with the money in her hand. I was observing a man who was rapidly moving from one group to another. I reckoned he was a substance abuser, a tweaker looking for a “mark,” for what he believed to be easy money. I told Mother to put her money in a pocket. She said, “I’m holding it tightly.” I said, “It’s in plain sight, it’s like waving bait.” The man moved from one end of the terminal to the other, not really looking at people, but looking FOR an opportunity. I told mom, “watch him – see how he’s working the crowd?” We observed for a while then lost track of him. Suddenly he appeared and the way he was moving and approaching us at the bench was one of determination. I stood up and looked him in the eye. It was an authoritative challenge, I would suppose. He promptly and immediately left the area. He perceived I was a threat to him. He was correct. Don’t mess with my Momma! In short order, Mother was safely on the bus and headed towards her home, some three hours away.

Even now, when the Husband and I go out for dinner, I try to secure a seat where I can observe the coming and goings. Old habits die hard.

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Words… of life… of death

I am again posting a poem by Gordon Grilz. His words, his words… a poignant reflection on death and dying in prison.

~The Prison Librarian


Gordon Grilz

Joe sits in his cell
all day each Sunday
in his pressed blues and shined brogans
waiting for a visit from his wife
who died ten years ago.

He is an old soldier
obeying orders
holding his position until relieved
even though he has been overrun
and no help is coming.

They will bury him in a cardboard coffin
out back behind the alfalfa field.
In the afternoon shadows
a sidewinder crosses the desert highway
disappearing into the sand dunes.

And where does the light go
when the darkness comes?

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The Wordsmiths

As an artist carefully, tenderly draws and paints with varied colors and hues upon the page, the poet skillfully arranges words and phrases to paint a picture upon the mind and psyche of its reader.

I cannot speak for you, but as for me, when reading such works my mind is painting the word pictures as I travel through the verses. The greater the writer’s skill, the more vivid are the mental images. The words can entwine and play upon the five senses – sight, smell, sound, taste and touch.

The scent of jasmine wafting upon the breeze that plays across your skin. The sound of church bells ringing across the valley. Recall the taste of salty tears that press through closed eyes. Imagine standing upon a precipice and the feel of the sun beating down upon you, then the sudden coolness when a cloud passes between you and the sun. Yes, all this and more can be evoked when immersed in poetry or prose.

Professor Richard Shelton conducted and managed the creative writing workshops in the prisons had once said that the higher the custody level of the incarcerated inmate writer, the greater the quality of writing.

One such inmate, better, former inmate was Jimmy Santiago Baca. When he was 20, he was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to prison. He was illiterate when he arrived at the Arizona State Prison. When he got out five years later, he was well on his way to becoming one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Baca writes about oppression, love and migration, and his poems range from just a few lines to many pages.

We were honored to have him come to one of the creative writing workshops with Professor Shelton. The inmates were on the edges of their chairs trying to hang on to every word he spoke to them. He finally sat back and said, read me your words.

I watched him as they read their works. He would close his eyes and tap his fingers and a slight smile would turn up one side of his mouth if he liked what he was hearing.

One of the clerks ran to the poetry section and returned with all his books of poetry and handed them to him. He graciously signed each and every one. He then told them a story about letters he had received in prison. He had kept them all in a box and one day, years after his release; he was going through them and getting ready to dispose of them in the trash when there was a knock upon the door. It was a gentleman from a rather prestigious college in the eastern part of the country. They spoke of poetry, of publishing and other sundry subjects. The gentleman asked Baca what the box contained and he told him they were letters he’d received in prison and that he was getting ready to dispose of. The man offered him $80,000 for the box! He told the men to hang on to their letters from prison for you never knew what value they might hold!

For your perusal, I submit yet another piece of inmate poetry.

Tony Degges


he has regrets, they have
no statute of limitations
he is damaged, which
he recognizes
as the distance
he has traveled
from innocence

naked he stands
understanding his
own story as lies
told, too many
for too long

euphoric recall is
what passes for joy
on days when the
constant truth is
not beating him down

he sold his memories
for heroin and cocaine
the man returned them
saying it is just
poor man’s money
and he could only
spend it in hell

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More Poetry from Inmates

Here are the words from Gordon Grilz. In this piece, he details trying to explain death and war to a child.

Gordon Grilz

Lessons of War

During the insurgency in Guatemala
a family went into town for supplies.
The corpses of the rebels who had been
hanged by government troops were
dangling by ropes suspended
from telephone poles. As they passed by
a six-year-old asked her father,
“Papa, what are those people doing?”
He answered,
“They are learning to fly.”

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The Ghosts of Camacho Hill

Inmates write poetry. It is not the typical Hallmark greeting variety, not the simple iambic pentameter. They are words artfully placed upon a page to paint a vivid picture. I know this because my library hosted a Creative Writing Workshop. I know the importance of words to inmates as they have had a sentence pronounced and the sound of a gavel being hammered thereafter.

The poem I am sharing was written by an inmate in the Arizona Department of Corrections. His name is Gordon Grilz. He committed a crime of passion, for lack of a better term. He came home from work early one day and found his wife in bed with another man. He pulled a gun from the dresser and shot and killed them both. He is serving a life sentence.  He had an issue. He dealt with it.

I am not making a comment or commentary on crime or the sentencing in this post . I am simply, purely sharing the words of this man.

Ghosts of Camacho Hill
by Gordon Grilz

Camacho Hill is the name prisoners
have given to the cemetery at the
Arizona State Prison at Florence

In predawn light
air thick with creosote and sage
coyotes assemble on the ridge
above the graves
camp dogs
singing their mourning song
of a thousand years

Dust devils dance on the graves
under a Sonoran summer sun
spirits ascend
in a sandy whirlwind
vultures ride the rising thermals

When the western sky has blossomed
scarlet and lavender and rose
voices carry
Spanish Navajo English Apache
lost prayers
blown against a chain link fence
in a dust storm

Below a full desert moon
shadows move among white headstones
desperate men
sifting through years
searching for moments
working to redeem
what they threw away with both hands

~The Prison Librarian

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