The old jail sat across from a Goodwill, near that po’boy shop where Barack Obama ordered lunch in 2010. Orleans Parish Prison was still operating for years after it was said to be closing, during which time it deteriorated enough to prompt more than a handful of human rights inquiries. From 2015 to 2017, I was a volunteer writing teacher there. I taught in a mostly empty cellblock beneath a busted television.
When you tell (white) people that you teach creative writing in a jail, there’s this look that they give you. Their eyebrows go up and then either descend way too fast in dismissal, like you’re engaged in the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard of, or they’ll hit the opposite end of the spectrum, where they stay up there, like, what you’re doing is the very best thing, a thing that the speaker couldn’t possibly imagine themselves doing. And that’s probably because, in supposedly liberal American conversation, there’s a perceived dichotomy between our incarceration state and our six-speed-powered lives. But going to jail is literally one of the easiest things you can do in this country. You could go to jail today. And in the city of New Orleans, it couldn’t be easier.
Unfortunately, one of the most difficult things to do is get out. Until recently, New Orleans’s cash bail system was set up in a way that, like most institutions in this country, punished the poor infinitely more than those who could pay up. This meant that if you were picked up on Chartres Street, at midnight, after a night of some light drinking, let’s say, under suspicion of some crime or another that there maybe wasn’t an iota of evidence of, out of the abyss, and were hauled into OPP, you’d have to pay an exorbitant sum to get out, and if you could not pay that fee then you were stuck in what was effectively a debtor’s prison. That system disproportionately affects lower-income populations, and New Orleans is a city where lot of income goes toward rent, so you’d be choosing, with no notice at all, between food and a place for your kids and the light bill off of a middling hourly wage, or staying in jail. Bills for your mother’s monthly meds or jail. A car note or jail. The water bill or jail.
The United States incarcerates a larger chunk of its population than any other country in the world, and, until two months ago, the state of Louisiana incarcerated more humans than any state in the United States. (Now it’s a close second to Oklahoma.) The largest incarcerated demographic in Louisiana is black folks, who make up something like 32 percent of the state’s general population. Within New Orleans, specifically, that number is nearly doubled.
What usually happened in the old jail, after we’d been signed in, was that we were brought into the block with whichever folks were interested in reading that day. Sometimes, signing in took hours. Sometimes, it took 13 seconds. It’s been well documented what the old jail’s conditions were like, but reading about that on your iPhone or whatever and walking around it are two different things: it was jail. A collection of rooms and squares housing humans, in absurdly tight quarters and with minimal oversight. On the way to the commons, I’d pass this grassy field, and a series of overpopulated open cages, and cage is not a flighty MFA word choice—that’s just what they were. It was always very, very loud in the jail, except for when there wasn’t any sound at all. I’ve been told that the premises were rank, but my sense of smell isn’t too good.
Our students were whichever men, and occasionally women, were interested in reading that day, a day in the middle of what might be one of the worst points of their lives. We had a handful of frequent students, but their attendance depended on the jail’s internal rhythms. Usually, classes rounded out at groups of six or eight. There were the long-term folks, and the short-term folks, and most of our students were black, but sometimes we taught a slightly mixed group: I taught one Cambodian student, four Honduran dudes, and another guy from El Salvador.
Virtually all of my teaching sessions passed by without incident. On the off chance that there was a fight somewhere in the jail, either absolutely nothing happened whatsoever or our students were forcibly escorted out for the day. If the jail’s siren went off above us, we’d wait until it stopped doing that. The interruption could’ve been anything. We were never told what it was.
One of the first times I went to OPP, passing the double doors by the security booth that stood in front of the exterior gates, a group of men in chains was being escorted by guards through a narrow hallway, and this guy and I made eye contact for too long so we did the nigga head nod and he raised a hand to wave. But he couldn’t, because he was shackled. He wasn’t too far from my age. The folks around him kept it moving, and he grinned, like, Shit, man, what can you do.
We read aloud. We started with Lucille Clifton and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and Warsan Shire and Álvaro Mutis. We read Sandra Cisneros and Min Jin Lee and bell hooks. We spent whole afternoons on the wheelbarrow poem and the other one about the plums. One day, we talked about white space on the page, and also the city’s Honduran population. One day, we talked about the humidity, and the weather outside. Everyone was open to reading everything (or at least trying it out), and there wasn’t, in my experience, a moment or strain of piece that was rejected outright or even especially resisted. More often than not, when the sociopolitical context for a narrative was fuzzy, one student would speak up and clarify it for their peers.
Some days, if everyone wasn’t exhausted from life at a jail in New Orleans, we’d do writing exercises and the students wrote what they wrote. It isn’t your business or honestly even mine to tell you what that looked like, but there were common themes: A porch. A beach. Kids. A partner. An Abita. Grass. Fishing. A chair that only they had sat in. A whole day at the barbershop. A bathtub that they’d run for the sake of running it, one they don’t even have to get inside of. A long drive. An uncle. The possibility of children. Sitting at the dinner table after a meal and not having to get up or anything, just sitting there and being still. Brothers. Mothers.
None of my students wrote about New Orleans, although many of them wrote about leaving the city. There wasn’t anything about Mardi Gras. Insofar as a common theme existed, it was living. The students wrote about the same things, in the same way, that you’d find on the shelves of your local indie bookstore.
One day, we asked our students to curate a dinner menu. After a long minute of exasperation (a prolonged, synchronized groan), and another ten minutes of pressing on the details (cost being the main question, followed by the limit on courses, the location, and who all could be invited or disinvited), what followed was probably the most raucous hour I spent with my students at the jail. Everyone agreed that there would be ribs. No one could agree on the presence of beer. But once beer was agreed upon (though only one per person), there were arguments over the correct length of time to fry the fish, how long to cook the rice, how long to cook the beans, how long to cook the grits, where to cater the jambalaya from and how much salt was enough salt and whose mother was baking the biscuits and why. One man said that his mother would cook everything, naturally, because she was the best, and another guy told him that was too easy, and the first man told him that didn’t make it wrong.
Another day, we read an excerpt from a piece about Christmas in the city, and a student coughed and raised his hand to say that it wasn’t an accurate depiction at all. Not even a little bit. A few of the other guys joined him, a little tentatively at first, before filling out the piece with their experiences: an emptied French Quarter; too many cops on Carrollton; time spent with family, or missing family, and when someone brought this up the room became noticeably warmer.
When I asked them if they could write some of those things down, one guy who wasn’t especially big on talking asked why that mattered, and what it would change. It wouldn’t fucking do anything.
So I told him he was right. Because of course it wouldn’t do anything. Not really. And I could do even less about his immediate situation than the ink in some notebook. But if he wrote his anecdotes down, he’d have written them down, and they’d be there. He would have that, until he decided to throw it away or whatever, and possibly even afterward.
The guy gave me what felt like the longest look. But then he leaned back and laughed and made a compromise: he’d tell his story, and we could all just carry that.
One of y’all can write it down, he said.
In most of the I Taught In A Horrible Place narratives I’ve read (written by well-meaning white folks), to say nothing of their counterparts on film, there’s that moment where the students question their instructor’s motives. Sometimes, it’s a slow-boiling conversation, but more often than not it is a kick in the balls. Their ability, and intentions, are brought to the pit and skewered. Their worldview is shattered and reframed. This did not happen to me.
I started teaching at OPP because New Orleans, on a good day, can be a wildly unlivable city. It is possible to live many lives in a night or two, to still be reeling from the repercussions of your actions months later—and not out of confusion that you did the thing, whatever it was, but that it was even possible to do. Like, that was me on the balcony of Dat Dog, nine beers in, singing the scales from “La Vie en Rose.” Or, like, that was me that walked from the corner chairs of Pat O’Briens to Manchu to Good Friends to Rawhide to Sidney’s Saloon to the Rampart Food Store and fell asleep under the bench beside the tram before I woke up the next morning and Lyft’d to waffles in the Bywater. In New Orleans, you could be that person, and also yourself,whatever that means. Or you can find out that you are that person. Either way, honing your reading and writing skills can make the city’s burden smaller. Even if only because that might make it more difficult for someone to hustle you. And this was an opportunity to pass the alphabet soup that was in my head to folks who might need to dissect a lease’s verbiage or the fine print of a job application or a future bail bond.
So we all got along fine. I was the queer black dude who brought in freaky books. One of the long-term students told me as much one afternoon. If any tension persisted in our classes, it was around the white folks I taught with—there was a general and specific confusion among them about why I found myself in the cellblock at all. More than one of my co-instructors mentioned my “instant rapport,” and my answer to that was no answer at all. I’d just blink at them. One time, working with new instructors, I stood up a little too quickly, and the woman beside me flinched, but it was too late, I already saw it.
There’s a moment in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation where a Japanese reporter describes returning to Earth from a tenure in space. Leaving Orleans Parish Prison on Tuesdays and Thursdays felt like that. Leaving New Orleans for Houston every weekend felt like that. These were the years that I drank maybe too much. I was antsier around cops, insofar as that was possible. I got back into video games, because these were preset universes. I was Nigeria or France or South Korea in FIFA. I farmed in Animal Crossing. I played The Wind Waker and sailed around in a boat for hours. Only so many things could go wrong in those spaces.
There was a night in the middle of all this where I went to teach, left, bought a banh mi from a convenience shop on Broad and Canal, downed a beer on their stoop, and caught a ride to Tulane’s campus to watch an Important Black British Author read. It cannot be overstated what the whiteness of a reading felt like in contrast to the Orleans Parish Prison. Surely you can imagine it. But the reading happened, and afterward, when she signed my book, the IBBA remembered I’d asked a question (ha). She asked if I was West Indian. (I’m half.) She asked where I’d just come from, and I said jail. It just came out of my mouth.
I have no small amount of admiration for this particular author, and her reaction is one that I think of often: there was the face she made when she heard me, and then the look in her eyes as a calculus played out, and before I could even acknowledge what I’d said one way or the other—before I even realized what’d happened, really—the IBBA twitched her nostrils, and grinned, and gave the smallest nod. She didn’t miss a beat. She asked how that was going. And we talked about the optics of Tulane versus the rest of the city, and we talked about suffering, and she signed my busted copy of The Autograph Man, taking care with her cursive. She asked about my life, and then I lingered, and she didn’t tell me to leave, but eventually I did because it was clear that it was time to move on.
Throughout the time I taught at OPP, campaigns were being run to keep the city’s Civil War monuments intact. One of these monuments stood near my apartment. One night at a gay bar on Decatur, a beautiful boy in a checkered purple button-down asked how I could possibly take issue with that. It was, he claimed, the past. That was history, he said, and it should be preserved, for posterity, and I smiled and I put my beer down and I just didn’t come back.
Once the old jail closed it was extremely difficult to get into the new jail. The paperwork you had to fill out was staggering. Screenings and training sessions and signatures were suddenly required. One time, I was walking back to my car with one of the administrators, and it was balmy in the way that New Orleans gets sometimes, and she said, Sometimes you can believe that people actually live on this block—but the truth is, to me, it just looked like any old neighborhood.
In the meantime, I fell into a volunteer gig teaching at a reentry program in Mid-City. The building was a community center, and there were always Vietnamese and Honduran folks practicing reading comprehension in the room next door. These reentry students were within a short window of leaving their jail tenures entirely, but every week they worked in the city and spent a few hours in the classroom. The important thing was that they also had to prepare for the HiSET, Louisiana’s high-school equivalency exam. After a full day of working (classes started around six p.m.), most of the students were exhausted, but everyone still wanted to learn. They’d make coffee and fondle their notebooks, falling asleep but still tuned in. A peer of mine asked why they even showed up if they were so tired, as if the mere fact of living in the South wasn’t responsible.
There is a thing that people say in New Orleans about it being the most northern Caribbean city. Every white person that’s told me this has said they came up with it. And while the statement might accidentally stand within the margins of accuracy (very few of them, I imagine, have spent real time in Kingston or Bridgetown or whatever they imagine the Islands to be), the truth is that, in the city’s willingness and ability to retaliate against and cage those without the luck of moneyed birth circumstances, adequate schooling, life opportunities, and inherited wealth, it is one of our most American cities. But that isn’t an original idea, either.
I guess what I’m saying is that, one day, we were in the reentry classroom, going around and sharing stories. This guy who never really talked told one about how he’d planned a surprise for his partner—she was Mexican, and in the process of gaining her citizenship—and what he did was cook her a meal. First course, second course. Cake and drinks. She came home that evening and was surprised. The food was horrible. But they ate together, and she enjoyed it, and he enjoyed her enjoying it.
When he’d finished, there was scattered clapping around the room. I told him the story was beautiful, and the guy frowned with his whole body.
Oh, he said. I didn’t think it was a story. Niggas really aren’t trying to hear that.
It is, I said. We are.
I didn’t know it counted though.
That’s all right. It counts.
Okay, said this guy. But I still don’t think anyone really cares.
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Bryan Washington, Essay