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What can a lifer accomplish in prison?

I AM ONE of the lifer-dinosaurs still in prison after 36 years. I am innocent, but that is another subject.

I came to prison after being a mechanical engineer, graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, and working for U.S. Steel in Construction Engineering. Early in my 26 years at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh (formerly the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania), I performed clinical duties in the hospital and was re-educated in college programs, in English and Psychology. I taught college courses for 20 years for the University of Pittsburgh at Western Penitentiary and won awards for my writing. I am listed in Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, Contemporary Authors, International Who's Who in Poetry, and elsewhere. I have contributed to Confrontation over the years; it is my favorite literary magazine.

With five books and two university degrees to my credit; having taught over 100 college courses to fellow prisoners; having worked as a Poet-in-the-Schools for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; having founded the Academy of Prison Arts; being the first prisoner ever certified by NCEE examination as an Engineer-in-Training; becoming a full Member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, I could write about accomplishments like reinforcing the laundry floor or designing (and constructing/erecting) a new make-up tank for boilers at Western Penitentiary's power plant, or about a redesign and rebuilding of the coal handling system (a project budgeted at $150,000 that we prisoners brought in for $25,000). The green coal elevator still sticks above the walls at Western. This writer was literally forced to design a new main gate for the prison, a gate which we then built.

This essay could be about mobile bear traps designed for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, trailer-mounted to catch and relocate bears that stray too close to people habitats. After we manufactured more than fifty of them, we ran into a problem. A bear was running loose in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The bear defied capture. The Warden said to me one day, "Minarik, these bear traps of yours don't work." I said: "Warden, the problem is the bait being used. Everyone knows donuts will only catch cops."

Or this essay could be about the four roll-over simulators designed and manufactured for the Pennsylvania State Police, and used to demonstrate seat-belt safety at state fairs. There is a letter in this prisoner's jacket from the Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police acknowledging the work on the project.

Yet one accomplishment means most to me--starting the first play area for children in a prison waiting room. In 1972 a group of students studying Child Development needed a practicum. Our idea of creating a special space for children in the prison waiting room--a carpeted play area with toys--had not been considered until that time. Fred "Mister" Rogers visited our class. When we could not convince the Warden to allow the creation of the play area, Fred phoned the Commissioner of Corrections. Just as Fred had done with the Sears and Roebuck Foundation when he requested money to sponsor a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," so too did his voice here make a difference. Just as children of Sears decision-makers were excited to hear about Daddy talking to Mr. Rogers, so too were the children of the Commissioners and their friends. When the Commissioner phoned the Warden and asked: "Don't you think this would be a good idea?" he got the likeliest answer given the situation. It was "Yes." Shortly afterward, the Rogers-McFeely Foundation granted money to remove concrete-block pillars, put down carpeting, and buy toys and toy cabinets. Prisoners engaged in studying children development served as play monitors, and they (I was among them) observed children's behavior, played with puppets for the amusement of the children, and (perhaps most important) listened to them.

Academic journals acknowledge that the first prison play area visiting room was created at Western Penitentiary in 19772.

Fred "Mister" Rogers was a good neighbor for us prisoners.

I enjoyed a long relationship with Fred. In 1979, when I was chosen by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in Juried Competition among Pennsylvania writers to be a member of the Poets-in-the Schools program, there was a sticking point. The grant award did not cover transportation costs to another prison. To resolve the problem, an anonymous donor to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts appeared on the scene unseen. Although I have not been able to confirm this, I believe (and have always done so) that Fred made that anonymous donation earmarked to cover the transportation costs. When I spoke with Fred immediately after the announcement of the donation, he would only say that we were at the beginning of many good things. He was right. The program worked well for everyone.

My teaching in the PITS program continued through 1983. Fred Rogers gave me the support any writer needs in his/her lifetime, but even more for a man behind bars. In 2003 Fred passed away. I miss him dearly, but can feel his presence each time I read his posthumous book, The World According to Mister Rogers. It is a book I recommend with all my heart.

One of my former students published a book that was later made into a made-for-TV movie on Showtime. Several of my former students have published their work extensively. What can a lifer-dinosaur accomplish in prison? He can write this essay sitting in a prison cell, typing on a typewriter. He can know he is reaching people.
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Title Annotation:Memoirs
Author:Minarik, John Paul
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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