My name is David Scott Milton. I am a somewhat successful playwright (half a dozen plays off Broadway, one on Broadway for which the lead actor was nominated for a Tony), novelist (6 novels published) and screenwriter. I wrote Robert DeNiro's first major studio picture years and years ago. I also taught creative writing at USC for 33 years. You can check out my wikipedia page and website for more info.

In 1992, after my divorce, I had a lot of time on my hands. From my house on top of a mountain I could look down and see the local prison. I used to tell my wife "I bet there are a lot of stories down there". Once I was divorced I made some inquiries to find out if they'd be interested in having someone teach creative writing in the prison. It turned out the warden was a USC graduate. He said they had no classes on the maximum security yard, and asked if I'd be interested in teaching there. I said yes.

I have some wild stories to tell, so please AMA! Some of my former students include Lyle Menendez (of the parent murdering brothers Menendii), Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt, and the killers of Mexican mafia founder Rudolpho Cadena (plot of "American Me" starring Edward James Olmos as Cadena).

Also, I've recently made a video of my one-man show about my experiences in the prison available. So if this AMA piques your interest and you'd like to learn even more about what teaching murderers does to a man, please check out Murderers Are My Life.

You can also AMA about my career, making films, old time celebrities I knew and worked with (Katherine Hepburn, Shirley Jones, Sir Tyrone Guthrie and more).

Proof has been messaged to the mods re: working in the prisons, but here's a picture to prove I am who I say I am.

Edit 10:54 p.m. That's it for tonight folks! Thanks so much for asking questions, it was so much fun. I'll keep checking back in case anyone asks any more!

Edit 04.30.13 Came back to answer a few more questions :) Feel free to leave any and I'll keep checking back from time to time.

Comments: 98 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

cjazz10816 karma

So are all people redeemable, or are there truly some that have no conscience, and no empathy?

dsmilton33 karma

One of the astonishing things that I discovered in working in the prison- I had no idea of this from the outside- on the maximum yard, 5 to 10% of the inmates are unredeemable. They should probably be locked away and never thought of again. 5 to 10% (in my opinion) are likely innocent and wholly redeemable. The other 80% run the gamut from mostly redeemable to barely redeemable.

The tragedy is that they're all lumped together.

originalBanksta6 karma

What is it you think separates the irredeemable 10% from the rest?

dsmilton17 karma

I think the irredeemable 10% were just broken beyond repair. Either they were born sociopaths or life ground them down so hard and so fast that there wasn't enough human emotion remaining to work with. Though I'd say legitimate, diagnosable sociopaths were rare, there was definitely that 5 to 10% that was so without empathy that they might as well have been.

Most of the prisoners I met who were like that had had unspeakable things happen to them in childhood, so in a sense they were victims, but I couldn't pity them. I should add that not many of these ended up in my class. Once they were in prison many of them either became very apathetic or focused more on manipulating the hierarchy inside the prison for their own ends, and I wasn't useful in either case.

tinian_circus5 karma

There's been a lot of brain research conducted with death row inmates (perhaps an even more extreme group than the one you worked with).

The conclusions are still very much up for grabs, but significant brain injuries from childhood abuse seem a pretty common thread with these guys. It's not simply a rough childhood with poor role models that lead them down their path - their brains literally might have gotten pulped.

dsmilton2 karma

I wouldn't be at all surprised if that were the case with many of my students as well... Or maybe many of the inmates who couldn't qualify for my class due to behavioral issues. After my time working in the system I'm more convinced than ever that criminals are made, whether through brain injury, traumatic experience, circumstance, drug use... Of the hundreds of prisoners I met there were very very few that seemed "naturally bad". (Not that I'm an expert, just an observer of human behavior.)

roastedbagel7 karma

OP's work in the prison system has been verified.

lungsfortherace3 karma

Hi there! Thanks for posting. I actually created an account so I could comment/ask you question(s), so I hope you'll come back to this.

I find it interesting that you name Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt among the "murderers" you taught. His conviction was vacated after 27 years of false imprisonment. What sorts of things did he write about? Did he write about his innocence? Or about how the Feds set him up and intentionally surpressed exculpatory evidence?

I've thought about teaching writing/literature in prison but I've never known anyone who's done it. Was it full-time work? Part-time? Days?

I'm intimately acquainted with someone who was charged with and convicted of bullshit "terrorism" charges. When his case was first underway, the feds threatened him with a 25-30 year sentence for what amounted to $1500 worth of property damage. Anyway, my relationship with him and knowledge of the intricicasies of his case have left me with an extremely bitter taste in my mouth regarding our prison system and the federal judicial system in general. Did working with prisoners alter your perception of either or both of these entities?


dsmilton15 karma

Well, I name him as a student, because he was one, and when he was my student he was considered a murderer... But he was somewhat famous on the yard as an "elder statesman" and his innocence was widely accepted among the inmates. And believe me, inmates are less likely than anyone to believe one of their fellows is innocent.

He was one of the few who didn't write much about his situation or what brought him to prison. He wrote about his life and childhood, the Black Panther movement, and a few times about his wife (who was murdered while pregnant). I think that he spent so much of his time working on his case and appeals that he wanted to think about something else in my class.

It was part-time contract work, one day a week, and I was paid per class. It wasn't a lot of money, but when I taught in a few different prisons at a time it added up. Unfortunately California has cut those programs now, but other states might still have them.

I taught in state prisons so I don't have as much knowledge about the federal judicial system. I know one thing that bothered me most about what I learned about the system was the randomness of it. Two people having committed the exact same crime were often convicted of two very different charges, or sometimes given wildly differing sentences. I used to believe that when that happened there was a justification for it, but now I know first-hand that sometimes the justifications are flimsy at best. The system is very racist, from what I've observed, and it's disgusting.

andthesmokerises6 karma

Do the prisoners write autobiographical stories or do they write about a topic of their choice?

dsmilton17 karma

They can write about anything, but 99% write about their lives and their crimes. An exception was Lyle Menendez, who was working on a book about Andrew Johnson and the post Civil War period.

Confuzn1 karma

No way! Not sure if this has been asked... Was it any good? Did the prison library have good sources?

dsmilton1 karma

It probably wasn't bad from the standpoint of information etc. Lyle went to Princeton I believe, and it's entirely possible that book started out as a research project for school or something because it had that kind of feel. But it was bad from the standpoint of readability, which is to say that it bored me to tears (but anything on that topic may have). The prison library was pretty sparse so I doubt he got his sources there, but one of the main things inmates ask their correspondants for is books so I assume he had a small collection of reference works.

Confuzn1 karma

Wow that sounds incredibly interesting... As a "normal" person, you just don't think about the stuff that prisoners are capable of (i.e. smarts wise) and why they would choose to learn more about... everything. I guess if there's not much else to do, then that's a really good use of time. Thanks for answering.

dsmilton1 karma

It was surprising the number of inmates who spent their time educating themselves, especially since many of them were never getting out. Many of them got their GED while in prison, and many others had multiple BAs, some masters degrees, even law degrees (though obviously not admitted to the bar). They have nothing but time, and there's only so many pushups you can do.

My pleasure, this AMA has been so fun!

mzjen856 karma

What was it like working with Katherine Hepburn? Did you work on a project together? What was the most memorable moment you had working with her?

dsmilton11 karma

We were in a production of "The Merchant of Venice" together in Stratford, Connecticut, a million years ago (1957). She was a truly great actress, awe-inspiring to watch. She was Portia, and every night I'd stand in the wings and watch her "quality of mercy" speech... And it always felt so visceral and real, to a degree few performers ever matched.

The most memorable moment... Well, I ask you to remember, I was young then, and stupid. We'd had some passing conversation about a book, and she invited me back to her cottage so she could lend it to me. I... Kind of thought I was about to have sex with Katharine Hepburn. But actually she really wanted to lend me a book. I was a little embarrassed around her after that, because I'm pretty sure she could tell what I had been thinking.

I do remember that she was very devoted to Spencer Tracy, and referenced him frequently, which surprised me a little because while their affair was an open secret, I suppose I still expected it to be secret.

FletcherPratt3 karma

I... Kind of thought I was about to have sex with Katharine Hepburn.

This is as close to nirvana as I'll ever get

dsmilton5 karma

Also as close to nirvana as I ever got :(

shanim136 karma

What was the most interesting story one of your students has written?

dsmilton8 karma

One of my murderers wrote a long poem about the killing he did. It was very, very well done, very moving. Another of my students, Ken Hartman, wrote a novel memoir in my class which was eventually published to much critical acclaim ("Mother California").

puredemo3 karma

Just read some reviews of Mother California... wow.

What was Ken like to teach / work with?

dsmilton14 karma

Ken was one of my favorite students. He's serving life without parole for a murder he committed when he was 19, and he's certainly guilty of the crime. But he's one of the ones I felt sympathy for, because while his crime was reprehensible I think his sentencing was harsh; he could have eventually been rehabilitated, but at 19 the state gave up on him.

He had been interested in writing even before my class, and had often tried to get editorials about life in prison published in newspapers and magazines. They were always rejected and he couldn't understand why. I had to explain to him that the majority of people thought murderers deserved to rot and subsist on bread and water, so approaching the subject as though he'd been wronged (even though to an extent I think he was) would never get any sympathy. This seemed to kind of set off a lightbulb in his mind. His tone and approach changed, and I think that can be seen in Mother California. Not that I'm responsible for his great work! He was already very talented when I met him and needed only a little guidance.

We're still in contact to this day, and I consider him a friend.

puredemo8 karma

That's amazing, good for you man.

Prison reform is a tough issue. Sometimes a teen will commit murder at 15, get off light (15 - 20 years or so) and go right back to doing something atrocious. Other times, people rot away in cages when they've been rehabilitated for years.

I'm a big fan of electronically monitored house arrest for many of the grey areas in the justice system, but it's taking its sweet time to catch on.

dsmilton6 karma

It is a very difficult issue... As much as I think reform to sentencing guidelines and methods of punishment etc. could help, I think the two things that would help most are changes to the way we treat drug users and changes to the education system. The latter is a gargantuan task and one I'm not sure how to tackle, but a majority of my students came from low income families with poor opportunities for education and eventually turned to crime as a way out of poverty. (Not to justify this, but it's a cycle we can't afford to ignore).

hellowhoami6 karma


dsmilton11 karma

I was surprised first by the number of uneducated prisoners who wanted to take a creative writing course. Many of my students read and wrote at about a 3rd grade level. They either dropped out of school or never paid attention in school, but they still wanted to take my class and they were welcome. I was then surprised by how much these students improved over time, how much effort they put into their stories. I think it gave them something to do and also a kind of catharsis.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how much I liked some of these men. I actually became friends with some of them, which is just... Bizarre. It goes back to that idea I had, that murderers were completely different from normal people, and it was a shock to realize that I could have a friendly conversation with someone, knowing they had murdered someone, and still enjoy it and their company. Still seems weird.

oneannie5 karma

How do these inmates write about their murder, in terms of purpose? Do you find the detailing of their murders to be more for justification of their actions, are they full of regret? Or is writing a way to indulge or relive the murders? Also, you mentioned how you wrote a couple books based on the inmates' you were teaching -- did you have to ask for their permission to write about them? Even if they said no would you still be able to? Legally and morally?

dsmilton7 karma

Almost all of those who do write about their crimes write in a way that justifies them to some extent. I specifically remember one student who was convicted of murdering his dealer... According to what he wrote, he had no choice because the dealer had been threatening his family. I'm not saying that wasn't part of the motivation, but surely the fact that he also stole the guy's stash was part of it. For the most part the ones who admit they're guilty write about their guilt in the best possible light, whether they're consciously trying to justify it or not. Many of them regretted what they had done, even when they justified it. A fair number claimed to be innocent and wrote about the injustice that had been done to them, but I only ever believed a very few.

I only had a few students who were the type to want to relive the murderers, but they never hid that fact in their writing. One student was a sneak thief/murderer who got off on burgling people's houses while they were home. If they discovered him, he killed them, and that got him off too. He wrote about how much he enjoyed it, and it was very hard to read. Also hard to work with him after reading that.

As far as the writing, I didn't have to ask for permission, but I also took care to change names etc. In the fictional novel I wrote, the characters are made up, just using some of the details of various students' lives. In the one-man show, the characters are all students I had, but some are conflated and details are changed. The names and details of the crimes are not always, and I don't feel morally wrong about this, because that information is public record.

oneannie2 karma

Thanks for that awesomely informative answer! I'll buy a book of yours if I can find them up in Canada :)

dsmilton6 karma

You're very welcome; I'm having such a ball answering questions!

Not to brag or seem like a shill, but my books are available on Amazon and on my website :)



destinedforlondon5 karma

1) I'm curious about their perception of you. When introducing yourself, did you speak about your career? Did they treat you better or worse because of it? 2)Since most of them were not likely to see the outside world again, did they ask you questions about how things had changed since their imprisonment? Were you allowed to speak about things unrelated to your course?

dsmilton6 karma

  1. When introducing myself I did speak briefly about my career, I suppose so they would know that I was qualified to be teaching the class. A lot of them got a real kick out of the fact that I was a "Hollywood screenwriter". They also were somewhat impressed that I taught at a big fancy college like USC. But they'd also rib me about my lack of street smarts and being in the ivory tower (though they seldom referred to it that way).

  2. They did ask questions about the world, and I was allowed to answer them, but mostly they wanted to know about news events, not so much how the world itself was different. It was more that they wanted to know what was going on in it. Some would ask questions about things their loved ones had mentioned, wars and elections and whatever. But I wasn't their only link to the outside world (letters, visits, guards), and for the most part they asked more about writing, literature and art than anything else, since I was their only resource for that.

Edit: They also asked a lot about me, and that was the one subject I didn't want to talk about. I didn't want them to know, for example, that I lived just a few miles from the prison they called home, or anything about my family except that I had one.

kendostickball5 karma

I have 2 questions:

  1. Are you often on Reddit or how did you hear about AMA? I always enjoy it when someone with a very unique story, such as yourself, does an AMA and isn't just trying to plug their new major release movie.

  2. Do you have any children? I'm interested in knowing how life as a play writer and teacher in prison affected that relationship.

dsmilton17 karma

The answer to your first question partially answers your second... My daughter is a "Redditor". She's been encouraging me to do an AMA, I think to stop me from rambling about these things to her :) I mostly browse Reddit for the news and literature forums, but until now I've only "lurked". She made me register and it's been enjoyable so far!

To answer your second question more thoroughly, I have a son and a daughter. I'd say my life as a playwright etc. affected my relationships by making me a... "Player" I suppose is the term. I lived the bachelor's life in NYC and L.A. for a long time, and didn't get married until I was almost 50. My daughter is very much like me, interested in writing and the arts, while my son is very different (but I love them both equally of course).

Teaching in the prisons actually gave me an even greater appreciation for my children, because so many of my students were separated from their families. Many of them had children they hadn't seen since they were babies, and many had older children who never visited. I'd sometimes talk about my family, and the students, these hardened murderers, would always tell me to be safe and hug my kids.

ChaiHai1 karma

For some reason I find it really sweet that the murderers would tell you to be safe and hug your kids. :)

dsmilton1 karma

It always moved me. As a father myself I felt the most sympathy for the parents who were separated from their children.

aebruner5 karma

What were your max security students interested in, literature- and writing-wise? How has knowing them changed your own writing style or viewpoint?

dsmilton11 karma

Sorry, I missed the last half of your question!

In terms of viewpoint, it made me much more open to the complexities of human behavior. I'm much less judgmental now, having known these men and liked some of them. Felons are much more varied and complex that we often believe, and evil comes in all gradations. It also showed me that the line between murder and "normal behavior" is much, much thinner than I ever imagined.

Writing-wise, I think it's given me a better sense of authenticity in my own work. I write a lot of detective novels, but now my criminal characters are more fleshed-out and real.

dsmilton7 karma

Unfortunately the prison library was very sparse in good literature. So most of the stuff that they read was commercial stuff: Sydney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins. But every once in a while I would get a prisoner who was interested in the classics and went out of his way to read them... But that was rare.

I spoke to them a lot about good writers, and maybe they became interested that way.

silkyhankering4 karma

  1. What portion of the inmates took your class?
  2. Was it like show and tell where they would read portions of their work aloud?
  3. Did they ever show you any sort of resentment for being a free man?

dsmilton6 karma

  1. It varied from prison to prison, but I'd say more than 70% of the people who were eligible for it took it. Not everyone was allowed to because it was considered a privilege and a reward for good behavior. I would not say that everyone who took the class was actually interested in writing... But what else is there to do when you're locked up forever? Many inmates made a hobby of learning everything, whether it interested them or not.

  2. We would alternate from week to week. Sometimes I would give them prompts and assignments, or answer questions, and once they all had something written I'd have them read it aloud so the class could offer critique. There were a few times that backfired, and someone got so offended that fights almost broke out, but I learned pretty quickly the best way to moderate the discussion to avoid that!

  3. I wouldn't say there was resentment. There was a kind of jealousy, or maybe wistfulness, because most of them wished to be free, but I don't think they held my freedom against me. Some students would get angry sometimes, and respond to my attempts to teach or critique them by saying that I had no idea what their lives were like... Which was true.

iammas4 karma

Were you ever scared for your life or threatened by any of the prisoners you taught? And what is your craziest/wildest experience teaching at the prison?

dsmilton24 karma

There were half a dozen times over 13 years where I thought I was in serious danger. These were one-on-one confrontations where, if the prisoner had felt like killing me, I'd have been dead... And I thought he might feel like killing me.

The craziest was when a female guard was walked off the yard after she was caught en flagrante delicto with an inmate. They escorted her off the yard, and it turned out her husband worked there too. He was a tower guard with a loudspeaker, and he was screaming insults at her as they walked her off. Also, as a tower guard, he had a gun, but luckily he never fired at her. All the inmates were forced to lie flat on the ground, but they found the whole thing very entertaining, hooting and hollering. It was a madhouse.

iammas9 karma

I can't believe she would be so stupid while her husband was working there!

dsmilton12 karma

Especially considering he was armed! But I suppose no one expects to get caught. And the human capacity for foolishness is endless.

shoulderless3 karma

Firstly I would like to say how amazing your answers are it truly sounds like a great experience, and you must be a good person to be able to be patient and listen to these hard stories for days. Very inspirational. My question is: what makes someone that you felt to be redeemable from one barely redeemable or completely unredeemable? For example was it in their writing that you could make such a judgement or possibly in their behavior and attitude?

dsmilton9 karma

Honestly I don't know how good of a person I am, or at least how pure my motives were in this case... I needed the money and I thought I'd find things to write about. But I like to think my involvement with them became about more than that for me :)

The completely unredeemable ones were strangely easy to spot. They might be charming or quiet, talented or not, but they all had dead eyes. We call them "tombstone eyes" and some people get them after they've been in too long... Some just have them naturally, because they're sociopaths. But from their writing they were discernable as well, because they were the ones who didn't claim they were innocent or justify their crimes.

Of course, I say they were easy to spot only because I spotted some... Who knows if I spotted them all.

My determination of how redeemable someone was was based on their behavior and their writing, and above all how genuinely they regretted their actions and how much they accepted responsibility for them. So there was a spectrum, because people regretted their crimes to different degrees and took responsibility to different degrees. There were some who had been in so long they wouldn't know how to function in the real world, and even if they were rehabilitated I didn't think could ever be reintegrated into society. And there were some, not many but some, who I believe were fully rehabilitated and could have been released with no danger. Ken Hartman being one of them.

But then of course that brings up the issue of whether prison ought to be punitive or rehabilitative and that's quite a long debate.

ondok3 karma

How has working in the prison affected you? Both you personally and your views on prisoners/prisons.

dsmilton4 karma

When I first started, I was very interested in my students and their stories, interested in the whole world they inhabited. But as time went on it really wore on me, reading about their murders, hearing about their abuse (many of them had been abused horribly as children by monsters before becoming monsters themselves)... It's a coldness that seeps into your soul, and eventually it becomes almost too much to handle. I think it's similar (though not nearly as intense) as what social workers experience, just being exposed to the full spectrum of human cruelty.

As far as my views on prisoners and prisons, the main thing that was affected was my judgmental nature. Before I went in, I saw crime as black and white. I was a proponent of the death penalty. And I believed there was something fundamentally different between me and someone who could commit murder. Teaching in the prisons taught me that there is very little separating any of us from a criminal. I had very few students who I believe were sociopaths, completely irredeemable. Most of the students I worked with were just kids who never had a chance and grew up to be something horrible. And many of the students I worked with were normal people who made one horrible mistake while high, or in a fit of rage or jealousy.

I also no longer believe in the death penalty, because there were a few students I had who I genuinely believe were innocent.

agcohen20003 karma

Did any of the inmates ever ask you to bring in contraband, or try to get you to do things for them on the outside?

dsmilton6 karma

I was always amazed by the vast array of contraband prisoners managed to get their hands on! But I think by and large they considered me a kind of authority figure so there was never any direct request... One inmate did sort of suggest that a certain teacher might be able to supplement his income if he could help certain students procure cigarettes... But I just pretended I didn't understand and he dropped it.

Grind563 karma

Have any of the inmates ever became violent towards you or another inmate during class? Or does everyone usually get along?

dsmilton8 karma

For the most part everyone got along, not because they actually got along but because they knew classes were a privilege and could be cancelled at the slightest provocation. Also the classes were only available to those with good behavior to begin with so they weren't usually the troublemakers. There were a few tense moments when people took critique badly, and some threats were bandied about. I do remember when I first started they gave me a panic button... I said "So if they're trying to kill me, I push this?" and they said "No, no, if they're trying to kill you you're out of luck, the button is for if they're trying to kill each other". I never had to use it, thankfully!

I had a few tense standoffs with students, including one where a neo-Nazi stayed behind to intimidate me (I'm Jewish), but they knew how to walk the fine line that kept them from getting kicked out.

linakun2 karma

What's one thing that an inmate has said or done that has truely touched you? I always thought that too about prisons, plenty of stories to be told but no one to hear them out! Sounds like a really cool experience!

dsmilton1 karma

I wrote this in response to a new question but I think it answers yours as well: "One inmate wrote the most beautiful poem about a visit he had with his young daughter, and holding her, and how she was an angel. But at the end it becomes clear that it was only a dream and he hasn't seen his daughter in 30 years, since shortly after she was born. That hurt."

There was also one particular inmate who was genuinely one of the sweetest people I've ever met. He was remorseful about his crime and in my opinion rehabilitated. Everyone in the class and on the yard liked and respected him, even the guards. He was always willing to help out his fellow students inside and outside of class. One day, surprisingly, he didn't come to class. After asking around I found out he was dying of cancer and at some point was moved to a hospital (a real one, not a prison facility). I went to visit him and here was this man, near death, handcuffed to his bed with three guards outside his door. But he was as sweet as ever, and thanked me for helping make his time inside a little more bearable. That moved me because I had such respect for him and felt so awful for the situation he was in (which he had brought on himself, I know, but it was still an awful way to end up). A truly wasted life.

hansodoski2 karma

Have you come across any inmates that you genuinely felt were "evil"?

dsmilton2 karma

There have been a few which I think I've mentioned elsewhere (especially the sneak thief who would choose whether or not a family would die based on whether they noticed him stealing from them). More common was to come across inmates who seemed mostly human yet had done truly evil things. Some I was never able to wrap my mind around, like the intelligent, soft-spoken man who was in for murdering a woman and her baby with a sledgehammer (he maintained that he was innocent, however, though I didn't believe him). So I guess it comes down to whether someone can do something completely evil and not themselves be evil. I think it's a lot more possible than anyone realizes. Though it would be more comforting to think that only evil people do evil things.

ChiliJones2 karma

  1. Would you rather fight off one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

  2. In another question, you mentioned that there were a few times your life could have been threatened. Before working in the prison, did you have to go through any kind of training or was it more of a "well, you know the risks!" scenario?

dsmilton19 karma

  1. One horse-sized duck, because after I triumphed over it I'd have a plethora of tasty meals! Duck ala orange, peking duck, duck au poivre... Other things you can make with duck, I don't know. I love duck!

  2. It was "you know the risks" all the way. Once I actually worked there, every year we went through a training session with the guards, but before I started there was no training. They said that most people from the outside didn't last long working in prisons, which I guess is why they didn't bother beforehand. Apparently it takes a certain kind of person to deal with murderers all day... And apparently I'm that certain kind of person.

RedRedEyes2 karma

Has your work in the prisons inspired any of your own writing?

dsmilton3 karma

Absolutely. I wrote a novel, "The Fat Lady Sings", which is a fictionalized account about a lot of my work with the inmates. I also wrote a one-man show called "Murderers Are My Life", which is completely based on my experience teaching there. I like to think it genuinely reveals what happens in a maximum security prison, and what the prisoners are like.

I also wrote a script based on one of my students, who had escaped from various maximum security prisons 10 times, but it never went anywhere unfortunately.

Asshole_Salad3 karma

I also wrote a script based on one of my students, who had escaped from various maximum security prisons 10 times, but it never went anywhere unfortunately.

That's some nice irony right there! And a most excellent AMA! This really deserves to be bigger.

dsmilton3 karma

I wish I could say that I did that on purpose, but alas I did not!

Thank you :) I'm just glad a few people were interested enough to ask questions1

lesbillionare2 karma

Dude! I'm trying to get into USC's Screenwriting program next year. Do you have any tips or suggestions for getting in?

Also: How did your experience teaching in the prison influence your own writing?

dsmilton4 karma

To an extent it depends on whether you're applying to the undergrad or graduate program. Either way I'd say to make sure you have positively glowing recommendation letters, especially from any creative writing teachers/professors, specifically mentioning your talent as a writer as well as your excellence as a student. In addition be certain that the writing samples you submit are the finest, truest examples of your style and work. And finally, if you don't get in the first time, keep improving your submissions and keep applying. I had many students who were only admitted after the second or third try.

I answered the second question above: "Writing-wise, I think it's given me a better sense of authenticity in my own work. I write a lot of detective novels, but now my criminal characters are more fleshed-out and real."

But to expand on that, it really helped me see shades of gray whereas before I saw only black and white... I think that now all my characters, not just the criminal ones, are more nuanced and hopefully more interesting because of it.

lesbillionare3 karma

Cool man, thanks for the reply. I'm trying to get into the graduate program and I know it's incredibly competitive.

Other than stellar writing (which I'm sure is the most important part of the application) what do you think makes an applicant stand out? What are the department heads/admissions committee members really looking for?

Sorry for turning this into an academic advisor session, haha.

dsmilton5 karma

It's not going to be a very useful advisory session just because I never had any sway over admissions. Some of the students who got in on the second or third try were brilliant, and I imagine should have been admitted immediately... Others were mediocre and shouldn't have been admitted at all (in my estimation). I think the thing that stands out the most is just your talent. They don't want people who are good... They want people who are great. Who don't just have a voice, but who also want to use it to say something interesting. The best thing you can do is show that through your writing samples.

Sorry it's not an easy answer... "Just be talented" isn't especially helpful, I know, but if you combine talent with persistence you have the best shot.

KrazyK9Lady1 karma

This has been spellbinding to read. Thank you for your time, honesty, and candor.
Since you've started this, do you ever hear people say things about prisons or inmates that strikes you like nails on a chalkboard, yet before you'd never have noticed? Is there anything in particular you'd like to share that no one has yet asked?

dsmilton2 karma

Sorry for the delay on answering this, I didn't understand what that orange envelope meant! I think before my experiences teaching in the prison I believed that criminals were getting what they deserved, that whatever ill treatment they received was just. Now I believe that almost everyone has the capacity to change, and that many of these prisoners deserve the chance to contribute to the world (like my friend Ken). I no longer believe in the death penalty not just because I truly believe I've met innocent men in prison, but also because even men I've known who did horrible things and were undeniably guilty changed for the better behind bars.

Santorum_20161 karma

What do you think of the prison-for-profit system?

dsmilton2 karma

On the one hand, I think it has too high a potential for abuse for it to be a good thing. The recent scandal about the judge taking bribes to send juveniles to for-profit facilities is an extreme example of the kind of corruption that can take place. But on the other hand I've heard that some of the for-profit prisons are preferable to state or federal ones, less "institutional".

I think in the end it comes down to oversight to prevent corruption and abuse, but overall I don't see how it's a workable system. The state and federal systems are obviously run at a loss, and I assume to get the contract the private facilities have to cost the state less than running their own facility would. The state itself already gives the contracts for food, laundry, etc. to the lowest bidder. It seems to me there's not much space to carve out a profit margin without providing substandard facilities or very few guards.

That's just my analysis, however, I have no special knowledge on the subject.

PhilGarber1 karma

I'm a photographer beginning a long-term photography series in the prison system this Thursday; I'm starting at a youth correctional facility. I want to show the basic humanity of these inmates - As you said the vast majority are redeemable. Any tips on gaining mutual respect? I have a severe stutter and I'm only 18 - Will they tear me apart?

dsmilton1 karma

First, I'm not sure how different the inmates are between youth facilities and adult facilities. Generally speaking teenagers are more voltile and concerned with posturing/what their peers think. They're also less likely to have been inside a long time, which appears to me to have a mellowing effect (because they know the routine, their place in the hierarchy, the value of good behavior in terms of rewards, etc.). Second, remember that I said that the ones who are redeemable are on a spectrum; some are more redeemable than others. I say this to caution you because while I applaud your efforts I worry that your situation will be different from mine, as I was in a position of semi-authority, and want you to be prepared.

That said I think it's a great endeavor; I would think the youth even more than the adults still have their humanity left for the world to see. My advice would be the same that I got from training sessions: treat them as people first and prisoners second. Don't show disdain, be polite the same way you would be to anyone else (please, thank you, excuse me... That's rare in prison). If they want to talk to you, listen with interest. I don't know how much of a factor your age will be. If it's a youth facility I suppose at worst the oldest inmates will be a few years older than you.

As far as the stutter, prison is fairly harsh on people who are noticeably different, so you might find yourself teased for it. My advice would be to stand up for yourself as much as you can while remaining safe. Don't show fear or let the insults upset you, because just as in life in general that's what they're looking for, a reaction. In the context of a correctional facility it is even more imperative that you not give them that reaction because once you do you'll be seen as weak, and the teasing will never stop.

Again, stay safe, and follow with precision whatever your guards/advisors tell you to do in terms of safety and level of interaction. Don't let the guards' possible disdain for the inmates color your own judgement. The guards see the worst of their behavior day in and day out; their job is hard, and at the end of the day many of them don't have the energy to look for the best in these people*. Hopefully you'll be able to find it and show it.

*I don't mean this in a negative way. Prison guards have one of the most difficult jobs I can imagine, and I admire their strength! That said it's only natural that a job like that can wear one down, and many guards do not have positive feelings about their inmates.

shuloq1 karma

has any of your students ever writed something about you?

dsmilton7 karma

Ken Hartman, the student who wrote the critically acclaimed "Mother California", wrote about me. I'm also one of the people he dedicated the book to. He's become a major force for prison reform even though he's serving life without parole.

A few other students referenced me in passing while writing about their time in prison, but overall they were focused on their lives more than on me.

Santorum_20161 karma

What are the most easy to recognize "tells" of a sociopath?

dsmilton2 karma

As I think I mentioned elsewhere, spotting a sociopath is a dicey business. I like to think I'm good at it, but then again I have no idea how many have slipped under my radar! In my experience though the best thing is to watch the eyes. The few true sociopaths I met had very... Blank eyes. No matter what they were discussing or what was happening, no matter the emotion they appeared to be feeling, none of it would ever reach the eyes; they just remained emotionless and calculating. But I also think that in prison they probably feel less of a need to keep up the pretense of humanity because there's nothing in it for them at that point, so maybe they just weren't trying.

WhoDunItBoy1 karma

Have any of the inmates ever written epic fantasy?

dsmilton3 karma

No, unfortunately! Aside from Lyle Menendez, who as I've mentioned was writing about Andrew Johnson and the post-civil war period, the others tended to write things based in reality and focused on their lives. Even when writing fiction, it was more like "fiction", with characters and situations who were clearly thinly veiled versions of themselves and people they know.

One inmate wrote the most beautiful poem about a visit he had with his young daughter, and holding her, and how she was an angel. But at the end it becomes clear that it was only a dream and he hasn't seen his daughter in 30 years, since shortly after she was born. That hurt. So in a way that was fiction, but not, if that makes sense.

neverknow0 karma

Why do you refer to the people you teach as "murderers", as if they are all no more than the worst thing they've done?

dsmilton2 karma

In a sense I think we're all known by the best thing we've ever done, the worst thing we've ever done, or the most interesting thing we've ever done. I'm known for my job (which isn't necessarily all that interesting but it is different), not for my moderate skill on the exercycle or ability to complete crosswords. In the case of my students, their crime defines their status within the system and the type of yard they're on as well as being one of the worst things they've ever done. But I didn't mean to imply that's all they are. I think in my answers I've tried to make clear that the most surprising thing about all of this was how much more than their crime many of these men turned out to be.

jazzrz0 karma

Please do a Moth story hour. Its the perfect podcast/venue for stories like the ones you must have.

dsmilton2 karma

I'm not familiar with this podcast but I will certainly look into it! I'm forever in search of people to listen to my stories, since my kids stopped humoring the old man long ago :)

comped0 karma

Have you ever considered making this into a play, say for the High School audience?

dsmilton1 karma

I've made it into a one-man show (Murderers Are My Life), which has been produced live in Los Angeles and New York City, but it's not really appropriate for a school setting. At the same time, it's not something I've ever considered, but now the gears in my mind are turning...