Six Collect Calls With a Prison Inmate About Writing

“I don’t sit around and think, ‘Oh, I wish I was out right now. If I was out right now, I’d be doing this and that.’ That’s just inviting pain into your life.”

Sarah Gerard is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Sunshine State and...

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I’ve been friends with Matthew Seger for five years and I’ve met him twice. The first time, we were separated by a Plexiglas window and were talking into receivers. I shared mine with my partner, his childhood best friend, and Matt had his own. We talked for exactly an hour. The second time, we sat across a table from one another in a room full of strangers. We weren’t allowed to touch or go to the bathroom. A piece of sheet metal kept us from passing anything unseen beneath the tabletop. When our time was up, we were allowed one hug. It was the first and only hug we’ve ever shared.

Matt was a junior at Hunter College, studying literature, when he went to prison. When we talk on the phone, we often talk about books. He reads voraciously and is a former bookseller with tastes ranging from Edith Wharton to Laszlo Krasznahorkai to D.H. Lawrence. He’s a devoted disciple of Hermann Hesse and William Golding. His mother is a writer of commercial fiction who writes under several pen names. She worked from home while Matt was growing up and, since Matt was homeschooled, would encourage him to write—and he still does. The last story he sent me was called “Pursuits of the Faun or The Remembrances of Useless Peter.” It read something like Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha.”

Matt is currently incarcerated at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Connecticut. His maximum release date is December 21, 2018. This interview with him about keeping a notebook is edited together from six separate 15-minute conversations held over two days.

*

This is a pre-paid collect call from … Matt. An inmate at … Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press … one—

Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

Sarah Gerard: When did you start keeping a notebook, Matt?

Matthew Seger: Right when I came to jail.

SG: But you were writing before you went to jail.

MS: I guess it was just because I didn’t have access to a computer [when I went to jail]. Before, if I wanted to write something down, I’d scribble it onto some notebook paper and then later transcribe it into a Word document and save it onto a hard drive. [In jail, my notebooks] ended up being a dumping ground for everything, not just for writing stories or keeping track of what was going on, on a day-to-day basis, but almost like a place to hoard up my thoughts. I feel like all of these ideas I have will someday, maybe, be of some use. I don’t want to let any of them go.

SG: Do you ever follow up on your ideas?

MS: Some of them definitely get developed further.

SG: Like what?

MS: Some snippets of dialogue will have something built around them. Other things that I come up with, like phrases or scenes, will then get incorporated. So then, these little projects will just become collages of all of these separate, independent ideas that I’ve stored up. I have a few different notebooks. Some of them are a little more chaotic than others. And even stuff that’s not actually written on the pages of the notebook—like, I’ll write something down on a writing pad or piece of paper, and I’ll then tuck that in between the last page and the back cover of the notebook, so that all of the ideas are together in one spot.

SG: When was the last time you tried to develop one of these projects?

MS: Probably before I came to [Carl Robinson Correctional Institution]. Probably when I was still at MacDougall or, after that, when I was in Walker for a little while. I have a lot of excuses for why I haven’t since I came here, but none of them are very good. I’ve got plenty of free time. I feel guilty about it. That’s what’ll happen: I’ll feel this growing sense of guilt until I finally break down and try to do something.

SG: Quantitatively, do you think you write more now or less than you did before you went to prison?

MS: Definitely more now. I used to write a lot for school but I didn’t do a lot that was self-motivated. I do more of it now—or did. It’s fallen off.

SG: Because you have less privacy at Carl Robinson?

MS: There’s no privacy and there’s an almost constant level of activity.

SG: Because the inmates have more freedom to walk around?

MS: Yeah, there’s more to do and there’s a lot more socializing here than in a Level IV [security prison].

SG: Can you describe the layout of the place where you are now? I get the impression that, when you’re on the phone, people can just walk right up to you. Is that true?

MS: Oh, yeah. They’re walking around. I’m about five feet away from the closest bunk. There are people walking by going into the day room, going into the bathroom. I can see where I sleep from here. It’s just right out in the open, in the main living areas. The dorm is divided into two sides: the A side and the B side, and each side is divided into different rooms. The main living area of the actual dorm space is a big, triangular room. There are 45 bunks, 90 mattresses. And then you have the bathroom, which is pretty narrow and has showers that are directly opposite the toilets. There’s a partition between the toilets but it’s not like a toilet stall, where you go in and shut the door behind you. There’s no door, and the partitions are pretty short. There’s no privacy. And then there are eight or nine sinks and a couple of urinals. That’s where the washing machine and the dryer are, and past that, through another door, is the day room, which is sort of like the counter-space to this one. It’s another big, triangular, open area where you can sit around and play cards. Watch TV. There’s a hot pot in there—that’s where we get our hot water. And then in the middle of the building is what we all know as “The Bubble.” That’s like the control center and the little office of the C.O.s, and it has windows all around it so you can see out, see what’s going on in the dorms and the day rooms. That’s where all the controls for the doors are, and the P.A. system, and the phones. You know, various things they have to keep away from us. And then on the other side of that is 6A. This is 6 Building: I’m in 6B, and on the other side is 6A. It’s all part of one big building.

[Commotion in the background]

MS: Sorry, it’s been kind of a crazy day.

SG: Why has it been a crazy day?

This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

MS: It’s just been one thing after another. I’ve been up since six thirty in the morning. Everything has been not going the way it’s supposed to.

SG: Why?

MS: I don’t know. They don’t tell us. Things have just been strange and not executed properly. Rec got all screwed up and they’re in a real bad mood. Lunch got messed up. I don’t know. These things don’t really matter. Somebody got punched in the face a little while ago, got their tooth knocked out.

[Commotion in the background]

MS: Oh, shit. They’re calling a code.

SG: Do you have to go?

MS: Yeah, can I call you back in a little bit when they clear it?

SG: Yeah, please do.

MS: Okay, as soon as they do. I’m sorry, but I can’t … I’ll call you right back, okay?

SG: It’s okay. Call back.

*

This is a pre-paid collect call from … Matt. An inmate at … Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press … one—

Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

SG: Is this the kind of thing you would write in your notebook?

MS: No, because it happens all the time.

SG: People’s teeth getting knocked out is ordinary?

MS: It’s not out of the ordinary. It doesn’t happen every day or every week but it happens often enough to be pretty unremarkable. If something really, really bad happened I might write that down. But I usually don’t need any help remembering things like that. I’ve seen some pretty gruesome things and I haven’t had to record the details in order to remember them.

SG: What would be an example of something that is so exceptional, it deserves to be written down?

MS: A stabbing or a rape or something. A cop getting fucked up really badly. Fire. Those kinds of things.

SG: Has that happened?

MS: On occasion. Much less often than someone just getting their tooth knocked out. Somebody killing themselves …

SG: What kind of situation do you need to be in, in this environment, in order to write?

MS: Well, I don’t take [my notebook] with me places because I don’t want it to get lost, but I’m never very far away from it. I’m certainly not going to bring it with me to rec. I don’t even think I’m allowed, actually, now that I think about it. I’m not really allowed to bring anything like that around with me unless I were to bring it to school, which—I don’t know if I mentioned it to you when we spoke yesterday, but I got into the graphic arts program.

SG: You did say that.

MS: Graphic design is not something I’ve ever really been interested in, but apparently part of that class—a few students in that class run the facility newspaper. I don’t know any non-aggressive and non-egotistical way of saying it, but I’m going to attempt to totally dominate that part of the class and, yeah, just completely take over the facility newspaper.

SG: What’s your plan for the newspaper?

MS: Uh, inspire revolution.

SG: [laughs]

MS: Just kidding, whoever is listening! Just kidding.

SG: Do you need to feel isolated in order to write?

MS: Yeah, because I know … When I was in Bridgeport—county jail—I’d have a single cell for long stretches of time. Sometimes I’d be interrupted, like I’d get in trouble, go to seg—the PC term they use in corrections now is “restricted housing unit” or “special management”—“seg” or “segregated housing” is even now kind of outdated.

SG: So you would get in trouble and go to seg and then …

MS: … and come out, and have to be in a double bunk again. The times I spent by myself in a single cell, where I could be in a room by myself and nobody could bother me—except, like, a C.O. would come into my cell and need to talk to me, which almost never happened—I’d be left alone. I could be alone with my thoughts and no one would bother me and it would be a lot easier for me to get into that sort of inward-looking, creative headspace than it was in a double bunk, in a cell with another person. I’ve had 36 cellmates in the past five years and I’ve found from that experience that most people can’t keep themselves occupied and need to bother other people in order to amuse themselves. I’m perfectly happy just being by myself and reading or watching television, or listening to music, or writing, or writing letters. I can do that all day long, I don’t need to bother whoever I’m living with. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with a lot of people. It would drive me nuts sometimes because I would be sitting there, and I would have, like—

This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

MS: —three or four different ideas in my head that I was trying to weave together while writing, and then someone would start talking to me about something that’s completely unimportant, and it would just totally shatter what I was trying to do. You’ve been there before. I’m sure you know what it’s like.

SG: Where do you buy your composition notebooks and your pens?

MS: From commissary. Fill out a Scantron sheet for commissary, and in a week, or ten days, or two weeks, depending on what facility you’re at, it gets delivered. When I was in Level IV’s, they would bring it right to your cellblock. You’d walk out of your cell and they’d have a big setup somewhere in the block, but here you actually have to leave the building and go walk up to the commissary office that’s by the chow hall, to get your order. That happens once a week.

SG: You’re only allowed this one kind of composition notebook?

MS: Yeah.

SG: And this one kind of pen?

MS: Yep.

SG: What about notebook paper?

MS: You can get writing pads.

SG: Is that what you write me letters on?

MS: Yeah.

SG: What if I tried to send you some other kind of notebook? Would they let you have it?

MS: No. We can’t receive any blank paper or any stationery or stamps or anything like that from the outside.

SG: Why?

MS: They want you buying what they have to offer.

SG: That’s really why?

MS: Yeah, of course. They don’t want you having anything for free. It’s the same reason why you can’t send me clothes. They want me to buy whatever clothing I want, that the state doesn’t provide me with, off of the commissary. You can send me books but that’s just because they don’t sell books at the commissary.

SG: I see.

MS: You know, but you can’t send me sweatpants because I have to buy my sweatpants and my T-shirts and my underwear from the commissary. My shoes, my toothbrush. It’s all got to go through commissary.

You have one minute left.

MS: Oh, man. That went by fast.

SG: Can you call me back?

MS: Yeah, absolutely.

Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.

*

This is a pre-paid collect call from … Matt. An inmate at … Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press … one—

Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

SG: So, we were talking about you needing isolation while you’re writing.

MS: Yeah. I saw it a lot with my mom first-hand, growing up. She worked out of the home, and we were homeschooled. She had two kids running around the house all the time when she needed to work.

SG: Did she encourage you to write when you were a kid?

MS: Oh, she encourages me to write all the time as a full-grown man, every time I talk to her. Maybe that’s one reason why I don’t write as much as I should.

SG: [laughs] But you still feel that obligation.

MS: Yeah, absolutely. I sometimes think that’s why I haven’t really fulfilled that obligation—because according to her it’s what I’m meant to be doing. And now, with this criminal record, it’s pretty much the only way I’ll ever be able to make a decent living for myself. If I don’t, I’ve sort of not fulfilled my potential, and … You know, all that heavy, boring, mommy baggage stuff.

SG: Do you write about the things you’re reading?

MS: Sometimes. What I like to do a lot while I’m reading a book—it might happen two or three times per book—I’ll come across a passage that I really like a lot and I’ll copy the passage down into my journal and write some things about it, not only to remind myself where it’s from or what it means, but also why I like it so much. Usually, once I do that, it will kind of inspire me to—

This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

SG: It’ll inspire you to do something else, you said?

MS: Yeah, just to start writing again, myself, or to jot down some ideas, or jimmy some ideas. I’m using the notebook like a junk shop.

SG: Well, a workshop.

MS: I write down anything that strikes a chord with me. Like words. At the head of the page, I write down words that I come across, if I don’t know what they mean—I’ll look them up in the dictionary and write them on the head of the page with the definition. Then I’ll condense the definition as much as I can, so there are two or three new words on every page. I really like words a lot. Then, in the margins—it sounds really pretentious, but like—

SG: No it doesn’t. It’s interesting.

MS: So like, most classical music, even though I’ve been listening to it for years, it still just sounds like elevator music to me. But if I hear a particular piece and it strikes a nerve, I try to find out what it’s called and I write that down so that I can, one day when I’m free again, you know, find it, and own it, and be able to listen to it whenever I like.

You have one minute left.

MS: Okay, I’m going to need just one minute, to do something really quick.

SG: Okay, call back.

The caller has hung up.

*

This is a pre-paid collect call from … Matt. An inmate at … Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press … one. To refuse—

Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

SG: So what are you reading right now?

MS: The Centaur by John Updike. I like it a lot. I started reading him last year. The only thing I don’t like about him is that he can sometimes be a little too nostalgic. That’s the only flaw of this book: the overt nostalgia. I kind of hate sentimentality. I wish he hadn’t done that. But it’s one of his first novels, so I feel like maybe if he had written it later in his career, it wouldn’t have been so nostalgic. Or maybe it would have been way more nostalgic, I don’t know.

SG: Do you mean that, within the world of the story, he’s sentimental for—

You have one minute left.

SG: Oh, no!

MS: Didn’t I just call you back?

SG: Yeah, but I guess I’m out of money. I have to add more.

MS: So, the book is a retelling of the story of Chiron who, in Greek mythology, is the centaur. He was a very wise and peaceful centaur and was the tutor to a lot of the Greek heroes. And his myth is retold as—

Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.

*

This is a pre-paid collect call from … Matt. An inmate at … Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press … one. To refuse charges—

Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

MS: I hope I’m not calling at a bad time.

SG: No, this is a good time, actually, because I have a couple of other questions for you that came up while I was transcribing. First, I’m wondering why you didn’t feel this urgency to write down your ideas before you went to prison.

MS: I think it just comes down to patience, and being so busy in the past. That is, compared to being in jail and always having access to a notebook—

This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

MS: —and having a lot of free time that’s confined to doing a very few activities. When I was out there, I had a lot of free time, but that could mean leaving the house, going somewhere, doing other things with other people. There were unlimited ways to entertain myself.

SG: How do you find privacy in prison?

MS: Mornings are usually the best bet. Most people sleep in, and anyone who doesn’t sleep in usually goes to their job or school program, starting at 8:30. I like to get up around 7:40 or 7:45 and I can expect it to be reasonably quiet until about 10:00.

SG: Do people tend to leave you alone when they see you writing?

MS: You can’t always expect that from people. They’ll come bother me whenever they want to bother me. You would think that when someone sees you reading a book you could expect that they would think, Oh, he’s reading a book. Let me not go interrupt him right now. But people don’t seem to think that way. I’ve found that only people who engage in those sorts of things, like people who read a lot themselves, or write themselves, show any kind of respect for that kind of thing. A lot of people just don’t seem to get it. There’s no real privacy. Even [in the mornings], I’m not in a private environment. I’ve still got plenty of people all around me. You don’t even have privacy when you’re sitting on the toilet here. And then the rest of the day is usually taken up by one thing or another: going to rec, going to meals. And, you know, once all the guys I hang out with get up…

SG: Do you date your entries?

MS: I didn’t before but I have been now.

SG: Since when?

MS: A couple of years. I didn’t start off doing it but now it helps me to go back and see where I was at. I also like to see what I was reading at the time, so that I can trace my influence—

This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

MS: —for what effect it had on me.

SG: How has your relationship with memory changed since you went to prison?

MS: I’d never been through anything like that before. It was a complete disruption of the way I lived. You know, I was, one day, pretty much having a normal life: living in my parents’ house, having a relationship, going to work, going to school. The next day, I’m in maximum-security prison. So, nothing was the same. Having a notebook, having a place to record my thoughts, was comforting and also gave my life a feeling of consistency and structure when I really needed it.

SG: Were you journaling at first before you started to use the notebook as a log of ideas?

MS: You know, when I first started, I did some journaling. But it’s just not for me. If something really important happens, I’ll write it down, but I remember enough. I’d rather let my mind go to other places, rather than focusing on and analyzing what’s really happened in my life. That gets tiring.

SG: It’s more important to fantasize.

MS: Yeah, I think so. You have to remember to do that every once in awhile. You have to get your head out of this place. You can’t just be absorbed in all the little politics and all the little dramas that go on in here. You have to have some kind of escape or some link to the outside world. You know, I’m very fortunate that I have you guys. I had Cindy for a few years. I got my folks. I like to read. I mean, I don’t want to sound like I think I’m better than other people, but I’m interested in a lot of stuff. You don’t see much of that kind of thing here. It seems like people are more absorbed—

You have one minute left.

MS: —by what’s right in front of them, and things that are very familiar to them. But I’ve always been very curious about history, and other cultures, and religions. So, I’d rather get absorbed in things like that than, you know, who’s telling on whom about who, or who’s back in jail.

Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.

*

This is a prepaid collect call from … Matt. An inmate at … Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges press … one—

Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

SG: I want to talk again about fantasy. When you fantasize, where do you go?

MS: Oh, anywhere. Usually to the future. Not like, the distant future, but just what it will be like to be out of jail. I try not to … I mean, by “fantasize,” you’re talking about mostly positive things—

SG: Not necessarily. Just imaginary things.

MS: I try sometimes to take my mind off of things and think about ideal situations, [situations] that I will hopefully find myself in. There’s also a lot of time dedicated to worrying and being anxious about getting out of jail and trying to succeed in the real world, and not being able to.

SG: Do you ever think about the past?

[Matt is currently serving nine years for burglary]

MS: I’ve learned from my mistakes. I try not to dwell on what I would have done differently but I certainly do think about the past. I’ve got tons of fond memories from being out there—

This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

MS: —but, you know, those inevitably will make a person sad. You lose a lot coming to jail.

SG: When you think about the world outside, is it always in the future?

You have one minute left.

MS: Yeah. That’s really all that concerns me at this point. I’m not involved in the world outside as it is right now. I have nothing to do with it. You know, I know you guys live there but you may as well be on another planet. I don’t hear the news anymore. I don’t know what’s going on. But I’ve made an effort recently to stay more informed because I get on the phone with people and they’ll be like, Oh, did you hear about this or that? I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. I try to at least be aware of the major events that are taking place in the world at large. But I don’t sit around and think, Oh, I wish I was out right now. If I was out right now, I’d be doing this and that. That’s just inviting pain into your life.

Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.

*

Prison Book Program website: http://prisonbookprogram.org/

Arielle Greenberg Bywater’s petition to stop the Maine Department of Corrections from punishing prisoners for writing: https://www.change.org/p/mary-lucia-maine-department-of-corrections-oppose-a-new-policy-that-punishes-incarcerated-maine-writers

PEN American Center Prison Writing Program: http://www.pen.org/prison-writing

Paper Trail is a monthly column exploring the relationship between artists and their journals.

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