H-Unit: A Story of Writing and Redemption Behind the Walls of San Quentin

Overview

The bold account of launching an innovative creative writing class inside San Quentin and the journey of hardship, inspiration, & redemption of its members, from New York Times bestselling authors.

San Quentin State Prison would be an unlikely place to look for writing talent. But Keith and Kent Zimmerman, twin brothers and New York Times bestselling co-authors of Operation Family Secrets, have found creative passion, a range of gritty, authentic voices, and a path to hope ...

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H-Unit: A Story of Writing and Redemption Behind the Walls of San Quentin

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Overview

The bold account of launching an innovative creative writing class inside San Quentin and the journey of hardship, inspiration, & redemption of its members, from New York Times bestselling authors.

San Quentin State Prison would be an unlikely place to look for writing talent. But Keith and Kent Zimmerman, twin brothers and New York Times bestselling co-authors of Operation Family Secrets, have found creative passion, a range of gritty, authentic voices, and a path to hope and redemption behind the guarded walls of the prison’s H-Unit—through a creative writing course they founded almost a decade ago.

H-Unit: A Story of Writing and Redemption Behind the Walls of San Quentin is the dramatic account of hope and purpose that explores Keith and Kent’s experience teaching the class and their students’ experience in the Literary Throwdown writing competition. Seen from the inside, H-Unit is written in an authentic voice and tells the story of real-life characters, from the recidivous “Big Bob” to the incorrigible “Midget Porn,” whose lives are transformed by the written word.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The latest offering from the Zimmerman brothers (Operation Family Secrets) is an earnest account of their experience teaching a Friday night writing course for inmates of San Quentin State Prison. The authors have written more than a dozen books together, many on hard-boiled subjects such as the Hell's Angels and Johnny Rotten; this book, however, is less about the prison system and its charges than it is about the Zimmermans. To their credit, the brothers are forthright about their partly self-serving intentions, such as getting access to gritty stories and acquiring some teaching experience on the side, but their deepening interest in and commitment to their students is evident throughout. But the book gets bogged down in self-reflection and surface-level analysis of the prison system. The best passages, however, describe the inmates themselves and the Zimmermans' interactions with them. The brothers take care not to sensationalize (at least not too much), emphasizing instead the humanness of the inmates and their guards. Unfortunately, their compelling subject is hampered by flat, repetitive language and insufficient depth of field. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“A poignant and humorous read.” —Scott Budnick, Executive Producer of The Hangover; Prison Educator and Reformer
 
“I won't forget the evening I spent with them and their class, and when you read this book, you won't forget it either.” —Michael Tolkin, Screenwriter for The Player; Bestselling Author of The Player and The Return of the Player

“Keith and Kent bring extraordinary energy to their class every Friday night, but they also bring their love for writing and a notion that they could somehow make a difference.” —Jill Brown, former warden at San Quentin State Prison

"Keith and Kent teach men how to put their voice on paper, but they also provide insight into how our lives outside the walls can be if we give ourselves a chance to succeed." —Big Bob, former San Quentin student inmate

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596528550
  • Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/21/2012
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,382,896
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Twin authors Keith and Kent Zimmerman have written or co-written 17 bestselling pop culture works on subjects ranging from the Sex Pistols to Hell’s Angels to the Chicago mob, including New York Times bestseller Operation Family Secrets, and have optioned their international bestsellers for film and television. Rotten, an oral history of the Sex Pistols and British punk scene, was nominated for a Ralph J. Gleason Award, and the Zimmermans were named Writer Laureates by the San Francisco Friends of the Library a decade later. The Zimmermans continue to devote their Friday nights to teaching their Creative Writing class at San Quentin State Prison.

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Read an Excerpt

H-Unit

A Story of Writing and Redemption Behind the Walls of San Quentin
By Keith and Kent Zimmerman

Turner

Copyright © 2012 Keith and Kent Zimmerman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781596528550

Bobby Lee was the first student in our class to die.

Bobby Lee’s face belied his 48 years. Short in stature, African-American, well-liked, this was the kind of guy a person would ask, “What is this guy doing locked up?” He may have been a streetwise criminal (the San Jose Mercury News reported that Bobby had been involved in burglaries, drug possession, and an assault case), but he didn’t seem the violent, aggressive, in-your-face type. But in a classroom environment, who does?

Bobby regularly sat in the far corner, right next to the door of H-Unit’s Education Classroom. He was bespectacled, erudite looking, and soft spoken. The “ReadBacks” were his favorite part of the class. He liked to participate in the writing assignments; other times he enjoyed just listening to the other class members’ writings being read back. His attendance was so consistent that after a two-week absence, we began to wonder, “Where’s Bobby?”

One day in 2005 Bobby Lee was diagnosed with bronchitis, or possibly pneumonia. After he was prescribed some over-the-counter drugs like cough syrup, Tylenol, and Benadryl, along with a fistful of antibiotics, Bobby collapsed on his way back to his H-Unit bunk. A day later, he was rushed to nearby Marin General Hospital where his heart stopped three times en route to hospital care. He died in Marin General due to massive bleeding into his lungs. Soon after his death, the H-Unit gossip mill was abuzz with whispers that Bobby’s ambulance ride out of San Quentin was needlessly delayed. One preposterous story had the ambulance driver stopping for a snack on the way to the hospital. (One of the first things we learned about prison yards like H-Unit is that they make office water-cooler gossip mills look like a G3 Summit.)

A few days after Bobby’s death, we attended a memorial service held up on “the Hill,” in the Protestant chapel on San Quentin’s North Block, overlooking the picture-postcard San Francisco Bay view. North Block and the Hill--the main areas of the prison--are where the Death Row inmates and the “lifers” are housed, men condemned or serving decades for serious violent and antisocial crimes such as murder, armed robbery, and drug dealing.

We drove across the Richmond San Rafael Bridge to pay final tribute to Bobby. Turns out it was a two-for-one funeral service staged inside San Quentin’s walls. Another Latino inmate who had died of cancer was also being memorialized. At the front of the chapel near the pulpit was a color photocopy of Bobby’s prison ID picture, scotch-taped to a music stand. (Inmates look ominous on their prison ID cards, partly because some photos are taken after a days-long, milk-cart-run bus journey on the infamous “Blue Goose,” which drops off and picks up inmates from several county jails or state institutions on the way to SQ.)

Without his glasses, Bobby’s picture lacked the more studious features we remembered him by. On the one-page memorial handout, his last name was misspelled. Seated on the chapel’s pews were four dozen or so black and Latin inmates. We were among a handful of whites attending the service.

The minister delivered a generic religious eulogy for Bobby and the other fallen Latin inmate. After a couple of hymns, prayers, and Bible passages, members of the audience were invited to come up and speak about the recently departed. When it looked as if nobody would venture a public pronouncement on Bobby’s behalf, we looked at each other. Then Kent walked slowly to the front of the chapel, unfolding a couple of sheets of paper from his back pocket--a printout of the words that Bobby had written in class.

Bobby’s kinetic prose came alive. Short, powerful, street-smart bursts of narrative. And suddenly the man whose sullen image was taped to the music stand rose like Lazarus across the room with colorful and vibrant tales and anecdotes of his locked-down routine. The first piece was a sardonic, comedic account of two men having to share a 6-by-5-foot patch of dorm, upper and lower housing bunks, and two small lockers with feet dangling over their bunks. The second passage detailed a painful, gut-wrenching breakup with a woman on the driveway of Bobby’s Oakland pad. The third piece was a lighthearted account of Bobby Lee the Player, hitting a local East 14th Street Oaktown nightclub on the weekend, having some fun before Stormy Monday came around. 

Bobby’s fourth and final offering was the piece de resistance: a declarative call to battle on the mean streets of East Oakland. It resonated with a rousing tone reminiscent of Henry V’s Shakespearean St. Crispin’s Day speech the night before the 1415 battle of Agincourt.



Continues...

Excerpted from H-Unit by Keith and Kent Zimmerman Copyright © 2012 by Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Collaborators to the Incorrigibles
Chapter 1: Blues for Bobby
Chapter 2: The New Men in Black
Chapter 3: Groucho Marxists
Chapter 4: This Thing of Ours
Chapter 5: First Day of Class
Chapter 6: The Power of the ReadBack
Chapter 7: Layabouts and Lowlifes
Chapter 8: Ad Seg and Hot Meds
Chapter 9: Panthers, Wardens, and Arsons
Chapter 10: The Tale of the Teutuls
Chapter 11: The Dark Side of the Yard
Chapter 12: Welcome Back
Chapter 13: The Magical Box
Chapter 14: It Was Christmas in Prison . . .
Chapter 15: My Favorite Things, Scars & Tattoos and Lunch on Arnold
Chapter 16: Big Bob and Flying under the Radar
Chapter 17: The Broken Nose Bandit
Chapter 18: Click Moment & the Tap Test
Chapter 19: The Long Walk
Chapter 20: Strange Justice
Chapter 21: Are You Ready for a Throwdown?
Chapter 22: Acronyms and Throwdowns
Chapter 23: The Lit Crawl
Chapter 24: Throwdown #2 and Criminal Class Review
Chapter 25: Realignment and Reestablishing Contact
Chapter 26: The Ballad of Big Bob
Epilogue: Statistics are . . .
Appendix: 20 Questions from the Children

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