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Close Custody with John Eddings

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Former jailhouse Houdini John Eddings and David Scott Milton.

A new student entered my creative writing class in the max unit at Tehachpi Prison. His name was John Eddings and he was then in his late thirties, tall, lean, good-looking in a ragged convict way. In our first talk before the start of class, he told me a bit about himself: he was a born-again Christian, was interested in writing about Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers musical group, and he had a theory for prison reform. His was serving 950 years plus three life sentences.

He didn’t tell me what he was in for, but his sentence brushed me with a whisper of dread. This was not helped when, in the middle of the class, a guard entered and called out, “Close Custody.” Never, up until that day, had anyone ever responded. “John Eddings, C-54404,” said Eddings and the guard wrote it down on a pad he carried.

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Jail Guitar Doors: Rock Out!

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Tom Morello performed several Nightwatchman songs at the benefit, including “One Man Revolution”.

I love music and have witnessed some great performances in my time. I was living in New York City when Bob Dylan came on the scene. I worked at the Jazz Gallery and the Five Spot and saw such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. I saw the Eagles tour Hotel California, and Springsteen when he toured Born To Run. So I know good music. I must say, though, I’ve rarely been as captivated and excited and moved as I was the other night at the Ford Theater in the hills of  Hollywood during the Jail Guitar Doors Rock Out! Concert. Jail Guitar Doors is a charity that provides musical instruments for inmates in prison and those newly released. It takes its name from a song by The Clash, the opening line of which is, “Let me tell you ‘bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine”, referring to guitarist Wayne Kramer of the rock group Motor City 5, who spent two years in prison for selling cocaine—in those days Kramer had a heavy addiction.

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John Nelson on David Scott Milton and his one-man show Murderers Are My Life

Evaluation of John Nelson.

Evaluation of John Nelson.

You may recall John Nelson, ex con and ex student, from my post last month about him and his soon to be published memoir. He was kind enough to download my one-man show Murderers Are My Life  and discuss it, as well as aspects of the time we spent together, on his site. He’s far too kind in his treatment of me, but every word about the show is spot on 😉 Read his take!

09/06/13: Jail Guitar Doors Benefit Concert in L.A.!

Jail Guitar Doors Benefit

Join David Scott Milton in enjoying a night of great music for a great cause at the 2013 Jail Guitar Doors benefit concert!

The MC5’s incendiary lead guitarist Wayne Kramer and the inimitable Billy Bragg, co-founders of Jail Guitar Doors USA, host this all star benefit concert on Friday September 6th, 2013. The concert will feature guest host Jay Mohr, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, singer-songwriter Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, Jill Sobule, Jason Heath & the Greedy Souls, Franc Foster and his Melting Pot and other surprise guests! Jail Guitar Doors is a nonprofit organization that combines musical instruments with opportunities to rehabilitate prisoners. Rock Out! marks the organization’s first full scale concert in the Los Angeles area and promises to be one heavy night of rock ‘n’ roll.

Showtime @ 8:30pm, Gates open @6:30

Come early and picnic on the patio and listen to the tunes of R4P and Erin Inglish.

Ford Theatres in Hollywood

2580 Cahuenga Blvd E. Los Angeles, CA 90068

For more information, view the event or call 323-461-3673

Conversations With Geronimo Pratt

geronimo-pratt2Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt had been transferred from San Quentin to Tehachapi Prison, Max Yard 4B, where I held my creative writing class. He was a high profile inmate serving a life sentence for the robbery murder of a woman on a Santa Monica tennis court. For years there had been protests and legal battles over his imprisonment. When he arrived at Tehachapi there were demonstrations on his behalf outside the prison.

He joined my class and immediately you felt that this was not a run of the mill inmate. He moved with a kind of military compactness; there was a surety in his bearing that was unusual on the prison yard.

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Karen Black

George Segal and Karen Black in DSM's "Born To Win"

George Segal and Karen Black in DSM’s “Born To Win”

We were in trouble. A film I had written, “Born to Win”, had a director, Ivan Passer, a star, George Segal, a studio, United Artists, money for the production in the bank, and a start date. There was one problem: we did not have the female lead.

Blythe Danner had been cast in the part: it would have been her first film. Ivan and I had seen her on Broadway in the play “Butterflies Are Free” and she was extraordinary and perfect for our film, where she would play a radiant, delicate, innocent who becomes involved with a street junky hustler. And as so often happens the gods of chaos visited us at the last moment. A key element of our financing, disappeared—literally disappeared. The legendary agent and mountebank, David Begelman, had come up with a money scheme called First Artists, which would invest in a passel of films produced with clients of Begelman’s CMA Agency. Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Portier, and George Segal were to be part of it. “Born to Win”, we were told, would be First Artists’ first film.

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The Bank Robber and the Teacher: A Tale of Redemption

John Nelson, former bank robber and student of DSM

John Espinosa Nelson, former bank robber and student of DSM, is now a well-respected and award-winning author.

Not too long ago I had tweeted about my blog on the hunger strike in California prisons. Someone responded and said it was thoughtful and on the nose, and they mentioned in passing that they had been a student of mine. I didn’t recognize the name, John Nelson, or the photo of the tweeter and assumed it had been someone who studied with me at USC. I taught graduate playwriting and screenwriting for 33 years there and from time to time one of my old students would contact me and often I had no memory of them.

The tweeter responded to my reply tweet, asked for my e-mail address, and a sense began to stir in me of who this might be. 23 years ago I had had a very young man as a creative writing student in Wasco State Prison. He had been serving time for bank robbery and the name John Nelson brought up an image very different from the picture on his twitter page. I tweeted back asking him if he hadn’t been young and thin and in Wasco prison for bank robbery. Hadn’t he shown an early literary bent by robbing bookstores, eventually moving up to banks?

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DSM “Tells All” About Shirley Jones

Shirley JonesFor the past several days I’ve been getting phone calls and e-mails from old friends in my hometown of Pittsburgh PA to tell me that the actress Shirley Jones, has written a steamy memoir. It’s getting great play in the Pittsburgh papers as well as papers all around the country.

Shirley and I were friends many, many years ago, before her enormous success and fame. We even dated briefly, which I suspect is why I’m getting all the phone calls and inquiries. The early reviews of her book tell of a lubricious sexpot Shirley and my old friends want to know how much of this I knew in the old days. Well, it’s probably boring, but not very much.

Shirley was eighteen years old, as I was, and just out of high school. The Pittsburgh Playhouse had a theater school and they awarded two scholarships to high school graduates in Western Pennsylvania. Shirley won the girl’s scholarship and I, the boys. I had been slated to go to Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon, to study playwriting when my senior English teacher asked me to represent our high school, Taylor Allderdice, in competition for one of the Playhouse scholarships. It was a big deal in Pittsburgh, Shirley was Miss Pittsburgh, and though I had a mild interest in acting, writing was what I really wanted to do. I reasoned that Shakespeare had been an actor as had Moliere and Eugene O’Neill and the schooling would be free and could only help me as a playwright. I accepted the scholarship.

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California Prison Hunger Strikes

DSM's take on the California prison hunger strike 2013

Courtesy of the LA Times.

As I write this, a hunger strike of some proportion is spreading through California’s prisons. It is the largest strike of its type in the history of the state, involving thirty thousand inmates, a quarter of all those incarcerated in California.

What are the foci of the prisoner’s complaints? The first is a common gripe—working in the prisons I heard it all the time— overcrowding, terrible food, general hassling and cruelty by staff—these are the tinder that has historically sparked so many uprisings.

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Henry Hill, A Goodfella Pt. 2

Henry Hill, DSM student and Goodfella

Henry had paroled from CCI Tehachapi and was living in a rented room on 12th Street in Santa Monica. He had immediately started back drinking. We would get together three or four times a week. He would usually make dinner, Italian food, of course—he was particularly proud of his tomato sauce: it was excellent. He would add some sausage or meatballs and it was pasta as delicious as I had ever had. We would have wine and beer with the meal and though I would caution Henry about his drinking  he paid me no mind and was generally drunk by the time the evening was over. Read More