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10 Questions for Catherine LaFleur

Passing through the yard
Choked with thirsty grass,
You might see the newest
Adults huddled in tight circles. 

Never alone.

The beast mother is
All they know. 
—from "Mother of Beasts," Volume 64, Issue 4 (Winter 2023)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Good Advice About Bears came as a result of a guided meditation memory exercise. My mentors, Kathie Klarreich (Exchange for Change), Dr Wendy Hinshaw, and Leslie Neal (ArtSpring), encouraged me to explore fleshing this out into a written story. Although I am an avid reader, never did I think to tell my own stories. Good Advice is the humorous account of a camping trip gone wrong and tells you why it's not advisable to feed wandering 'bears' whether you meet them in the wild or in a prison. I submitted the story to PEN America and won an Honorable Mention.

What writers or works have influenced the way you write now?
I am most influenced by the writers Edwidge Danticat and David Sedaris. Danticat tells stories of the exile and immigrant diaspora experience, melding elements of past and the ever-changing present with a touch of magic realism. Prison is the ultimate exile. Inmates are in a limbo, neither alien nor citizen. Danticat's work helps me to tell the stories of prison life in all its horrifying spectacles, banalities, and flashes of humanity. Sedaris has the ability to take unpleasant situations and upturn them with humor. I heard his story on NPR about working as a Santa elf in a New York City department store. At the time I was standing in a canteen line full of angry inmates while I cracked up with laughter. Since then I use the absurdities of prison culture and rules in my stories. In Not Quite the Princess and the Pea, I use Sedaris' sly style of humor to evade the rule placing a limit on the number of books I, as an inmate, am allowed to possess, which is four. How can anyone be satisfied with only four books?

In what other professions have you worked?
Prison erases your identity and what you were outside the gate becomes irrelevant. In prison, I have taught GED classes, been a typist, a file clerk, a PC support aide, chapel pianist, floor buffer, greenhouse gardener, beekeeper, janitor, stockroom supply clerk, the sewer crew, seamstress, and paralegal. From the high to the low I've done almost everything there is to do in prison. Guess that makes me a professional inmate?

What inspired you to write this piece?
In my two decades plus in prison, I've come to know many women who grew up serving sentences in juvenile detention facilities. Slowly it dawned on me the word juvenile is used to desensitize people to an unpleasant truth. There are children's prisons in the United States. I don't think it's something people think about, not even inmates. I read a recent issue of College Inside newsletter where a question was posed, "Why are adult inmates restricted to renting only PG-13 movie selections on the media tablets issued by the prisons?" I had no trouble answering that question relating to the Florida Department of Corrections. It's because you have to be 17 or older to legally watch an R-rated movie and the children's prisons use the same Securus media package as the adult prisons. Heartbreaking. Juvenile has a negative connotation. Juvenile behavior is frowned upon. No parent refers to a son or daughter as " my juvenile." We must call those terribly young and vulnerable inmates by their true name. Children. The prison I am held in now was a children's prison before 1999, when it converted to housing adult women. Graffiti in the cement still contains ghost messages from those lost boys. I hope "Mother of Beasts" never lets you forget they are children, not juveniles.

Is there a city or place real or imagined that influences your writing?
The short story Those Who Leave Omelas has always haunted me. I used to admire those who left the evils of the great city. They were so righteous, even virtuous, by walking away. However my experience of incarceration has given me a different read on the story. The ones who leave don't try to change or reform the system. This is truly frightening. Now I am a thing kept in the cage of a broken and abusive prison nation. In all of my writing, whether weaving a poem or a story of incarceration, I try to speak to hearts and minds and persuade my readers of this truth: we must pursue prison reform. I beg you. Please don't walk away from Omelas.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Yes. The Department of Corrections has loaned me a tablet and permits me to purchase music at $1.97 per song. I have to rev up the grrrl power with my writing playlist: Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, Lizzo, Letters to Cleo, Garbage, Queen Latifah, The Go-gos, Malia J, and Adele. My editing playlist contains only one artist on repeat, John Petrucci, the Terminal Velocity album. When it plays, time and place disappear and the music melds with my words.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Yes, I see two unlicensed trauma therapists each morning for a cleansing ritual. We meet in the center of the recreation field; I remove my socks and shoes and lie in the grass. I'm given a thorough canine tongue bath including the palms and soles of my feet, which is much more enjoyable than the Old Testament would lead one to expect. The contact with our service dogs in training helps me to focus my energy and creativity to write.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
The test subjects.....I mean.....beta readers of my pieces are my fellow inmates, mostly drawn from the Exchange for Change program, a non- profit bringing college-level writing and journalism classes into prisons in South Florida. Since 2015, Exchange for Change has given us exposure to high quality professors drawn from local colleges and universities. Critique and editing are just some of the skills we have been taught over the years. Peer review is a catalyst that pushes my stories to a higher level.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I have been flirting with the idea of reproducing famous paintings such as Girl with the Pearl Earring, American Gothic, or Madame Cezanne in Red. The kiosk in my dorm has a camera function for emailing photos. There is no rule stating I can't pose and it would be utterly delicious to try and create a prison version.

What are you reading now?
My book discussion group is reading Deacon King Kong By James McBride. It's a rollicking mystery both sensitive and quirky. How do you build a supportive community in the face of inequity and injustice? Ultimately, it is our responsibility as inmates to build the positive communities we want whether inside prison walls or out. No matter the injustices or indignities we suffer, the officers and staff cannot force us to behave in negative or violent ways. I am also reading the screenplay of a movie about radical prison reform. Exchange for Change held a viewing of the documentary Unguarded at my prison. It's about the APAC prison model. Inmates have keys to their own cells as well as the front gate. They stay in prison voluntarily and based on the honor system. I am already in a prison with no locks on the cell doors. The future seems so close, just over the next hill. I can almost see it. Can't you?


CATHERINE LAFLEUR is the 2023-24 Luis Angel Hernandez Poet Laureate for exchange for change. She won a PEN America award in 2017 a Dornsife prize from UCLA's Prison Education Program. Her work has been published in Don't Shake the Spoon, Cream City Review, and Prisoner Express. Catherine's most recent work can be read at

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