Marty Williams is serving life-without-parole at California's maximum security New Folsom prison. "It's not the place that you see in the movies," Marty says in the documentary At Night I Fly, available this week on video on demand. His experience, he says, is not defined by gang wars and rape, as most media depictions suggest. Instead, "this place is about isolation. It's about the closure of the mind and the heart." Prison is not excitement and violence and television drama. Instead, it's the stifling of all those things. It's not a story, but the refusal of stories, of meaning, and therefore of hope.
At Night I Fly is in part about trying to give inmates stories. Much of the film focuses on an arts in corrections program, where 20 or so inmates participate in writing workshops by sharing poems and stories and songs. Mostly they write about their time in prison, though they also talk about other issues. One prisoner reads a short, doggerel, but nonetheless seethingly bitter poem about his abusive mother. Another performs a lascivious, a cappella reggae-inspired ode to black women.
There's little doubt that the arts program has a powerful effect on many of the men. One prisoner, Rick, talks about how when he came to prison he was given a knife, and about how he hopes that now, as an old timer himself, he can welcome newcomers with a pen instead. Marty too talks eloquently about how the program gives a new feeling of worth to people like him, who never saw themselves as valuable beyond their strength and capacity for violence,