Daughenbaugh’s Not Dying

Trim body. Trim white beard and moustache. Slim-line shoulder bag. Rob Daughenbaugh didn’t look like a guy released from prison just six weeks ago after serving 28 1/2 years for murder. Looked more like a writer—maybe a lit teacher with the shoulder bag. Yet, if you talk to him for a minute, you’ll notice a willingness to please and a politeness you see in Jr. High geeks. Confidence neutrality that comes with following rules. A gratitude in the way he speaks of what was waiting for him: a “significant other” and the home they will share in Phoenix come August when he’s off supervised reintegration, a support circle connected his faith at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, and the four years he spent in the  play writing program that he hopes will let him make a living from his writing. Eventually.
Although I anticipated his answer, I asked him anyway, “What’s the biggest change you noticed since you’ve been out?”
“Technology….it was culture shock. Using a credit card to get gas.” He’s passed the written test for his learner’s permit and is driving a car that tells him the direction, “…before you needed a compass.” The cars have so many gadgets. He seemed very comfortable with technology, however. When my old-school Memorex tape cassette wouldn’t work, he volunteered to record the interview on his cell phone. He navigated it like a teenager. Way better than I do. Maybe it’s a guy thing.
“What do you think of CGI in movies?” He gave me a quizzical look. “Computer generated images.”
“They showed one movie a week inside. So we saw Avatar. Gladiator. I think it’s great. It’s unbelievable what they can do now.”
There’s much, I learned, that the public doesn’t know about prison life, at least at North Point. For example, the State only provides a prisoner with generic toothpaste, a toothbrush that’s useless, 4-5 bars of soap a month, 5 rolls of TP a month, a shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of socks, one pair of boxer shorts, and a pair of boots. Unless a prisoner is classified as indigent, a prisoner must buy his medications and pay $3.00 for a visit to the nurse out of the $15.00 to $30.00 a month a prisoner can earn from “working” inside.
How did he get involved with writing? He saw a Pioneer Playhouse production Robby Henson presented, and when Henson asked if anyone would be interested in play writing program, Rob fought to get in. Yes, there was competition because, as Rob explains, if prisoners complete any program, the length of the program is deducted from their sentence. He’s attended many. Even those that repeat what he’s already learned. Not for all people, but for many, it’s a scam, the way prisoner services are big business.
Rob gives me an example : “Literacy training has always been important to the prison system, but there’s this one guy who was ordered to go into the GED program, and has never completed the program because he has a ‘learning disability’ and when he gets out, he’ll qualify for disability payments based on that disability.”
I told Rob I understand and I do. If survival on the outside was easy, maybe the jails wouldn’t be so full. “Were you a reader before you were incarcerated?” I asked.
Following six years in the Army, he was at the University of Louisville, then finished his degree through correspondence, and read extensively.  He continued his education when he got locked up, so he doesn’t have problems with grammar, sentence structure, etc., but he didn’t know anything about creative writing. The first assignment the group, after they learned the basic structure of a play, was writing a ten-minute play that the other members performed.
“It was hard for me because Robby [Henson] likes message plays. He wanted us to look inside and write about our experience of prison. I find there are only so many messages out there—be kind to others, do the right thing—I get too cerebral. Character development is really hard for me. To make my characters reveal the message. I even find it hard to [keep a] journal because once I’m in the zone, I can write for hours. But, if I stop, it‘s like a snap. I can’t get back there.”
He readily stated that he believes others in the group are more talented than he. Derek Trumbo won a PEN award, another in the group was runner up.  I asked him if he’d tried other literary forms, like poetry, non-fiction, and he said the program really didn’t allow for that. It was strictly play writing, although he said he wants to write a novel “when he finds his voice.”
“What the prison writers want most is recognition,” Rob said. “To get paid for what they write. Not to become millionaires, but to sell a fifty dollar story or a twenty dollar story to buy what they need.” It’s difficult. “Henson tried to get us writer’s a stipend, but the administration said no, there were ethics issues involved.”
“If someone like me acted as an agent, could I deposit money in a prisoner’s account?”
“No. The only way a prisoner could get paid is if the publisher sent a check directly to him, and they’d deposit it in his prison account for him.” Only one outside bank is authorized to hold a prisoners’ money, but it charges a service charge unless the account has at least $400.00 in it. Small deposits are eaten up by the fees, and, as Rob says, “Who has $400 they can leave there?”
Rob’s biggest frustration, however, was that North Point doesn’t allow prisoners access to computers, even for word processing. “We have a warden out there [at North Point] who’s trying to bring the institution into the 21stcentury, Mr. Bottom, but this institution has always lagged behind all the other institutions in the state. At KSR [Kentucky State reformatory] I always had access to computers for word processing….here it’s the people. There’s a people problem. You can hook up a series of computers that monitor everything a user does, so they can type up their plays or whatever they need to do….as long as what they do goes through the proper monitoring system, they can do that.” And he recognizes the necessity of formatting and operations like spell check and e-mail for submissions. “They’re not going to take a handwritten manuscript from me and pay somebody to type it out.”
He continues spelling out the limitations the writers face: “We have to buy paper and pens, unless Robby and the Voices Inside people donate the supplies.” Just recently, the group got access to a typewriter. But then, “…it used to be that if someone showed up, they got to visit. Now visitors have to get on approved list. Most of the changes are thanks to 9/11. Knee-jerk reactions to a perceived threat that doesn’t exist.”
I reminded him of the growing gang problem, in and out of prison. I might have reminded him of the Blind Sheik who smuggled out messages to his terrorist buddies through his lawyer, but didn’t.  I agreed some things don’t make any sense. Like pretending North point is a “Training Center” when there’s no effort to teach the technology skills every person needs to get a job.
“What do you read now?”
“When I was first incarcerated, I read mostly religious oriented material, then fantasy to escape. I read “The Sword of Truth” by Terry Goodkind and George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of
Fire and Ice” series. Some gothic romances.”
I calculated that Rob must be at least fifty five to sixty years old. It was hard to imagine him reading a gothic romance. Maybe it’s the closest to sexual material North Point would allow.
I asked him what kinds of stories he’ll write after he tells his own. He’s not sure. He knows he has to look inside to draw on his experience, and he finds it difficult to put it on paper. He knows that he needs to learn discipline; to write when he’s not in the zone. To map out his story line.
I believe he’ll follow the rules of writing—maybe to his detriment. I don’t “map” every story. Sometimes I start with a line of dialogue I like and the story evolves. “You’ll find your own method. What works for you,” I told him.
“I really admire the other guys [in the program]; the way they could shut out all the noise—because the noise is almost nonstop and there’s no privacy. I had to wait till three or four in the morning to write, but they seemed to block everything out and write. I need quiet.”
What are his goals for the immediate future?
“I’d like to get into a master’s program for counseling. I think I’d make a good one. But I doubt I can get licensed with my record.”
I ask him if he knows Judge Mathis’ story.
“One of the judges on the daytime judge shows—Judge Judy, Mathis, Milllan…Mathis did time, got a waiver, became a lawyer and then a Judge. It can be done. But if that’s not possible, what else? ”
“I’m not sure. But I want a master’s degree. That’s a life goal I’ve always had.”
“Now that you’re not there with the group, how are you going to keep up with your writing?”
Here he brightened. “I’ve got contacts. For instance Liz has contacted me, and asked if I’d write a ten minute play for a religious group about Abraham. In fact, when I get through here, I’m going to start on it. I have a June deadline on that. I ought to be able to come up with ten pages—one page equals one minute—on Abraham. I also entered a one minute play—speech contest. ”
Then there’s his play, I’m Not Dying. He submitted it to an Arizona play writing festival and it will be preformed. It’s already had a reading in new York. He submitted it to the Pen Award competition. He didn’t place, but made the final cut. Not too shabby, I thought.
“Get me a copy of the script,” I said to him, and thought the title would be a good one for this interview. Although separated from the outer world for almost thirty years, and living with health problems like Hepatitis C that’s treatment caused his diabetes, and now possibly heart disease the VA doctors think they might have seen on an EKG, Rob isn’t dead and he isn’t dying. The soft-spoken, self-effacing  guy who paid dearly for a crime of passion speaks with hope and resigned good humor. “It took me a while, but I’ve accepted the responsibility and the result of what I did.”
I believe him. I want him to succeed. I want him to be happy in Phoenix with the woman who waited for him those 28 1/2  years and who’s joined him in Danville. And yet, as I watched him fold the table and chairs the library let us use for the interview, I think of that nameless and faceless person who didn’t have those 28 1/2 years, and won’t ever write his story.


more Prisoner Narratives

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