In an effort to break down the barriers and open up dialogue between people in prison and those on the outside looking in, local author Deborah Tobola launched her newest book and passion project, HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLD: Teaching in a Men's Prison, a memoir.
"[Tobola] had a great turn out," said book-signing coordinator at The Book Loft, Heidi Honeyman. "I think she had the most sales from any in-store signing I’ve experienced so far. Her book is wonderful. It’s so human and compassionate."
The author, a resident of Santa Maria, focuses on a less-talked-about subject in her book, a conversation she is actively working to alter: life after incarceration.
Tobola says her book represents a culmination of her personal experience working in prisons over the last few decades, combined with fabricated dramas of her own that take readers on an emotional ride.
"Teaching in prison is the most difficult — and rewarding — work I’ve done," Tobola said. "I am still in touch with former students I worked with in the 90s and early 2000s."
But her career in the system really didn't begin until her vision for teaching in higher education was doused.
"I’d imagined I’d be teaching in a college or university," Tobola said. "But around the time I returned to California, money that previously went to funding higher education was going instead to prisons."
With an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and desire to teach, Tobola turned to her roots.
Born in San Luis Obispo, Tobola says as a child she looked up to her father, who attended Cal Poly while working as a prison guard at the California Men’s Colony.
"On the night I was born, he and other guards were chasing an escaped convict," Tobola said, adding that the escapee was eventually caught.
Unknowingly she began to turn full circle, choosing to teach creative writing in California prisons, first as a contract artist at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi in the early 1990s.
Years later in 2000, Tobola took the job as Institution Artist Facilitator at San Luis Obispo's California Men’s Colony, returning her to her birthplace.
"My life has been enriched by engaging in the transformative power of the arts with amazingly talented people," she said, acknowledging the likeness of her life path to her father's — except for the wearing of a guard uniform.
Tobola then retired from the Department of Corrections to begin Poetic Justice Project (PJP), the country’s first theater company created for formerly incarcerated people, which is based in Santa Cruz.
"After retiring ... I basically took the weekend off and then began working to create Poetic Justice Project," said Tobola, PJP's artistic director.
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The theater company, which she notes to be her legacy next to raising her sons and the joy of having a grandson, has since completed more than 18 productions, with more than 100 formerly incarcerated people, turned actors having appeared on stage.
"It has been amazing to witness the powerful connection to community our actors experience when we perform," she said.
The plays address topics of crime, punishment and redemption.
Although most of their work is original, Tobola says they did perform a few classics like "Of Mice and Men" in 2011 for the 31st Annual Steinbeck Festival and "The Exonerated" in 2012, the year Californians voted on abolishing the death penalty.
To this day, according to the author, nearly 8,000 Californians have seen one or more of PJP's plays.
The arts project is also positively impacting her students' lives.
Tobola says one of her former students that joined Poetic Justice Project after his release has since starred in a web TV show; another is a recognized artist on the Central Coast, and a third just published his first book of poems.
"For those coming out of prison and jail, reach out for help when you need it. For people who have not been incarcerated but want to learn more, I recommend the arts — PJP’s vision is to unlock hearts and minds," Tobola said. "I think that’s what we all need to do."
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Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News.