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A Prison Writer Who Uses a Sentence Wisely

April 15, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

LOMPOC, Calif. — Dannie Martin decided to be a writer the day his cell mate at the McNeill Island Federal Prison told him about the Elephant Keeper Caper.

The cell mate had done time with a man, a bunco artist of some repute, who followed carnivals through the small towns of eastern Washington and posed as an elephant keeper.

When the carnival opened in a new town he donned a pair of overalls, dabbed the cuffs in elephant dung and, in the late afternoon, visited the bank. He then handed the manager a sackful of money and asked him to keep the bank open a few minutes later each day so he would have time to deposit the receipts.

The Manager Obliges

For a few days the manager waited, vault open and alarms off, and banked the money brought by the con man. And then one day the bogus elephant keeper pulled out of the bag, not a handful of bills, but a machine gun.

Soon local newspapers began reporting the sting, calling it the Elephant Keeper Caper, so the con man devised another, less successful con. As a result, he ended up in prison where his story soon became a favorite among convicts.

"I thought it was interesting so I started writing it down and eventually expanded it into a novel," said Martin, now serving a bank robbery sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc. "I had read so many dull things and I kept saying to myself: 'With all the interesting material I'm around every day, I should be able to write better than that.' "

Martin never sold the novel, but he continued writing and now is the unofficial storyteller laureate of the prison system, a collector of traditional prison yarns and colorful bunco schemes. For decades, Martin, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, had collected the stories and retold them to other convicts during chow or while walking the yard marking time.

Prison Yard Perspective

Then he included a few in his unpublished novel and a few more in a book he currently is writing. And during the last year he has published a number of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, stories told from the perspective of the prison yard. He has written about old Bob the bunco man, whose most imaginative scheme involved poison pickles, carrier pigeons and diamonds; a convict who used his tuba to woo a female prisoner; and why prisoners disapproved of the escapee who commandeered a helicopter, swooped down on the federal prison near Pleasanton and flew off with his girlfriend.

Martin also has written a few muckraking stories that have embarrassed the federal prison system. He criticized the authorities at Lompoc for poisoning the squirrel population near the prison; he wrote about a convict whose complaints about working conditions resulted in a court decision protecting the job rights of federal prisoners; and he depicted prison as a breeding ground for AIDS and criticized federal authorities for not taking sufficient preventive measures.

Martin denies that he is attempting to glorify criminals and the criminal world. He is not, he said, trying to rationalize their actions or justify their crimes.

"I'm just trying break through that stereotypical image most people have of convicts," he said. "That image just perpetuates the thought that we aren't human. I'm hoping through my writing to give that stereotype a human voice. Maybe one of the ways I can do it is by showing we have a sense of humor too.

"But I don't want you to get the idea that I'm doing this strictly for altruistic reasons. I'm writing to make money and I want to make a career out of it. And if I can write things that are valuable to me and valuable to society as well, then that's perfect."

Unhurried Manner

Martin, 47, a small, stocky man who parts his overgrown gray hair down the middle, has the hard lines and unhurried manner of a man who has spent 17 of the last 25 years in prison. He talks slowly and moves across the visiting room in a gait so leisurely it looks like he is walking under water. You may be going somewhere, but he isn't. At least not until 1991, when he is scheduled for parole.

He has little formal education, but is comfortable quoting Schopenhauer and discussing the works of Dostoevski and Plato. Martin says he regrets all the years he has spent in prison, but credits the isolation for helping him develop as a writer.

Many people on the outside have freedom but no time; a prisoner has time but no freedom. And Martin has used that time to read, think and lead what Plato called "the examined life."

His crimes have ranged from burglary to drug smuggling to bank robbery and most, he said, were a result of his heroin habit. When he leaves prison, he hopes to avoid drugs and make a living as a writer, he said. But Martin knows, with his track record, he can not make any guarantees.

"If I can support myself as a writer that'll be great. But if I can't . . . " He pauses, lights a cigarette and shrugs. "Well . . . if I had to fall back on something, I'd have to fall back on what I did before. That's what I know best."

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