Hummingbird in Underworld

Teaching in a Men’s Prison, A Memoir

Non-Fiction - Memoir
256 Pages
Reviewed on 05/06/2019
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Author Biography

DEBORAH TOBOLA is a poet, playwright and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards and a Children’s Choice Book Award. Tobola began teaching creative writing in California prisons in 1992, taking the job of Institution Artist Facilitator at the California Men’s Colony in 2000.

Tobola retired from the Department of Corrections at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company created for formerly incarcerated actors, where she serves as artistic director. Tobola returned to prison work five years ago and currently teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony. She lives in Santa Maria, California. Find her online at

    Book Review

Reviewed by Christian Sia for Readers' Favorite

Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison, A Memoir by Deborah Tobola is a book about making a difference and the power of passion. It is 2000 and Deborah is forty-five when she lands her dream job to run Arts in Corrections (the Fine Arts Program at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo). It's the place of her birth and what Oprah had proclaimed to be “the happiest city in America.” It is the same prison her father had worked in when he attended Cal Poly. As she sets about her work, she quickly discovers that the prison has remained stuck in the past; no contact with the outside except via telephone, and then there is the drama, the cliques, and the inhumanity of some officers who don't think prisoners deserve programs. Crime can exist in the very heart of prison and it can be a very dangerous place, especially for a woman. Follow her story as she connects with inmates and works hard to help them find their voices. Can she break ground for them with the innumerable challenges and obstacles, especially from unkind officials?

This is a fascinating story that begins with background information about the author's family, the love between her mother and father and how they met. But Deborah doesn't dwell much on the family drama. She immediately takes readers to the heart of her story, a story filled with lessons. First, she offers a powerful image of what prison life looks and feels like, allowing readers to gauge the dynamics that define it. Second, she explores relationships between prisoners and other prisoners, and prisoners with prison officials. Third, she describes a difficult yet fulfilling journey in helping prisoners connect more with themselves through art. The writing is gorgeous and the voice strong and engaging. It is interesting to have a glimpse of men's prison life through the eyes of a woman. Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison, A Memoir is the story of one woman's faith in others and how that faith brought out the best in some of them. It is interesting to discover the hidden beauty in characters who, apparently, are criminals.

David Ochs

Deborah Tobola takes up inside an all male prison where she teaches creative arts to inmates who are by and large forgotten. Challenging enough as that is, she has to fight a hostile system that views her precense as disruptive. But still she perseveres and is a steady force for good, having a positive effect on many of the men who attended her classes and performed in her plays. Through back story she interspears her personal story, her family life from the time she was little girl to the present, which led her to her life work. However this is not a book about she came to the prison and everyone lived happily ever after. This is a story of struggle, hers, the inmates, and change possible? Can we make a difference? By books end we can taste the bittersweet, but there's a feeling to keep fighting the good fight.

Brian Anthony Alsup

I spent 37 years "inside" and can attest to the story's authenticity. I am also one of the participants in Deborah's Poetc Justce Project so know first hand her belief in re-entry. Love this woman!