Words on a Page, Not Bars on a Cage, Are Reforming Prison Inmates

“So these expressions of poetry and prose come as a great relief for me because these young ones seem to defy the order of the day. They are not mentored; they will mentor themselves. They are not given opportunity, they will make their own. They are given no future, they craft their own out of deeply felt words carefully set into sentences that made poems that redefine their souls to the world beyond the walls of their confinement. So while all else fails, literature steps forward to hail the new day with their voices claiming they live, that they want a life, that they want redemption and a chance to make something of themselves.”

~ Jimmy Santiago Baca, From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings.

It’s a system built on the premise of rehabilitation, but dehumanisation is more often the end result in today’s prisons.

Both in and out of jail, those have spent time within those walls are led to believe that they are incapable of change; that they belong in prison not only because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are at their very core.

No wonder then, that those who spend time in prison reoffend more often than not, and that social groups already marginalised – Indigenous Australians, African Americans, those who suffer from mental disorders – are most likely to end up in bars.

They are bound to the cycle, but it’s a cycle we know can be broken.

The most obvious way of doing so is through education, which has shown to decrease recidivism rates by 40%, and save the prison $4-5 for every dollar spent. The problem with education programs though (when they’re not being defunded) is that inmates often have a negative perception about schooling. In many cases, it’s in the classroom that future prisoners are branded with the stigma of failing, and taught that they cannot amount to anything. Students are increasingly being treated like criminals, to the point where researchers have coined the term the school-to-prison pipeline to highlight the education institution’s failure to prioritise equal opportunity.

So how can the prisoners be educated and reintegrated without relying entirely on a system that has potentially had such a negative impact on their lives?

By introducing them to the power of writing.

Across the world, third-party organisations are establishing writing classes designed to tap into creative potential, provide a channel for reflection, and foster a new perspective on life. Their goal is to inspire the following:

Self-Expression

In Teaching in the Dark: The Promise and Pedagogy of Creative Writing in Prison, teacher Deborah Appleman writes of her students “These men know how to do their time, and an air of quiet resignation clouds around them, a sad grey aura.”

This aura is the mark of prisoners who believe the only time they’ll leave jail and not return is when they’re carted out in a coffin. They accept that because they know no alternative.

By mining their thoughts on this presumed reality, these blossoming artists begin to see it in new ways. For some, new perspectives offer hope. For others who have no choice but to spend their lives incarcerated, it is an outlet; a way to free themselves from their shackles, however briefly.

One such example is Leon Benson, who was convicted in 1999 for a murder he attests he did not commit.

Two years later, Benson was interviewed by the Discovery Channel. Feeling that the edit that went to air portrayed him negatively, he responded with a spoken word poem “Amerikkka this is what u made me!”

Recorded over the prison phone, the piece was Benson’s way of responding to his situation without filter. As he continued to record raps for his Youtube channel, he brought together a community of people who believed in his innocence, including fellow artists. He may still be in jail, but while his body is caged up, his mind isn’t, and that gives him the inspiration to continue fighting for justice.

Experimentation

It’s not just people who end up in prison who grow up being taught that success is always good and failure always bad. Many – too many – of us spend our whole lives believing that, and so we never try anything that we know we can’t succeed at immediately.

“Writing is re-writing”, the saying goes. It’s a challenging process filled with experimentation, risk, failure, and pain. And though a writer can have a teacher, a mentor, an editor etc. guiding them, they alone are responsible for declaring their work a success.

Writing is passion. Writing is commitment. The kind of work ethic it develops is the kind that will inspire former inmates to recognise and pursue their interests, and step beyond what they once thought possible in order to make a valuable contribution to the world.

Rehabilitation

‘Jane’ is a writer-in-residence for England’s Writers in Prison Foundation. In 2012, she recalled to The Guardian how one of her students had come to understand the impact of his crimes, a decade after committing them, after reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Appleman shares similar stories. One student writes a letter to his 17 year-old self. Another writes a sestina to his daughter in apology for killing her mother: “you, father, mother, remember, end, mind”.

A critical part of preparing prisoners to leave behind a life of crime is making sure they recognise the impact of these crimes. And, as we’ve discussed before, there’s no better way to foster this empathy than through reading and writing.

Within five years of release, the recidivism rate in the United States is a harrowing 76.6%. Through projects like New York’s Rehabilitation Through the Arts, that figure drops to 5%.

Though it seems governments and institutions value art less and less each year, there are few examples of its worth more profound than that.

If rehabilitation is truly the purpose of modern prisons, it is time for those who control them to make use of this research. To empower its charges to find their voice, to embrace opportunity, and break the cycle.

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