Tag Archives: poetry

Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

24 Jan
by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Incarcerated Women and the Transformational Power of Poetry

5 Mar

by Leah Thorn

About the guest blogger: Leah Thorn is an artist/activist, using spoken word poetry for the autobiographical exploration of identity and liberation. She frequently performs in collaboration with dancers and musicians and her work is published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. Leah also leads poetry-as-empowerment workshops, primarily in prisons. In 2013 she received a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation Award for her contribution to Creative Arts and the Criminal Justice System.

I was recently invited to give a talk at a TEDxWomen event on a subject in some way related to women’s liberation. The event was part of the TEDWomen initiative that started in San Francisco at the beginning of December ’13 and inspired day-long events in over one hundred countries. 

I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women’s prisons.

I go into women’s prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women’s liberation activist. The starkness of prison keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and to the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women. I have had a two-year writing residency in a high security women’s prison and I undertake short projects, for example with women who self-harm or with older women. In my workshops and one-to-one sessions I enable women to express their thoughts and experiences through talking, writing, publishing and performance and provide a safe place where they can release pent-up emotions. This can lead to a sense of empowerment and agency and a development of trust and openness. Although the focus is not to produce crafted work, many women do. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women’s liberation and incarceration. It often feels that this is a deliberately well-hidden subject.

in a naked state
the women who name
those women have to be contained
those women who disclose, expose
those who show, too eager to show
show scars, who hurting
hurt others
take them, scapegoat,
away

I write from the perspective of living in England, the ‘lock up capital’ of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 of the general population are in prison. I have also had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population in prison. The situation for women in the two countries is very similar, understandably so as sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women’s narratives. The stories and poems I heard were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. In both countries I have been audience to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.

A woman’s pain is universal.
A woman’s tears are global.
We love the same. We cry the same.
We lose the same. We all settle for less of the same.
We prostitute our minds. Sell our emotions short.
Sometimes at no price at all.
We trust the same, fallin’ prey
as victims of abuse and misuse.
We are all the same. Our struggle the same.
Universal

Extract from a poem by Star

However, there are also some stark differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. For example, the Corston report was commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody, with a remit to address the need for ‘a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’. One of the successes of the report was to stop the regular strip searching of women – “Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.” Strip searching is still common practice in most states of North America.

Unlike the States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor a blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women – eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.

I hope the talk shows in some way that the community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. More needs to be done to divert women not just from court but also from prosecution and to divert young women away from criminal activity before they start offending.

The City Inside

2 Feb

By Hakim Bellamy

About the guest blogger: Hakim Bellamy became the inaugural poet laureate of Albuquerque on April 14th, 2012, at age 33. He was the son of a preacher man (and a praying woman). His mother gave him his first book of poetry as a teen, a volume by Khalil Gibran. Many poems later, Bellamy has been on two national champion poetry slam teams, won collegiate and city poetry slam championships (in Albuquerque and Silver City, NM), and has been published in numerous anthologies and on inner-city buses. A musician, actor, journalist, playwright and community organizer, Bellamy has also received an honorable mention for the Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize at the University of New Mexico. Bellamy is the founder and president of Beyond Poetry LLC. For more information on the author, please visit www.hakimbe.com.

The City Inside Me

I want to think about my future.
I want to put my past behind me,
but my heart is in the streets.
I am away from my seeds,
aggrieved,
praying to God on my knees .

I want to succeed.

I am tired of making mistakes.
My mind is in a place it cannot escape.

My son looks me in the face.
Is it a man he sees?

I tell him about the streets and the damage it brings.

Rochester, New York is where you find me.
Rochester,
filled with so much pain.
Rochester, the city inside me.

Manuel, Monroe Correctional Facility

Courtesy of the New York State Literary Center

It’s a simple prompt, or so I thought. Describe the city inside of you. What is the weather like in that city? What are the people like in that city? What are you like, in that city? Having served on the Governing Council of Gordon Bernell Charter School inside of Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) I have a fairly nuanced understanding of corrections and incarceration in this country. Enough to know that many of these men at Monroe Correctional Facility where probably not even from Rochester, NY. They’d likely been displaced from their hometowns and families, moved like chattel, but no matter where they go there is a piece of their city inside of them.

I was so fortunate to be invited into the Monroe Facility by Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center and poet John Roche. I had roughly 90 minutes to work with about 30 men. At 35, I was one of the youngest Black men in the room. And most of these men were black. Incredulously, I find the same overrepresentation of Black bodies in the pods at MDC in New Mexico. The only difference being that New Mexico has a 2% African American population per the last Census.

So we went to work on that right away. When teaching artists go into correctional facilities we are not there to entertain or be part of some enrichment programming, we are there to transform. We are transformed. Because the best way to teach is by example, so I shared with them some tough poems about identity and a rap or two about fear and fatherhood. I used the first 30 minutes to tell them Where I’m From (sans the poem prompt by George Ella Lyons), and also share with them this transformational arc in my own life, that I document through my practice of poetry. And for the last hour of the workshop, I give them that practice. Together we remember, reflect, write, reflect, share, reflect and let that resonate.

Sure, they learned (or were simply reminded) that the weather inside them, is changing. Just like weather is always changing in a city, just like people are always changing in a city. That’s inspiring when you are inside and “outside” is something that is rationed to you. But what they really learn is community. As a group they took a risk with me. They decided to share some of where they are from and some of who they are inside with each other and some dude they barely met (me). In that short period of time, we established a space where folks felt safe to take risks (whether that be reading in front of the group or sharing personal thoughts) and we brought people together through the practice of listening. Frankly, adults on the outside need these skills as much as these men did. And skills like these, like empathy, like compassion, like communication and understanding, take practice.

My job is not just to help Manuel imagine a city inside of him, my job as a teaching artist is to help him create that world around him. Poetry is just one tool to help that process of reconstruction.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility

More from NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

28 Mar

About this post: These pieces will appear in Concertina, Joseph Bathanti‘s forthcoming book of prison-related poems, from Mercer University Press. Bathanti is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, where he is Director of Writing in the Field and Writer-in-Residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project.

Recidivism

From the Latin: recidīvus “recurring” and recidō “I fall back” and re “back” and cadō “I fall.” 

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Before working in a prison, I had never heard the term. A guard, Albert Overcash, took me out on escape with him – a violation that would’ve meant his job. Albert knew the guy on the run – Clarence Vessel (alias Weasel) – and didn’t think it mattered one way or another if Clarence were caught or stayed gone. “I’m sure not hauling him back to the camp,” Albert vowed.

Clarence, a revolving-door drunk, had never hurt anybody. They’d pick him up, drunker than ten men, for loitering or pissing against a dumpster, stealing potted meat at Kroger. Give him eighteen months. He’d serve six active, bump out, then back in for Mogen David, Wild Irish Rose, MD 20-20. DTs, black-outs, his gray matter eaten up with rotgut.

Albert laid this all out to me. Before I knew anything. Before I had a notion of time and captivity. He didn’t want to be a prison guard; but, my age, he had a wife and new baby girl. In high school, he had had a tryout with the Cubs, then got his girl pregnant and dropped out before graduation to work, copped a GED, and finally picked up the job at Huntersville Prison: simple enough if you could navigate the application and clear the PIN check. A shitty job with shitty wages, but stability and benefits. He was chipping away on a degree in Criminal Justice at Central Piedmont. He smoked reefer and drank malt liquor. Thin hair fell over his ears; he wore gold bracelets and necklaces with his uniform. The old guards didn’t like him. He thought every last bit of it was a farce.

We just rode around the day Clarence Vessel ran, relieved we didn’t run up on him. As dictated by procedure, Albert communicated over the CB to the other vehicles involved in the chase: 10-4 and What’s your 20? On his chest, he wore the silver Department of Correction nameplate: M.A (for Maynard Albert) Overcash. We crossed into Cabarrus County, stopped at a roadhouse for beer and corndogs, listened to Led Zeppelin, threw darts and drove back to the Unit.

I don’t know if Clarence was ever found. 60 to 70 percent of the men and women sent up go back to prison at least once during their lives – not even taking into account the ones who never get out. Those numbers seemed so absurdly impossible that I dismissed them – Albert’s kind of joke, a stab at irony. He worked third shift, all night – the dead man’s shift – when the prison unleashed its haints and diabolical. He’d hole up in the sergeant’s office, between the two wings of the cellblock, packed each with ninety convicts, bunked three-tiers high, some very dangerous men, and read Stephen King. Albert and I went to the Capri on opening night and watched The Shining. He insisted we sit in the first row. Those bloody, desiccated monsters hurtling through the screen into our faces. We were both twenty-three. He knew I was trying to be a writer. He had a drawer full of stories he promised to show me.

But for all that, he invested in the wrong person, forgot the first principle of his profession: Never trust a convict. Contraband (another term): a buzz, some tiny shimmer to elevate Albert above the yard into the book he was dying to write – maybe about a young white prison guard with a new family who gets roiled up with a black convict cook, perhaps the two are secretly in love, and sells his soul for a weedy lid of dirt-clotted home-grown.

Albert got popped. Ended up trailing time himself at a minimum camp in Anson County: 6 months active – like Clarence Vessel. Often that’s how it starts: a fellow catches piddling time behind an innocent high, wrong place, wrong time (same way Albert explained Clarence). Could happen to anybody: one lousy misfire and you find yourself a convict, sporting prison greens, in constant peril. Perhaps that life even becomes you.

After that first jolt, Albert flopped back and forth to the penitentiary, mainly possession and public drunks, dibbing and dabbing, and finally he ran. He’s out there somewhere, right now, his name on a fugitive warrant.

 

Freedom Drive

At Camp Greene, I picked up two inmates rigged out in street clothes for work-release interviews at Jack’s Steak House on Freedom Drive. A petite convict named Short Dog,

all mouth, never stopped, the almighty dozens – what the inmates termed jooging

a nervous conspiratorial laugh, toothpick, black leather jacket, and black toboggan.

Like a warhead. And a husky woman I had never seen before: Debbie, from the Halfway House on Park Road. Garish make-up, close afro, decked in hot pants, platforms, skimpy red tube cinching her considerable breasts, yet practiced in her dainty airs.

She and Short Dog lounged in the back seat of the state car: a blue ‘74 Valiant that bore the North Carolina Department of Correction decal on its front doors: a downward arrow that suddenly U-turned Heavenward, symbolic of the restoration engendered by a stretch in prison – the DOC at its most allegorical. The car had a bright yellow commonwealth tag and a CB that was to remain engaged whenever the vehicle was in operation. Along the drive shaft was a bracket to rack and lock a shotgun. I had switched off the CB. We listened to the radio. Autumn of ’76, Dylan’s Desire: “Hurricane” and “Joey.” The inmates liked those songs – the blood and danger.

We plopped in a booth at Jack’s. Debbie, red lipsticked mouth, batting eyes, blush caked on her high brown cheeks, propped her big breasts on the Formica – a carnal chaingang icon – Short Dog grinning gaudily, balancing the shaker in a drift of salt, worrying that toothpick around his mouth like a compass needle. The manager asked them a few questions, and hired them on the spot. Inmate labor was cheap and dependable.

On the way back to the camp, they smoked cigarettes, and held hands. We dropped by the Dairy Queen and together slowly ate the white pristine cones. Short Dog, later on the yard, finally clued me that Debbie was no girl, but Dwight, a transsexual, not the same as a he-she, but an inmate who had crossed over prior to going down; therefore the State was obliged by law to keep the hormones coming and everything else, including, if and when, the irrevocable surgery.

Debbie – everyone called her the girl – wore Honor Grade fatigues on the yard, but come lock-down shed to teddies and camisoles, a straight-up female – you couldn’t tell the difference – with a vicious body and lingerie living in the penitentiary dorm with 180 men who hadn’t had a woman in years. And she fought like a gladiator.

Convicts arriving on the transfer bus figured they’d caught the best time on the State.

A nightmare for custody, the Department didn’t know how to classify her, what pronoun was appropriate. Technically she was not a woman, so they couldn’t transfer her to Women’s in Raleigh. She was clearly not a man.

I didn’t know a damn thing, and that was never more apparent than that afternoon on Freedom Drive when I could not distinguish a man from a woman. I was just driving the car, digging Dylan, and a 50-cent cone from the DQ. In fact, I had been thinking: Mother of God. But not a desperate or even imploring Mother of God. Rather, a prayer of thanksgiving, near euphoria, that my life was just starting and the world was so utterly strange.

New Ways to Look

18 Mar

By Joe Donovan

About the guest blogger: Joe Donovan loves words, dislikes shoes, and would probably rather be in a tree right now. He is passionate about prison reform, restorative justice, and peace education, as well as about writing and other forms of creative expression. He is currently a senior at Georgetown University.

Joe interns with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which serves juveniles who have been sentenced and incarcerated as adults in the Washington, DC jail. Participants take part in a poetry and creative writing workshop, through which they use writing as a tool for self-expression, reflection, and personal growth. Free Minds continues to offer services after members age into the federal system (because DC has no state prison system, incarcerated youth are funneled into federal prisons around the country after turning 18) and provides reentry support when members finish their sentences and return to the community. Free Minds also connects members and their writing with the community through its outreach programs, On the Same Page and Write Night. For more information, visit freemindsbookclub.org. To read and offer feedback on poetry written by the incarcerated youth of Free Minds, visit their blog.

I’ve had the joy and Second Semester Senior privilege of taking a sculpture class this semester. It’s been incredibly refreshing and has reminded me just how important creativity is to feeling like myself. Pushing my need for creativity and expression to the side has been too easy for me throughout my time in college, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to rediscover that side of myself. Just as importantly, it’s been a chance to explore the connection between creativity and the process of working for dignity, solidarity, and social justice.

For our first assignment in the class, each student constructed a “space frame,” a hollow cube/rectangular prism made by gluing wooden rods together. Then we had to fill the space with Art. The class started just as I began my time with Free Minds, and I was (and remain) hugely inspired by the strength and beauty of the members’ writing and stories.

I had been particularly touched by a poem written by young Free Minds poet DW, “They Call Me 299-359,” the title poem for Free Minds’ literary journal. The poem captures both the dehumanizing force of the prison system and the power of self-expression to overcome that force, and so I decided to base my sculpture around DW’s words. Here’s what came out of it:

It’s easy to look at a person in prison and see nothing but the cell they’re in.

1

We can fool ourselves into thinking that’s all that’s there – it’s easier to put a human in a cage if you don’t see the humanity.

2

But if you’re willing to change your perspective even a little bit, what you see starts to change. And things get more complicated.

3

There’s always a story there if you look for it. Here’s DW’s poem They Call Me 299-359, which tells a little slice of his.

“Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband / Guilty by appearance and judged by my race / Guilty until innocent in the words of a DA

4

Lost in a cold dream called prison / Four sharp corners, eggshell paint, dusty gray floor

5

They call me 299-359

6

Correctional officers view me as a stupid savage / I push the pen so that I remain happy

7

Mama and Daddy, these are the unwritten words of your baby’s diary

8

My orange jumpsuit and number are only the book cover / So please don’t judge / My words are pure as gold / Not aware of the success that these lines hold

9

I operate this pen to fight the war mentality / So please understand me

10

They call me 299-399 / Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband”

11

Words can build new, beautiful realities even in the ugliest places

12

But the work of seeing people for who they are is never completely finished

13

We have to keep finding new ways to look

14

Because seeing beauty requires standing on the right side.

15

Since writing this poem, DW has served his sentence and returned from prison. He is taking college classes while holding down a job, and likes to be known as The Poetry Man.

Denney Juvenile Justice Center Poetry Workshop Launches New Blog, Downloadable Poetry Books

3 Apr

Denney Juvenile Justice Center Poetry Workshop founder and facilitator Mindy Hardwick writes,

In 2005, I volunteered to facilitate a poetry workshop with youth at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, located in Everett, Washington. Each week, I meet with a group of young men and a group of young ladies and we write poems which are based on the young people’s experience. As a part of the poetry workshop, we’ve published four books of the youth’s poetry. The poetry books are distributed, free of charge, to the youth themselves, as well as to others in the community. The youth always ask, “When is the next poetry book coming out? Is my poem in it?” The poetry workshop gives the teens an opportunity to express their stories and to be heard in their community. We are thrilled to have our new blog as a means for publishing the youth’s poetry, and hope the blog gives the teen writers another opportunity for their words to be heard.

Each Wednesday, one of the youth’s poems is published on the blog, and Hardwick blogs about the writing process for that particular poem on her personal blog. Here is the most recent excerpt from Hardwick’s blog, which is a fantastic resource for facilitators:

In the Eyes Of…

We have a new post on the Denney Poetry Blog. The poem, “In the Eyes of My Mother,” was first published in our second book of poetry, I Am From.

One of the poetry books I like to use with the teens in the detention center poetry workshop is, You Hear Me: Poems and Writing by Teenage Boys, edited by Betsy Franco.  The collection includes poems, stories, and essays from boys across the country. Sometimes there can be a misconception that boys don’t talk about feelings, and what I’ve found working in the poetry workshop, is that boys can and do express their emotions. Very well!

In the collection, You Hear Me, there is a poem which is entitled, What I Am (In the Eyes of My Father). When I work with the teens at Denney, we read this poem, and then I ask them to think of someone important in their life. It could be a parent, teacher, best friend, girlfriend, or sibling. Or, it could be something larger such as a community, society, or world. I ask the question, who are you in the eyes of that person?

“In the Eyes of My Mother” is the response from one young man.

Words of Realness

7 Jul

Stefan Säfsten, a Swedish composer, has written two choral suites whose text
is the poems of Spoon Jackson (who is serving life without possibility of
parole in California). The church choir, Järva Röster, has performed the
songs in Europe and the United States. Cds of the work — Freedom for the
Prisoners and the recent Words of Realness — can be purchased at:
http://www.nosag.se/catalogue163.html

Spoon played Pozzo in San Quentin’s 1988 production of “Waiting for Godot,”
has published widely, and has won awards from the PEN Prison Writing
program. He is writing a two-person memoir with Judith Tannenbaum, his
poetry teacher at San Quentin; “By Heart” will be out in May, 2010.

Stefan has been a church musician in Kista parish outside of Stockholm since 1983, and was educated at the Royal University College of Music in Stockholm. He has worked with choirs spanning all age groups in the Kista parish. Stefan has conducted and led many different ensembles and choirs even before he began working in Kista. Stefan has a wide experience within most musical styles, and is as happy performing sacred music and chamber music as he is playing jazz, pop, and dance music. He has played in big bands, brass bands, and rock bands. He has also performed quite a bit of chamber music.

Stefan has also composed and arranged much music for different types of ensembles. During 2002 and 2003 he toured Germany and the Czech Republic with his choir, Järva Röster, performing the mass “Leva i världen” (Live in the World, nosag CD 057), which Stefan wrote in 1998.