Using Poetry to Explore the Prison Experience

This essay originally appeared in the Currere Exchange, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2020.

While I’m no longer able to volunteer inside of a prison, I’m continuing my advocacy work by mentoring a writer who is incarcerated in a Maryland prison. If you’re interested, check out the Justice Arts Coalition’s pARTner Project for more details.

In 2015, my editor at Little Patuxent Review gave me an assignment I wanted to refuse; she asked me to interview a professor who ran a writing group—in a prison—and then to visit the prison and interview the men. The woman who ran the group—Professor M., a sociology professor at a major research institution who’d volunteered in the prison for seven years—spoke very positively about the men who participated in her group. Near the end of our interview, she shared a program with me for a literary day of the arts where the men had performed their original poems, stories, and songs. Their faces looked young and happy, which was a complete surprise to me. Professor M. assured me that I’d like the men, and her parting words were especially compelling: “There’s no one else that I’d rather spend a few hours with in a discussion.” I was intrigued, but frightened to go into a prison. My mind buzzed with all of the common middle-class stereotypes about “those people” behind bars and how they might act. “Those people”: school drop outs, drug dealers, hustlers, maybe even murderers. At that time, I had driven by the prison only once and never had the slightest desire to volunteer there. Several of my writer colleagues worked in prisons, and while I admired them, I had kept my distance, partly out of fear and partly because my protective shell had begun to crack as I learned about the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Many of my former high school students had brushes with the juvenile justice system, but none of them were especially “bad” kids. Instead, they were kids who had tough home lives or who had made really poor, impulsive decisions or who’d been unfairly targeted by a biased system that landed them in the lap of the law. Deep down, my spirit realized that, if I were to go into a prison and meet the men, I’d probably form a bond with them. Up to that moment, I’d walled myself off from that possibility, but my interview with Professor M. had piqued my curiosity.

Once my security clearance came through, I accompanied Professor M. to meet her writing group. Along with a lone pad of paper and a single pen, I’d brought a copy of my first poetry book, The Altar of Innocence, for the men to read and share. I thought they could relate to my story about drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and divorce. Ninety minutes were allotted to interview five men, so I’d prepared questions about something that I wanted to know and understand better: Who were you when you came here? and Who are you now? I wasn’t allowed to have a recording device and couldn’t take any pictures, so I wrote notes on everything I experienced in order to capture the look and feel of the prison. My hastily scribbled sentences contained every detail that I could observe—the yellow X on the elevator floor designating the spot where no one could stand for fear of stalling the elevator, the insulation peeling off of the pipes in the hallway, the black metal peeking through chipped paint on the bars, the smell of bleach in the hallway outside the school, the song-like Baltimore and foreign dialects of the guards—and most of all, the men in the writing group.

Each one of them greeted me with a smile and shook my hand to welcome me to the group. Professor M. had told them why I was coming and then gave them a bit of my background—college lecturer, writer, and former high school teacher.

After about 15 minutes of introductions and chatting, we got started with the business of the interviews. The men sat around a large, rectangular table, each with a black and white composition book that held his writing. I didn’t think we’d have time for sharing, but it was good to see that they’d come prepared. I made notes about the physical condition of the room and copied down the quote written in neat cursive on wide yellow bulletin board paper that served as the backdrop on the stage. “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.”

I was impressed by the men’s good manners and calm demeanors. They laughed and joked with one another and shared stories with Professor M. and me. I felt much more relaxed than I’d imagined, and I was totally enthralled with all that the men had to share about their lives.

Here is a sample of what they told me. All of the men’s names throughout the manuscript have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

“I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I was only reading at about the 7th grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15, and now I’m 28. Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”~ Ryan, from East Baltimore

Read the rest of the story on the Currere Exchange website.

Once You’re Inside: A Visit to Patuxent Institution

This essay was first published in the Little Patuxent Review’s Blog. Since this essay was published, I have become a regular volunteer and continue to work with these remarkable men in the writing group. Working with them has been a life-changing experience and I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know people I would never ordinarily be in contact with. 

Note: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…

“The arts are not something people think of when they picture a maximum security prison. ‘Tough guys’ in small tank tops in a prison yard dominate the general idea of what prison is like. But far from joining gangs and delving deeper into the criminal lifestyle, these young men spend their time learning how to express themselves, work in groups, give and receive positive feedback, and effectively communicate with others; all important skills that are critical to functioning in the world outside of prison.”

Patuxent Institute

When I arrived at Patuxent, I was struck by how I had to let go of things I take for granted —beginning with what to wear. With the June temperature rising over 90 degrees, I wanted to wear a skirt, but Linda told me ahead of time that I was required to wear slacks. My purse had to remain locked in the car, along with my cell phone. Little by little, even before I met the men, I yielded some of my personal freedoms, albeit temporarily. Still, I felt unnerved by the lack of control.

I surrendered my license at the front desk and in return, they handed me a temporary visitor’s pass. They permitted me to carry a copy of my book, a pad of paper, and a pen for my interviews. After I had walked through the metal detector, a female officer patted me down. Once the formalities were out of the way, Linda and I began our long walk to the education room in another building.

The officers seemed pretty friendly as they chatted with each other. They recognized Linda —perhaps because she’s been a volunteer writing instructor at Jessup for seven years — nodding at her and me as we walked through the long, tan-colored hallways, every so often segmented by half-opened black, iron, barred doors. I sighed with relief when the doors weren’t locked behind us. We snaked through several long, airless halls until we came to another guarded entrance. We were waved outside and followed a path, lined with marigolds and bluebells, to the education building. Good to see some color in this bleak, brick and barbed wire area. Whoever planted those flowers had my gratitude.

We entered the red brick building that was home to the education program—more long hallways, more half-barred doorways. I noticed a few Baltimore-themed murals decorating some sections of the walls. The pipes were wrapped in insulation, which peeled off in large chunks. The air felt still and hot.

I felt closed in, striding deeper and deeper into the prison as if I was being sealed into an airless container. The only inmates I saw were escorted in the hallways by guards whose hands rested lightly on the prisoners’ arms. There seemed to be a quiet calm to the facility, and I couldn’t help but think of some of the troubled young men who had been my students just a few years ago. A picture of teachers punishing entire classes flashed in my mind. Yes, I was now in the prison end of the school-to-prison pipeline.When we finally arrived in the multipurpose room, an officer wearing tinted glasses nodded to Linda and then opened the locked door for us.

“Hey, Ms. Moghadam!” The students almost cheered Linda as she strode across the floor. One by one the six young men introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. As we exchanged names, they welcomed me to their writing group.

The room, about the size of half a gymnasium, had a stage toward the front. The following quote, written in a flawless script on a huge sheet of yellow paper, filled the back wall of the stage: “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.” The men sat around a large, old, wooden table and each had a writing notebook. A couple of them had brought reading materials as well.

I had only 90 minutes in which to interview all the members of the Jessup writing group. I decided to use as inspiration Betty May’s Faces women and the guiding questions that had formed the basis of their play. The women featured in May’s book shared a common thread no matter their stories—they all felt they had changed and were not the same people they were when they committed their crimes. They wanted to give back.

I would ask only two questions: Who were you when you came to prison and who are you now? I think their answers provide significant insights into the people behind the barbed wire fences, so many of us drive by every day.

Ryan had long braids, tattoos on his arms, and wore a warm smile as he told me his story.  “I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I’m from East Baltimore, and I went to the Harford Institute—an alternative school in Baltimore City (now it’s called the Fairmont-Harford High School). I was only reading at about the 7th-grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15 and now I’m 28.

“Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. I think the first thing I read that helped me to change was called As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. That book made a powerful impression on me. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”

Matt had close-cropped hair and black-framed glasses. He smiled when I asked him to tell me about his experiences. “I was always a searcher. When I was 20, I was traveling a lot and exposed to lots of different environments and people. I was trying to find my place through looking at the world with other people’s eyes combined with my experiences. I grew up in East Baltimore and went to the Harford Institute like Ryan, but I went to college as well. My home life was pretty unstable. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. When you’re lost, any road will take you there. I’m a people person, but listening to my peer group back then—that was the blind leading the blind.

“One thing that I’ve always had is I like to read. In my old neighborhood, some people moved out of their house, and they left a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk—VCR tapes and a large collection of books. I remember seeing an entire set of books by Mark TwainTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and more—I grabbed all those books and took them home. When I read and found words I didn’t understand, I’d ask my mother or my friend’s sister what they meant. Learning that way sparked my creativity.

“But I couldn’t connect what I was reading with what I was experiencing out in the world. I wish I had had a mentor, someone who could have helped me make sense of the world. The first time I was in prison, there were no programs and no education classes. But now, I take every program they offer here. I know how to make sense of my life. That took maturation. What I want to do now is put a new vibe into the system—something that will be beneficial for myself and others.”

Timothy carried with him a notebook and reading materials. He had a serious approach to language and the intentional use of words. “One thing you won’t find me doing is using sayings without knowing what they mean. Like a lot of people in here talk about ‘rule of thumb’ and ‘Tomming.’ I won’t use either one of those sayings because I don’t like what they mean.”

Timothy went on the explain that “rule of thumb” refers to an old English law that allows a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it’s no bigger than his thumb. “I won’t use that phrase because of its original meaning.”

I had never heard of “Tomming,” so Timothy explained that it refers to someone in prison who sucks up to the guards and does them favors, someone who’s subservient to get in good with the people in charge.

Timothy told me, “’Tomming’ comes from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. After the Civil War when the slaves had been freed, and people were unhappy with the freedom and rights that African Americans had gained, they discredited the real story of Uncle Tom. Instead, of Uncle Tom being revered as a hero who cared for his fellow slaves and went to great lengths to help them, calling African Americans an Uncle Tom became an insult. The term was used to mean they (African Americans) were subservient to white people or wanting to gain favor with white people and forsake their own race.”

Timothy was articulate and thoughtful as he continued speaking. “We used to get the Catalog of Dover Thrift Classics, and I loved all those classic books. But we can’t get them anymore.

“You know, ideas are dangerous—being a writer and a teacher are revolutionary acts. People who think outside of the box are feared. Pretty soon teachers will realize their own power and then they can create an alternative education system.”

The other men in the group agreed as Timothy continued, “Change has got to come. People are suffering—no jobs, the schools are bad. Lousy homes. But it’s just like in here—the more they [the guards] take away, the less you have to lose, the more people fight back.”

Initially, Vincent, who sat to my left, did not want to talk. He listened thoughtfully and nodded his head while the others took their turns answering my questions. He was very polite and spoke softly when he had something to add. When I asked him a second time if he wanted to speak, he answered in a clear voice.

Vincent: “When I came here, I had just turned 15. I grew up in the child-care system, so I lived in lots of places. Coming to prison was like crossing the Rubicon for me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed my values and formed better habits. I love reading—one of my favorite authors is Proust.

“I’d say the biggest influence on helping me develop my values is learning that I have the right to make up my mind. When I was younger, I never thought I had that right. I never really knew I could make up my own mind.

“I’d describe myself as a lover of language, and I live in my imagination. I’ve developed a value set and for me, the most important value is compassion. I see myself as part of the human family. I know that spirituality is omnipresent, and it connects all of us through one language—the language of love.”

When I asked Vincent what he was currently reading, he smiled and said, “I’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s too hot to read in here.”

Williams seemed eager to talk and grinned when he finally had the attention of the group.

“I was 16 when I came here. I grew up in Hyattsville. I’d say that I was a person who was very aware of the disadvantages in my life. I thought of myself as someone who could level the playing field, but I went about it in the wrong way. My mother was a single parent, and she worked all the time, but we never had enough of anything. That put pressure on me that I couldn’t handle at the time.

“I’m a Hispanic male, so there are a lot of expectations from my culture. To be a man means you are aggressive. You have to protect your self-esteem. Now, thanks to Ms. Moghadam, I’m a feminist. I understand the position of women in America.

“I’ve been in prison for 12 years, and I know the best way to spend my time is to educate myself. I participate in every program they have. I believe that knowledge is power, and I’ve dedicated myself to education. I’m still trying to level the playing field. I grew up in poverty, but now I’m trying to do it the right way.

“I’m working on my character by being honest with myself. I ask for help now. I’m committed to learning and striving to get where I want to be. I want a respectable position when I get out of here, so I can help people. I want to give back. I know there’s a stigma against ex-prisoners. I love the arts; they’ve been a godsend for me. I’ve been able to develop my ideas through arts and writing.”

Our time was nearly over—Linda, and I had to leave the room by 4 o’clock sharp. There is no leeway for long good-byes in a prison, as I found out. Before we left, Mark had one last comment to make about the arts. His words struck me as important.

Mark said, “When people are in a state of disconnection, it’s much easier to harm the environment, to harm each other. The arts build a connection. That’s why they’re so important.”

When the session was over, and the men filed out of the room accompanied by a guard, I had only a few minutes to collect my papers and retrace my steps back through the maze of the prison to return to the outside world. A flood of images filled my mind, and I couldn’t help but reflect on their ages again. Nearly all of the men have spent half of their lives in prison. And even though I knew that most of them were under 30 years old, it was still a shock to learn that many of them had entered prison as 15-year-old boys. I thought of the mistakes my son made at that age, and I shuddered to think how his life might have been different under other circumstances.

The whole time I was with them I had a lump in my throat, but refused to let any tears leak from my eyes. When I concluded the interviews, I told them, “I’m very sorry all of you are still in prison. But I want you to know that the positive energy you carry and share benefits everyone around you. You make this prison a better place. “ I hope all who read their words will feel the same way.

I’m going back for another visit in a few weeks.