Poets-Behind-Bars: An Opportunity for Poets Inside and Out

Sherry Reiter is the founding director of the Creative Righting Center in New York and the co-author of Writing Away the Demons

“Writing has made me feel like a human being again.”

                        Participant in the Poets-Behind-Bars program, Indiana State Prison

 I’m the developer of Poets-Behind-Bars – a unique long distance program in which a dozen poets/inmates at Indiana State Prison (maximum security) are matched with either a poet or poetry therapy trainee who “coaches” or mentors the writing of the poet. It is a project born out of The Creative Righting Center. As suggested by the term “Creative Righting,” the chief goal is to achieve emotional balance, a sense of well-being, and a unique expression of individuality through writing. A great poetry therapy pioneer, Dr. Art Lerner, often stated, “The accent in a poetry workshop is on the poem, while the accent in a poetry therapy session is on the individual” (Lerner, 1993, p. 169). Poets-Behind-Bars is different than a class in poetry where the aesthetic product of the poem is of primary importance. The volunteers/trainees who serve as writing mentors serve a dual function — they are writers who are trained in the art of poetry as well as a respect for creativity and the unique expression and psychological well-being of the person. We function as educators of the arts, not as therapists.

There is a well-established precedent of the power and value of poetry in prisons. In the past ten years there have been numerous fearless poets who have gone into prison and published the work that resulted. These include Disguised As A Poem: My Years Teaching at San Quentin by Judith Tannenbaum (2000), Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters by Wally Lamb (2004) and True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman (2004). There have been exceptional poets and teachers like Richard Shelton (2007), who was contacted by a prisoner on death row who wanted feedback regarding a poem he had written. As a result of his interchange, Shelton ended up teaching a weekly poetry group at the Arizona State Prison for the next thirty years, and shared his experience in Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as Prison Volunteer (2009). If only there were such great talents who could go into every prison in America and do such work. There is not. That’s why Poets-Behind-Bars was created.

I received a letter from a poet in the Indiana State Prison, pleading for a writing program for himself and a group of inmates. After receiving three such letters, and thinking, “What can I do? I’m such a long distance from Indiana,” I received the message. Exactly. Long distance could be possible. This is how it is possible.

Every 2-3 weeks, an assignment gets e-mailed to a coordinator on the inside, who “launders” the communication of any personal e-mails, gives it to the poet, who has about 10 days to do the assignment via computer in the library on a disc, and return it to the inside staff person, who then e-mails it to me. I forward it to my writing coaches, have a group supervision and the mentors forward responses back to me, and I forward it to the prison. Got a headache? No, it actually does work, and has operated at Indiana State Prison for the past four years. I have a curriculum and we are slowly expanding. Perhaps at some point in the future, you will want to initiate this program in the prison where you work. I can be reached at sherryreiter@yahoo.com.

            “There’s no greater agony than carrying around an untold story inside yourself.” — Maya Angelou

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