By Wendy Jason, Administrator for the Prison Arts Coalition, and Carlos Contreras, former winner of the Prison Arts Coalition Banner Competition
WENDY: This semester, my partner, Jiva Manske, and I are working with 18 Georgetown University students to learn about the US criminal justice system and the principles and practices of restorative justice. Inside the classroom, we want to avoid being confined to ideas and theories and always endeavor to make what we’re learning together all the more real. So we hatched an idea and contacted our friend and amazing poet, Carlos Contreras, who runs a poetry program at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, NM. Met with his boundless enthusiasm for the written and spoken word, along with his commitment to humanizing those behind bars in the face of a society that often demonizes them, we’ve built a collaboration between our students and his. We believe that relationships are the heart of social change, and therefore it is essential that our students begin to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes that keep them separate from those most impacted by our justice system. Beyond developing a lens for analysis, we’re engaging this experiment in the spirit of transcending differences, of making the invisible real, and of finding meaning in unexpected places.
I asked Carlos to reflect on this project for this blog, and here is his offering:
CARLOS: Where to start… A couple months back, nearly 3 months at this point, I was approached by the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about the possibility of running an after-hours poetry program for a select number of inmates within the facility. Poetry is what I do – it is my life’s work, and so I readily wrote up a proposal and secured a contract to work from December of 2011 up until June 2012. I hope that after June, the contract will be renewed for another 6 months. Something that has leant very well, in my opinion, to this being a foreseeable possibility is the addition of the Georgetown Social Justice/Conflict Studies class’s collaborative poetry project. With the support of instructors Wendy Jason and Jiva Manske, the exchange has taken on the name of my other workshop installments that are currently run under my sole proprietorship Immastar Productions: JustWrite. I believe that in life, “there is no wrong, Just Write!” I approach each and every opportunity to work with folks of any age around the spoken word, with this saying in mind and practice. All too often when writing, we shut ourselves down before we even begin because we think what we write has no merit, lacks the fundamentals, or isn’t interesting – when I hear these things come out of folks’ mouths during one of my workshops, I correct them by saying, remember “there is no wrong, Just Write!”
So that’s what we have been doing. For two months now, college students and adult aged inmate/high school students at Gordon Bernell Charter School, within the confines of MDC, have been exchanging work. I have sent work via email to Wendy and Jiva, and I have received work in return from their students. Select pieces from each group “go live” each week at my blogspot. Each week, the work of the “other” group is shared in the classroom on its respective campus. What has come of this is incredibly powerful and a profound. Going in, we knew not what to expect. My first day signing folks up for JustWrite was exciting and encouraging. I had 20 students on two lists. Now 3 months later, we have held a steady dozen students in each class. At Georgetown there are just over a dozen college students who have opened their world to the scary world of poetry – they have let themselves be vulnerable, open, and honest – along with my students – together, we have cried, laughed, been angered, and found common ground.
One of the most powerful sessions yet happened last week for my students and me. I visited with them and shared some reflections on their work by a couple of students at Georgetown. I could tell as I started reading that reality had set in. Folks in my class were aware of the fact that, a thousand miles away, people were sitting in a room each week and “trying” to understand the people behind the words that were coming out of my class. This was real and cutting – but
at the same time necessary. I had folks in tears, some with smiles; others blankly stared off into oblivion as though they were searching for something. Afterwards, I asked them to write responses and to speak directly to those who reflected upon their work. We had a discussion about how all feelings are valid: anger, confusion, validation, excitement. We talked about how not all growth is comfortable and how the current situations that they are in, whether they be
that of a college student or that of an inmate, DO NOT define them, but instead, add to their dialogue, journey, words, and ability to express themselves. It was important for me to express to my students that this project was intended to send a little piece of themselves to Washington D.C. each week, so that even for a moment, a minute, or an hour on a Tuesday night, they could feel a little bit more free. I think we are accomplishing this goal – we are growing and gaining trust and perspective. JustWrite has only just begun. I hope to visit Georgetown in April of this year, to speak with the students in this class, to shake their hands and thank them – I will be doing so, on behalf of the two dozen men, that I will bring with me in mind and spirit.