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.
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.
But if you’re willing to change your perspective even a little bit, what you see starts to change. And things get more complicated.
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
Lost in a cold dream called prison / Four sharp corners, eggshell paint, dusty gray floor
They call me 299-359
Correctional officers view me as a stupid savage / I push the pen so that I remain happy
Mama and Daddy, these are the unwritten words of your baby’s diary
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
I operate this pen to fight the war mentality / So please understand me
They call me 299-399 / Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband”
Words can build new, beautiful realities even in the ugliest places
But the work of seeing people for who they are is never completely finished
We have to keep finding new ways to look
Because seeing beauty requires standing on the right side.
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.