Teaching Artist Spotlight: Joel Bergner

Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is the CEO and Co-Founder of the non-profit organization Artolution, through which he trains and supports local artists in vulnerable communities to lead their own community art programs, affecting the lives of thousands of children each year. Artolution partners with UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, UNHCR and other agencies to integrate community-based public art programming in humanitarian response around the world. 

Joel is an artist, educator and organizer of community-based public art initiatives with youth in conflict-affected and traumatized communities around the world, from Syrian refugee camps to American prisons; the favelas of Brazil to the Kibera Slum of Kenya. His elaborate, large-scale murals weave smoothly between realism with an urban art sensibility and the raw expressions of children, who learn to tell their stories through art. Joel travels the globe with his wife, CJ Thomas, who leads dance and theatre workshops, and their young daughter, Amara.

Artolution programs have served over 6,000 participants living in refugee, displaced, and underserved communities. They focus on building up local artists and leaders to support year-round programming in our core regions; Bangladesh, Uganda, Jordan, Colombia, and the United States. Artolution has trained a total of 68 artists around the world to run collaborative art-making programs.

JAC: What is Artolution’s mission and goal as an organization? 

JB: Artolution is a non-profit organization and a global movement. We focus on collaborative art-making as a way for people in vulnerable communities, and those who have experienced trauma to come together and have a platform that allows them to shape their own narratives, and tell their own stories, and also build healthy relationships along the way. We focus on many different types of art forms to do this, especially art forms that are in public spaces and in communities. We do community murals, and sculptures and different types of performance, like dance and theatre. We’ve done many virtual projects, as well, which brings together our different communities around the world. This includes animation projects, and storytelling, and digital art. We really work with many mediums but it always has this common element in it, which is that it’s collaborative, and really focuses on the participants themselves. Deciding what the artwork will be about, what the themes will be, what the imagery will be, what the composition will be, it always comes down to the participants deciding those things. 

I am a community artist, a mural artist, among other things, and I’m also the co-founder and co director of Artolution. I’ve been working on this concept of collaborative art making as a way to strengthen resilience in vulnerable communities, such as refugee camps and people who are incarcerated, for many years now. I have a background in not only public art, but also in counseling young people who have experienced trauma. And this is my passion. 

JAC: What inspired Artolution to look into expanding your programs into the criminal justice system? 

JB: Artolution has not yet done much work with those who have been involved in the criminal justice system but as a community artist, I have done a lot of that work in the past. I worked with women in a prison in Maryland, did many projects in juvenile detention centers, and in New York, I worked with young returning citizens. And during a time like this, in which a lot of programming is moving to the virtual space, it was something that we really wanted to just start focusing on – people who are incarcerated and people who have been affected by the justice system. I think these virtual projects really have a lot to offer. Because those who benefit the most from this type of program are those who are the most isolated, the most marginalized, those who are really separated from society. There’s no population more isolated than those who are incarcerated. We were able to get some small funds to focus on pilot projects with those in the justice system. We hope to be able to scale this up and have a full fledged program. 

“I didn’t know that I can draw in public, or be on a ladder like men, you [Artolution] didn’t change the whole society but changed something inside of me”

– Ayah, Female Syrian Youth

JAC: Considering the work Artolution has done, what is unique about the new initiatives you’re hoping to bring to carceral spaces?

JB: One thing that will make our program unique is that we’re really interested in connecting our participants with those in other parts of the world and other cultures. It’s a really educational experience to meet, be creative, and work on collaborative art projects with someone who has had many of the same life experiences as you have, but is from also a very different social context and from a different culture. Individuals affected by the criminal justice system, connecting online through these projects that focus on theater, animation, digital art, storytelling, and character development – all of our different virtual bridges programs. We’ll be matching people up from it from different countries but from similar age demographics, so we’ll connect youth with other youth or adults with other adults. Bringing together people across the United States, the UK, and other countries where we have programs, such as Uganda, Colombia and South America, among other places, is really the goal of our program. 

We focus on collaborative art making as a tool, and we have a couple different ways we’re planning to do this. So first, those who have access to the internet can participate in our regular virtual bridges programs. This would be people who have been released, on probation or even may be incarcerated. But it happens to be rare that programs allow online options. Although it’s not common, there are a few institutions that are allowing it. So for those who can connect on the internet, we have virtual projects on zoom in which teaching artists are guiding the participants through creation, skill building, learning skills such as digital art, animation, stop motion animation, as well as collaborative storytelling, and many other art forms. We’re also doing theater and drama. And so this will provide an opportunity in virtual spaces to come together with artists, with other participants in other countries to work on collaborative art projects, and to form new friendships and learn about other cultures and, and make those new relationships. I think that’s a big focus for us. 

The second category would be those who are currently incarcerated and are not able to connect via the internet, which is most people who are incarcerated. For those people, both youth and adults, we are focusing on several different types of programs. One is that we’re planning to release a series of video based projects, that align with our normal programs, that the facility can play. The videos show the teaching artists guiding participants in that facility through the project and through the art making process. They learn the same skills, depending on what kind of resources they have. Some of them are more tech based such as digital art, but then others are very analog. Writing, drawing, storytelling and just movements with your body. Very basic skills but very powerful skills that also allow people to to collaborate with one another on those projects.  

We are also seeking ways to connect family members who are separated because of incarceration. We’re developing a series of activity books that are meant to be shared through the mail. There’s one we’ve created that is geared towards children and their loved one who is incarcerated. It is a storytelling work packet so the child or the family member at home is guided through the process of creating a story that includes both some simple writing as well as drawing pictures, but they don’t create the whole story, they guide you through part of it. And then the person who is incarcerated creates another big section on the story, and then they send it back to their family to have the final part of the story created. They send it back and forth and at the end, the final product is this illustrated story created by both people that can be enjoyed after that. That’s an example of the kinds of work packets that we are doing and this is really geared towards families during COVID, where people are even more separated and have fewer and fewer opportunities for visits. So we really want to focus on different ways to connect children and their parents as well as other family members who are separated because of incarceration.

JAC: What are you hoping your programs will give to system impacted individuals?

JB: So basically, our main goal is connection. It’s all about relationship building, strengthening relationships, and strengthening resilience among people who are really facing a lot of challenges. It’s about skill building in the arts but we think of those skills as being a tool that individuals can use to connect to others, whether it’s connecting with family members, or with peers, or connecting with artists across the world. The common denominator is this idea that collaborative art making can form these connections, and that those connections are so important for the well being and the mental health of all of us.

JAC: How do you envision your programs operating with COVID-19 considerations? And how will they potentially evolve in the future? 

JB: All the programs that I mentioned that we’re working on are with COVID-19 taken into consideration. So we are also looking to do things like mural programs inside of prisons and things like that but because of COVID, we’re currently focusing on the virtual projects, on the workbooks, and on the video based programs. However, I think that many of these programs we have been developing because of COVID have actually opened us up to many different tools. And some programs we will use after COVID because many of these activities have proven to be really impactful. Some of the work we’re doing with animation, some of the work we’re doing bringing together young people across borders, to learn from each other and to connect with each other, all of those things have a lot of value, whether it’s there for the pandemic or not. And so, I see many of these tools we’re developing being relevant afterwards as well.

JAC: What support / connections are you looking for from the JAC Network and wider justice art community?

JB: We’re looking for a few things. I’ve been talking to several different organizations: we are interested in partnerships with like minded organizations, especially those who already have participants or people who think they would be interested in participating in these kinds of projects. We’re also looking for teaching artists who have experience with these types of projects and virtual projects. Especially those with experience in the criminal justice system. Artolution has a methodology and a training manual – we really focus on professional development of our teaching artists. So these would be paid positions, leading virtual workshops, at this point just virtual, in the future, maybe physical as well. But because of the virtual aspect, the teaching artists can be based anywhere, they just need to be open to leading a variety of different types of arts based workshops.

JAC: Is there anything else you’d like to add to our audience?

JB: The last thing would be just to say that we are very open. For Artolution, most of our experience has been in mural making and performances with refugees in refugee camps and things like that. So this is something that is new for us. For that reason, we would love to hear from organizations and teaching artists who have more experience who may already be developing similar types of projects. We’d love to collaborate, we’re very open to partnering. And so if anyone has comments, suggestions or questions or feedback or ways that we can improve the kinds of ideas that we’re currently working on, we’re open to all of that. 

Click here to learn more about Joel and Artolution, and click here to join them in reaching their goals.  

Artist Spotlight: Jeremiah Murphy

by Molly Wooliver, JAC Intern

Creating art is a powerful and effective way to express how a person is feeling and what they are thinking, and to see how they interact with the world. It can help with understanding yourself as well as other people in a way that other forms of communication cannot. Painter and photographer, Jeremiah Murphy, reflects on his relationship with art and how it has changed over the years: “I didn’t have art as an outlet when I was a kid and it definitely hindered my self-expression.” Jeremiah wasn’t properly introduced to art until he started attending McIntosh College in Dover, New Hampshire in 2004. He took a painting class taught by Richard Hamilton Jr. as part of his photography curriculum and “everything changed.”

“Richard Hamilton is an immensely talented painter and photographer whose passion for his art spurred my interest in painting,” Jeremiah says. “He was surely that one great teacher in my life.” Finding his own inspiration from his professor’s passion, Jeremiah was finally able to express himself in a way that felt like his, and in a way that helped him address his past. “Like many other people that find themselves behind bars, my youth was one of abuse, neglect, and a resulting feeling of isolation. I spent my life ignoring the issues I developed in childhood, which led to the terrible decisions and acts that landed me here, in prison.”

While inside, Jeremiah continues to strengthen his relationship with himself through his art. With painting being his most significant new tool to use, he says, “I can lose myself in the act and truly live in the moment. It’s become a form of meditation.”

Jeremiah finds inspiration in many things, but his primary inspiration is his son. “He never really saw me excel at anything before I was locked up. I hope that my passion for creating art will make him proud for his dad.” Another thing he hopes for is to stir emotions in the people who see his work. Despite calling himself his own worst critic, “that kind of acceptance of my work gives me a great sense of accomplishment and drives me to create more.” However, being able to create more is increasingly difficult. 

Supplies are limited on the inside but Jeremiah looks to create unique textures by experimenting with different techniques and mediums. “My favorite part of the process is creating backgrounds. I strive to create interest and depth using various items and my latest whim. I’ve even applied toilet paper (un-used!) to several canvases over the years.” He paints almost exclusively in acrylics for the ease of use and fast drying time. Jeremiah works by applying a lot of layers and washes, and tends to use his fingers to smear and soften lines. “I like to work quickly and will often have two or three canvases going at once, so quick-drying paint allows me to move along.”

During COVID-19 lockdown, the ability of the artists like Jeremiah to create has been severely restricted. This is especially true for the painters as their studio is located in the gymnasium, which has been closed since April. Jeremiah admits to going a little (“meaning a lot”) stir crazy, but he has had some creative outlets. “I’ve been asked to paint several murals in the ‘leisure’ library, the law library and some classrooms. It’s only one day a week but I’ll take it!”

When asked what the Justice Arts Coalition can do to further support incarcerated artists, Jeremiah said, “It’s not that you don’t already accomplish this, but if I were to emphasize anything you might do, I would ask that you continue to show the world our humanity. Especially in America, the tendency is to demonize those that run afoul of the law and to never let them, or never want them, to again become a part of society.”

You can view more of Jeremiah Murphy’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Jeremiah, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Amber Daniel

“A voice from inside…

All my life I’ve been a drug addict, at least since I was 13 years old. What caused me to come down this life road? 

IDOC # 101969 Inmate Daniel, I was supposed to be somebody special. Not some loser. 

What makes me a loser? Societies views, and harsh opinions do… 

In the eyes of the law I’m nothing more than a criminal. A bad person, with a history of lying to the police. I’ve only ever been who I am, but who am i? 

The best part about being human, is the ability to change. 

Maybe I was a loser once, a drug addict who lied to the police. I have committed crimes. I’ve done, bought, and sold, I’ve slammed, smoked, snorted, even ate all types of drugs. 

I’ve stolen, borrowed, and used, I’ve been stolen from, robbed, mugged, and raped, I’ve been molested in my youth. 

I’ve given and I’ve taken all types of abuse. I’ve hated, and I’ve loved, I’ve built and I’ve broken. I’ve hoped and I’ve hurt, had and I’ve lost. 

I’ve been dirty, and homeless, alone, and now found, I’ve been clean, and I’ve cried, I’ve lived, and i’ve died, I’ve tried and I’ve failed, I’ve been numb, and I’ve felt. 

I’ve been beaten, and I’ve won… I’ve come and I’ve gone, and damn it I’m back again. 

I can’t change the things that have already happened, but being human I can change who I am going to become. 

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. At this moment life isn’t easy for me but that doesn’t mean anything. I just have to keep believing, and continue to be me.”

– Amber Daniel

Oculus: Of A Place Unseen

by Michelle Repiso

The location: on the school bus 

The scene: Lorton Correctional Facility

While riding the bus to high school I would make it a point to look to my right and imagine what it must feel like to be incarcerated. I would also visually explore the grounds thinking I would witness someone escaping since Lorton Prison had that reputation. Every day I would pass the prison and remind myself that as bad as it felt being on that bus at 7:00am, it could be worse. I was fascinated and unnerved for 10 seconds a day then I would go on with life. Subconsciously I now realize that this micro experience has led me to pursue and continue my art program at Rikers Island for the past three years. Today Lorton prison has closed and is now Workhouse Arts Center where they support artists and also houses a museum that covers the Workhouse from the reformatory to the arts center.

I am fortunate to be exhibiting Basic Necessities in a group show at Workhouse. Basic Necessities documents three individuals and the mechanisms they employ to sustain their humanity while incarcerated. This exhibition demonstrates man’s need for communication and connection within our environment no matter how harsh. Tiger Mountain provides music for a video piece that accompanies interviews from Coss Marte, Shane Ennover and Juan Howard. 

Exhibition information:

Oculus: Of A Place Unseen
On view November 22, 2019 – February 2, 2020 

Workhouse Arts Center – McGuireWoods Gallery, Building W-16

Website: http://www.workhousearts.org/

Workhouse Arts Center is pleased to present the interactive exhibit Oculus: Of A Place Unseen featuring works of artists Elaine Buss, Edgar Endress, Michelle Repiso and Steve Wanna. The use of the word ‘oculus,’ most known as an eye-like form in architecture, gestures towards the enlightening narratives discovered throughout the show. Each referencing feelings of solitude and contemplation, the storylines range from institutional boundaries to societal oversights and mantra meditations. Some works are as light as silk, some as heavy as stone, but the overall space is quiet — both literally and figuratively. Oculus: Of A Place Unseen encourages visitors to listen, connect and reconnect.

Photograph from Basic Necessities, Michelle Repiso

About the guest contributor:

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Northern Virginia, Michelle Repiso graduated from The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., where she received a BFA in Photography (2000). Michelle is currently an adjunct faculty member with the International Center of Photography (ICP), Teen Academy, a certified M/WBE business based in New York City and works as a commercial, documentary and fine art photographer in both analog and digital formats. 

 In October 2016 Michelle started facilitating art classes at Rikers Island and in 2017 she developed Create & Connect, which is designed to keep families unified through a creative process of dialogue and hands-on art projects for incarcerated men, women and youth. Participants create original projects to send to their child, family, or friends as a way to unify and maintain communication through long distances. Emphasis is on the creative process and self-expression regardless of artistic skill level.

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own

by Matt Malyon


I. Birdwatching

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.  No—it reels, dizzy in the vibration of its unplanned encounter with steel.  It flaps its huge wings and begins to make sounds that might best be described as cries of terror, as it moves in and out of cars unable to stop their hurtling forward for the sudden and surprising descent of the large white bird.


I spend most Wednesday afternoons with youth in orange jumpsuits, holding a yellow No. 2 pencil between my fingers, and leaning over a black-marbled cover notebook.  Our county’s incarcerated youth have landed “inside” for various reasons—gang related incidents like drive-by shootings or territorial violence, domestic disputes, harm to animals, or items involving alcohol and drugs.  Unless they write about their past, which they often do, we leave such matters at the door. I shake their hands and welcome them as equals. After introductions we settle into the work at hand—reading literature together and responding to it through discussion and creative writing.

In the early days of facilitating Underground Writing workshops, I began to notice our tendency to bring literature of a darker vein.  These included, among others, Dante’s dark wood, Sherman Alexie’s poetry of lament, the non-fiction-fiction of Tim O’Brien, the wars and adventures in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the migrant experience of Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental issues in Martha Serpas’ poetry, the tragedy and loss in the poems of Langston Hughes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Osip Mandlestam, Suji Kwock Kim, and Natalie Diaz, and the darker undercurrents hidden within Robert Frost’s well managed forms.  

I caught myself introducing workshops by saying things like, “I know we discuss a lot of darker stuff, but . . .”  In time, I realized our students did not share a similar anxiety. They recognized their own stories in this very type of difficult literature.  

The truth is that our Underground Writing students, in one way or another, are struggling—the youth in the adult crimes they wake to discover they have committed; our adult students in the physical and mental aftershocks of drug addiction and incarceration; our migrant leaders caught in the intricate web of cultural and familial tensions, in a country seemingly half against them.  Such darkness needs to be named, and the dynamic discussions we’ve been having indicate our students intuitively know this.    


Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.

The story that opened this essay was a story told during a workshop by my friend and colleague in Underground Writing, Chris Hoke.  Chris has a gift for images, and this one stuck with me for some time.  I could see it. I could hear it. I wanted to include it in a piece of my own writing.  But it wasn’t my story.  

In the days that followed, however, something began to evolve.  

I recalled what came to mind immediately in the workshop when I heard the story—my father in an auto parts store in Anaheim, California in January of 2000.   

Two months before my father’s death—returned home from the hospital after his fifth surgery, and unknowingly a few weeks away from hospice care—he decided to get new seat covers for my mom’s car.  He would have nothing to do with anyone telling him anything different. And so, with a body emaciated from years of radiation, cobalt, and chemotherapy in the 70s, and again during the return of his Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, my father climbed carefully into his golden yellow Volvo 1800 sports car and drove to the local auto parts store.  He was nearly a ghost by this point. A perfectionist for his entire life, he had only recently given up shaving due to a lack of energy. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.

I was in Iowa at the time, so I wasn’t there to see him walk gingerly down the aisle, past the various car fluids, on his way to where the seat covers were located.  And I didn’t hear the break, as somewhere between the ankle and the knee his tibia simply snapped. My beloved father, a man of dignity and grace unlike I’ve ever known, fell to the floor in agony, surrounded by bottles of motor oil and antifreeze, his brief descent ending as he rolled onto his back, stunned by the white light and the faces above him appearing quickly from all angles of his vision.


As Underground Writing has grown, as we’ve journeyed from the adrenaline burst of new beginnings, articles in the press, and T-Shirts into the settled rhythms of a more established program, one of the facets of what we’re doing that has become increasingly important to me is how our stories overlap, how they connect us.

In January 2016, my beloved mom passed away.  It was a grief unlike I had known in years. Part of the intensity was due to the fact that both of my biological parents are now gone.  When I shared this news at various times at each of our sites, invariably the room grew quiet. It was as if I could see in slow-motion-time-release the change in the students’ perception of me—white, middle-class teacher to fellow human in a shared journey.  We were now strugglers together, and with a common language. We sat together in that moment of silence. Mere seconds, usually, but it often felt as if time expanded so as to contain the gravity of death. And I suspect we each sat in that silence with images and stories flickering through our minds.  Stories of blood and lineage and loss and grief, the students unconsciously experiencing a transformation as my narrative merged briefly with theirs then faded into other thoughts based in their lives, their stories.  


Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole . . .

In the days following my hearing of this tale, I realized that the stories I was hearing in the workshops were no longer easily defined as something other, as “theirs.”  And the stories I was sharing from my life were not exclusively “mine.”  In fact, my friend’s story was becoming mine, or a part of it, as were the stories shared by our students.  In my hearing of them—my taking them in, as it were—they had not been merely received. They had some sort of agency, something that is ongoing.  The stories, I believe, are generating connections with stories from my life. They are intertwined with my own and are changing my perception of my past.  My stories are also becoming part of others’ stories. Located in the Skagit Valley for a little over a year now, I join them. My life now includes these lives.  I am being changed day by day, reeling in the reverberations of such beauty and sorrow.


Weeks later, I recalled a photograph famous in our family for its seeming absurdity.  In the foreground my beloved father and his brother are horsing around with their father, my grandfather, on the west-facing, hard brown sands of Manzanita, Oregon, our family’s preferred place of sojourn for four generations.  My cousin is building a sandcastle in the background, and behind the small edifice, the Pacific Ocean in all its glory—deep blue, brightly glistening under the evening sun. The lighting is appropriately the golden hour. My father, who is on the left side of the photo, separated by a human-width gap from his father and brother, has his hand held up and out like one side of a cross.  Far in the background, but clearly visible, and seeming to rest on my father’s fingertips: a gull, its wings expanding, about to take flight.


II. Gravedigging

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death.  Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment.  They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.  

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text.  And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.


Spaces like these are shelters for decay, narratives of darkness.  I hear such stories on a weekly basis . . . The young man who confesses to me he’s locked up for killing his grandma’s dog and doesn’t know why he did it, who then proceeds to tell me of his long history of physical abuse at the hands of an angry father; the man in his twenties I’m asked to speak with on the phone in the glass-protected booth, who is missing an arm he himself sawed off, who has swastikas below his eyes and “perdition” written backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror, who tells me he’s from Manson’s farm; the look on the guard’s face the other night when I asked if any pastoral care had been given to the Cascade Mall shooter, who is currently being held in Skagit County Jail; the young man I counsel who tells me he’s having flashbacks of standing over a rival gang member he’s unwittingly stabbed six times in self-defense, listening to him beg for mercy.


There are other movements in the darkness, too.

We’re privileged to see some of our students on a regular basis and build long-term rapport.  It’s satisfying to see the maturing work they produce. Many of our students, however, we see only once, maybe twice, for an hour or two at most.  These are the students I wonder about. Will their notebooks ever get used for creative writing again? Will the impact of encountering literature in a given session spark something, anything?  Will they contact us on the “outs”? Will they remember writing is a gift and a tool for life? I continue to hope. I continue to believe that literature read together in a hospitable atmosphere, paired with writing prompts connected to both the readings and the students’ lives, begins something beyond what we can quantify.  Words matter. Literally. They take shape, and form a space in which things can grow.

Leaving the workshop with a notebook full of words and photocopies of good literature is not our only goal, of course.  We’re seeking both inspiration and transformation. This may take the form of a participant’s continuing to pursue the craft of writing and reading in a more purposeful manner.  It may simply mean they read more. Or it may mean they discover writing as a tool to help process a world that usually leaves them confused, angry, and sad. Whatever the case, we endeavor to resuscitate and nurture hope, something tangible that can be built upon, furthered to the point that an imagination of a different future begins to arc toward what they might become.  It is across this bridge of the imagination, as it were, that the participants can begin the long journey towards embodying a different future.  

I’ve seen writing work this way for two of the students who participated in our program’s initial week of workshops.

R. is from another state, but when I met him he was being detained on various charges in our local area.  Although he was noticeably quiet, I often caught him grinning at certain things read aloud or said in our workshops.  There was a light on. I liked him immediately.  

A month or two after Underground Writing’s debut, our workshop group was discussing the letters of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.  “Letters can be literature,” we told the youth.  “Let’s try it, too.” For our writing prompt, we asked them to write a letter to someone.  When it was open-share time, R. decided to read. “I call this one ‘Dear System’,” he began. 

Dear System,

Ever since I was born you’ve been there.  You were there when my biological mom would relapse and let my sister and I run around free.  You were there again as I began to realize how to work on my own and take care of my mom and little sister.  You were there when my biological dad went into a rage and hit someone. You were there when my mom used up her last chance.  You took me and my little sister from her. You weren’t there when I passed from family member to family member. You were there to give me a new family.  You were the one who put both my parents in jail. You put my biological dad in prison. Now you are here again, but this time just for me. You are here putting me in JRA for the same reason my biological dad’s locked up.  You have brought me nothing but pain in the 14 years I’ve known you. You have torn apart my family time and time again only to put me in a new one where I’ve done nothing but disappoint or make people angry. So, System, before I finish this letter, I just want you to know I will never forgive you.


The room was silent.  Not only because we’d just heard a sort of foundational text that solidified we were on to something important, but also because R.’s writing was inarguably powerful.  In five minutes, his emotions had been honed into something concise that moved beyond mere self-expression. He’d interacted with literature in a dialogic manner, and by the look on his face, something transformative had happened to him during the process.

R.’s out of state now, so we stay in touch these days via letters and the phone.  During the course of our last phone conversation, he told me he’s working on a section of a long autobiography project, as well as completing a set of song lyrics.  His letters, too, bear witness to the continuing impact of writing . . .

I’m happy that “Dear System” is helping people.  That’s a side of my writing that I never considered.  I am still writing. So far I have gone through three notebooks . . . I miss going to Underground Writing sessions.  I liked it there, I always felt welcomed.

I’ve also seen it in J.—a native to our county, held inside for a record number of months, due to the serious nature of the charges against him.  J.’s interest in writing has had extremely tangible benefits. In our workshops he was always eager to share his work.


So I’m in deep depression now

There’s nothing I can do about it

I’ve been sleeping all day

I get real tired when I’m this way.

I start thinking and thinking

And my mind goes crazy.

I get the same thought

Over and over—

What would things be like if

I ended my life today?

I stare, and I stare

I think everyone

Who loves me hates me,

Who wouldn’t care

If I just disappeared one day

I think and I think—

Wouldn’t it be better if it all

Just went away.

J. is determined to survive.  Likeable from the start, he’s a person I’ve come to appreciate for his strong desire for change and restoration.  In the fifteen months I’ve known him, he’s taken to writing as if it were an iron lung. His first letter to me implied it might, in fact, be something of the sort.

As you know, I missed creative writing.  I was really bummed out because that’s my favorite programming that I look forward to all week.  I’m a ‘security risk’. I’m really stressed out and just going crazy.  I’ve never had such severe, strong, and sudden emotions.

Near the end of his stay, we began meeting once a week.  I met with him as a teacher or a chaplain, determined by his need on any given day.  By the time he was finally sentenced and sent to a juvenile prison, we’d also written seven letters back and forth.  

So I made it to [prison]!  I was in Shelton for about 3 hours then they took me.  I’ve been here almost 24 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this place other than it’s definitely a prison…I found a small section for poetry in the library, but they have like 80% Shakespeare and really old stuff . . . I’ve been writing a ton but most of it is private stuff or my new book, ‘To My Love’.  I’m really excited to hear what you think about my prologue. My mom is sending all of my writing from the outs and Juvie. It is so much that she had to put it in a package in the post office.

When I look back over the past fourteen months, writing is the thread that is so apparently woven through J.’s future progress and restoration.  More so, what I believe propels J. is what to one degree or another propels all writers and poets—he has encountered the self through writing, and, in that process, imagination, mystery, and hope.

Our correspondence has notably increased in the six months since his transfer, most of it being driven by J.’s own desire to continue learning the craft of writing.  He is an exemplar of our program’s hoped-for impact. In 41 letters and counting, we’ve edited and re-edited draft after draft of various poems and short stories. We’ve shared a bit of our own stories.  And we’ve also been working on a co-submission to a literary journal, an item that has facilitated further momentum toward change for J. 

I’ve been inspired once again to be a part of Underground Writing or a similar group/organization when I get out.  This program changes lives. I am a prime example. I now have something to work towards, to strive for. I have something I want on the outs.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit J. in another part of our state.  Amidst a room full of families and loved ones visiting their sons, their boyfriends, their dads, I sat with J. for one and a half hours.  We talked about life in his new surroundings, as well as his hopes for the future. He’s feeling settled in his living unit, and his medications have finally stabilized.  There have been challenging and good reconnections with his family. He’s just turned eighteen and is registering to vote. He’s applying to take classes through a local community college, and is determined to use what little money he has left to help his mom in paying for his tuition.  In my estimation, the hope for change has transformed into actual and definable progress.  

“You’re doing great,” I say to J. as we shake hands.  “Really great. So glad to see it.” I tell him I’ll return in a month or two.

He smiles.  “You’re going to send out our submission next week—right?”


Reading Flannery O’Connor recently, I was reminded of a story received from the ancient tradition of the desert fathers and mothers.  There was a hermit living in the region of Scetis who had become seriously ill.  His fellow monks, upon visiting him one day, discovered that he had died, and began to prepare his body for burial.  All of sudden, he awoke, opened his eyes, and began laughing. After recovering from their surprise, the brothers asked him what he was laughing about.  He told them he was laughing because they feared death, because they were not ready for it, and, finally, because he was passing from labor into his rest.  With this he rolled over and died.

Death for such monastics was a way of life.  A way to life.  And reportedly, some monks in ages past did indeed sleep in their coffins.  When presented with this bit of history, my son tells me the monks were probably hiding from something.  I asked some of the youth in Underground Writing what they thought.

A: “To get away from everything for a while.”

O: “Maybe it was part of their praying.”

L: “Because they’re getting ready to die.”

In some sense, all of these answers are correct.  Monks have always been consciously mindful of death.  Sleeping in coffins was simply a more obvious way of facilitating this.  It was likely their way of hiding from the very act of hiding—a way to actively seek an encounter with reality.  Whatever the people in surrounding communities may have thought of the practice, to say nothing of the explanation, it was not a sorrowful thing.  Nor did it lead to depression. In fact, a monk’s literal descent into his future place of death allowed him to more fully engage life. It became a conduit for joy, allowing a monk to wake to the freeing realization of his mortality.  

In the literature we discuss with youth and adults, in the writing we do as a generative response, we more often than not enter into the darkness of our lives.  These unlit places may be as simple as a general lack of clarity or as complex as navigating the extrication of oneself from the clutches of drug addiction, gang involvement, or repeating cycles of shame and perceived failure.  Whatever a student’s degree of darkness, by directly descending into it—through the profound mystery of reading/writing—something begins to happen. They begin to voice the ineffable. Words become sentences become beauty. In less than an hour, it’s surprising to witness the claustrophobic encasement of each student’s life opening up a bit.  So begins a fissure. And through such gaps daylight begins to filter in. 

About the guest contributor:

Matt Malyon is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, as well as a jail and juvenile detention chaplain.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

The essay above was first published in Iron City Magazine.

You can read Matt’s previous article on the JAC blog here.