New Ways to Look

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.

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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.

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But if you’re willing to change your perspective even a little bit, what you see starts to change. And things get more complicated.

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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

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Lost in a cold dream called prison / Four sharp corners, eggshell paint, dusty gray floor

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They call me 299-359

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Correctional officers view me as a stupid savage / I push the pen so that I remain happy

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Mama and Daddy, these are the unwritten words of your baby’s diary

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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

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I operate this pen to fight the war mentality / So please understand me

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They call me 299-399 / Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes and an armband”

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Words can build new, beautiful realities even in the ugliest places

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But the work of seeing people for who they are is never completely finished

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We have to keep finding new ways to look

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Because seeing beauty requires standing on the right side.

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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.

Between the Bars Blog: A Space for Stories, Dialogue, and Opportunity

Charlie DeTar, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and social justice activist, has been concerned about our criminal justice system for many years. He has watched the prison population skyrocket to over two million, and the gap between the number of African Americans and Caucasians behind bars grow exponentially. Knowing that one in three Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, DeTar can’t help but draw parallels between the prison system and slavery. “The Fourteenth Amendment only outlawed slavery for those not being punished for a crime,” he says, “but what we have here is a dramatic accounting of the same practices of slavery that were going on 200 years ago.”

DeTar also recognizes the significant challenges that men and women face when they return to their communities after being incarcerated. Finding housing and employment can be quite a challenge for those with criminal records, as can accessing public assistance of any form. With so few resources available to formerly incarcerated men and women, it’s no wonder that the recidivism rate is over 50%.

Armed with this information, and passionate about providing a forum for the voices of incarcerated people, DeTar decided to create a blog where prisoners could post their stories. Between the Bars was initially launched as both a service and research project last October, and was met with an immediate influx of letters, stories, and poems from incarcerated writers. However, DeTar and his colleagues ran into some barriers to the research aspect of their project, and had to temporarily shut down the site. They re-launched in April, and already have been contacted by between 400 and 500 prisoners. Nearly 200 have sent in at least one post or profile.

When DeTar and his team of volunteers receive a post from someone in prison or jail, they scan it to the blog. Visitors to the site can assist in the transcription of the post, and are encouraged to comment on the posts that speak to them. These comments are then sent back to the writers, creating an opportunity for dialogue. For those behind bars, this is a valuable opportunity to feel connected with the world outside the razor wire. By “giving people a platform where they can speak in own voice,” the blog enables writers to form “a personal identity outside the dynamic of prison.” This identity, as well as the social ties they have fostered through Between the Bars, can be carried with prisoners when they are released, helping them to feel more connected to their community and more prepared to face the challenges that await them on the outside.

For those visiting the blog from the comfort of home, Between the Bars provides an opportunity to learn about life inside our nation’s correctional institutions from the perspective of those most affected by them. DeTar hopes the site will help “break through the tendency people have of viewing people in prison as “untouchable class”, and inspire more compassion and activism. Prior to creating Between the Bars, DeTar spent a great deal of time reading work by incarcerated writers, and was “fascinated by their inside perspective. Even the most mundane stories,” he reflects, “drive home just how unproductive the whole experience of prison is…if people on the outside can see what life is like in prison, if they see prisoners as humans, as complex individuals with hopes and desires, they might start working against the sense that tells us to treat them as the fearful other.”

DeTar reports that Between the Bars now has a waiting list of almost 150 prisoners. Due to the tremendous success of the project, he and his colleagues (all of whom are volunteers) are exploring ways of more efficiently managing the site so that they won’t have to turn anyone away. In the meantime, they will continue to post letters and send every comment back to the writers. The most important thing supporters of the blog can do, says DeTar, is post comments – the writers long for the chance to connect with us.

City Prison Writers

by David Coogan

With a new bag of pens and some legal pads, I invited the men to write their ways out. I did not teach the guys who could not write their names—the ones with deficits, disorders, dementia, or some intractable disaffection. There were no serial killers, complete psychos or pedophiles. I didn’t go to reach the unreachable. I didn’t want to be a hero. My currency was common sense.  I refused to believe they were always and forever products of some environment. But I also refused to believe they owned every choice that got made in their lives. Five months into the workshop, a core group had emerged: Ron Fountain, Stan Craddock, Andre Simpson, Greg Carter, Chuck Hicks, Kelvin Belton, Naji Mujahid and Dean Turner. These were the ones who kept writing after our time at the jail had come to an end, sending me drafts from prison, keeping me up to date on their progress into their new lives even when they found it hard to write. And these were the ones who helped expand the idea of the workshop: in prison, Kelvin sent Terence Scruggs; Naji sent Brad Greene, Kyle Brown and Tony Martin. Phase Two, the correspondence course had began like that.


Sean Case: from Ojibway Correctional Facility in Michigan

I’ve always needed to write – to think out loud across the page, agonize over the smallest turn of a phrase, edit the same stanza over and over until I’ve come as close as I can to perfection or abandoned it in favor of some fresher verse. But it wasn’t until my incarceration that I developed the corresponding need to be heard. Whereas before I was content with private journaling, with English as catharsis, now I required an audience, an energy to bounce my ideas off of. At the bottom of the social casserole, I suddenly needed assurance that I was worth something – on paper, at least.

So I met with fellow poets on the yard to share our prose aloud. I sought out prison creative writing programs and worked to start them where none existed. I found publication for my own writing and that of my peers. With the assistance of people like Buzz Alexander, Suzanne Gothard, Eric Gadzinski, Judith Tannenbaum, and others directly or indirectly involved with Michigan’s PCAP, I learned methods not only to refine my own writing, but also to help others improve their own.

Through forums created by prison arts programs (and a few willing publishers), I’ve been able to remain a part of the reality outside these fences by sharing my view from within them, and that connection has enabled – more than any other aspect of this experience – my development into a socially-mindful (I hope) human being.

Listen to an essay of Sean here.