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Poetry for the Prisoners’ Soul

Why the focus on poetry? Poetry is a major form of literature. Literature is, in turn, one of the humanities’ main disciplines and involves heavy reading as well as writing. Studies by psychologist Raymond Mer at Canada’s York University and cognitive psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto published in 2006 and 2009 have shown that people with humanities-centered educations are more receptive to and empathetic where it comes to their fellow humans.

The University of Houston-Clear Lake offers a humanities-based Behavioral Science bachelor’s degree and master’s degree programs to prisoners at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Ramsey Unit. Recidivism rates for UHCL’s bachelor’s degree earners is 5.6 percent and for its master’s degree earners is 0. That’s right, zero percent, as opposed to the national rate of 67.5 percent and Texas’ rate of 30.7 percent. All three UHCL curriculums incorporate poetry courses into their requirements.

A similar program is in place at the Illinois Department of Corrections at its Danville Correctional Center. It is administered by the University of Illinois (UI) through its Education Justice Program. Like the UHCL’s curriculum, UI’s is also humanities-heavy. Recidivism statistics for UI’s graduates are as-yet unavailable, probably due to the program’s low number of graduates caused by prison guards constantly interfering with the program. [PLN, October 2019, p. 59] Also, the UHCL’s programs have been in place continuously since 1988. The UI’s programs have been in place for 10 years, only a short time by comparison.

Celes Tisdale was the person who began leading poetry workshops in Attica after the uprising there. She was an assistant professor at nearby Erie Community College at that time. She saw first-hand the positive changes on the prisoners through their immersion in poetry. “Their sensitivity and perception were so intense,” Tisdale recalls, “that each Wednesday night [after class] I came home completely exhausted.”

Unfortunately, prisoner poetry books such as Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row, words from the House of the Dead, The Last Stop and Folsom Prison: the 52nd State are disappearing and nearly impossible to find any more. Lending libraries are increasingly responding to requests for those works with “WEEDED” and “WITHDRAWN” in an eerie modern-day parallel to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Only in this instance, those books are not burned but merely allowed to fade into antiquated obscurity, a loss for humanity in general and an effective muzzle to prison poetry writers. 


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