Prison Poetry Across the Country

Leah Farinella, Contributer

In the last 15 years the incarceration rate of the United States has been exceedingly high with over 1.4 million people in the U.S. State and Federal Prisons. With such a large group of people, initiatives to try and use poetry and art for self expression, learning, and reform have sprung up all over the country. In California’s oldest state prison, San Quentin, Nicola White has worked to revive the Art Reach program as well as create an online platform for their work to be displayed. As reported by PBS, White believes that “every man is worth more than the worst thing they have done,” and that the art and poetry is a good way for the inmates to express themselves in a constructive and therapeutic way. One of the men in San Quentin, Bill Clark, who is serving a life sentence for a double murder conviction, says that he uses the program to help him maintain his humanity and humor. Not only does he write poems but draws cartoon and writes children’s books as well.

These types of programs are not only found in San Quentin but across the country as well. Richard Shelton, who used to be a professor at Arizona State University, received a letter from a inmate, asking for feedback on a poem he had written. After this, Shelton started a writers’ workshop for the state’s prison system which has been highly successful and has allowed many of the incarcerated students to become published authors.

In Massachusetts there is the Prison Book Program. The goal of this is to connect inmates with books and access to literary education. According to the program’s web site the more educated and literate a person is the less likely they are to return to prison after they are released. Currently the prison system does not allow friends or families to give books to prisoners and are only allowed in the facilities if received from a store or publisher. By partnering with Lucy Parsons Bookstore the program has been able to donate thousands of books each year to the Massachusetts state prisons. On the web site poems and book reviews written by the inmates are posted in order to be shared in a public forum and give them a constructive way to express themselves as well as give insight to what life in the prison system is like.