Arts in Prison poetry class benefits inmates

05/12/2014 12:10 PM

05/12/2014 12:10 PM

The guards, high walls and razor wire effectively do their jobs, keeping men incarcerated for myriad offenses at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

Some of them, however, find a kind of liberation in the Arts in Prison poetry class. Arlin Buyert sent me a book with some of their work titled “Open to the Sky.”

I then attended a class that Buyert led as a prison volunteer in a windowless, concrete room. Inside, the spirits of the 10 men soared as they read their work aloud and absorbed classmates’ critiques.

The men, serving time for various offenses, liked Wise Hayes’ poem, “The Lion,” symbolizing his own strength and freedom: “The stone walls do not keep him out,/Nor can they contain him./Just as none could capture him/Nor can I explain him.”

Hayes said the Arts in Prison class soothes him. “By writing poetry and writing raps, I found a kind of spiritual release,” he said.

Arts in Prison began in 1996. It includes singing, poetry, creative writing, spoken word, visual arts and Shakespeare performances. “No one art form appeals to every person,” said Leigh A. Lynch, executive director of Arts in Prison Inc.

The program helps inmates lead better lives when released. “We really want them to work their stuff out,” Lynch said.

Dozens of program volunteers serve hundreds of inmates. The positive programs help the men avoid returning to old habits and haunts that landed them behind bars. “We are somewhere in the prison every night of the week,” Lynch said.

Buyert, who edited “Open to the Sky,” began volunteering with the East Hill Singers at the prison and then switched to the poetry class.

“The inmate poetry is very powerful, the experience of sharing is very meaningful and the relationships with the men are very special,” said Buyert, who drives from his home in Leawood to the prison during the spring and fall 12-week semesters. “I think it creates a very strong bond, and our poetry hour has become a safe haven to share all kinds of things, some of it way beyond poetry.”

Adam Rhodes shared his poem, “The Journey,” about being gay in prison and how he is treated. It ends saying, “I am not unworthy, I will not (be) ignored/I’ll saunter through this prison, lifting weights you cannot see/I’ll be stronger than an ox/By carrying my dignity.”

Jo Ramsey, who’s transgender and in the class, responded to Rhodes’ poem, saying: “It’s so difficult in this place to be genuine. It takes a person with an incredible amount of courage to be yourself.”

Carl Misner added that the men draw strength and improved self-esteem from the class. Ramsey convinced him to join. “I think I will be ready for the world,” he said.

One of Misner’s poems, “A Plea for Understanding,” ends saying, “Teach me, show me/Help me to be a better man/Guide me, stand beside me/Help me understand.”

Ramsey’s poem, “Tyga Visits,” expresses how inmates feel about people who drive to Lansing to see them even though the men are behind bars. “I live vicariously through friends. She makes me laugh and giggle/Although I’m not too fickle/To use any chance to bury my pain. When she gets up and goes/Only God could know/How I’ll make it ’til she shows again.”

Some of the men wrote about remorse over something they’d done, and others wrote about the death of a loved one.

“As we do each poem and we get stuff out on paper, there’s a certain healing that goes on,” Johnny Duncan said. “I’m just loving it. I’m just hooked on it.”

He shared his poem titled “Suicide Solution.” But it’s a poem of hope.

It ends saying: “Hope heals a malnourished, damaged soul./Hope prevents another inmate/Dangling from the end of a rope.”

Hope is what all components of the Arts in Prison program provide along with the many, caring, giving volunteers.

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