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‘Voiceless’ inmates find healing through prison poetry program

Lex Cortes, a former inmate at Lansing Correctional Facility, read his poetry, along with a selection of other inmates’ poetry, during a recent Arts in Prison poetry reading at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center. Cortes studied poetry during his incarceration with Arlin Buyert, the Arts in Prison Poetry Program instructor.
Lex Cortes, a former inmate at Lansing Correctional Facility, read his poetry, along with a selection of other inmates’ poetry, during a recent Arts in Prison poetry reading at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center. Cortes studied poetry during his incarceration with Arlin Buyert, the Arts in Prison Poetry Program instructor. Special to The Star

For the past two decades, the Johnson County Library Incarcerated Services and Arts in Prison Writing programs have opened the world of literacy and writing to incarcerated juveniles and adults throughout Kansas.

These programs not only lighten the hopelessness and loss of identity experienced by many inmates, but they also provide opportunities for them to share their stories with an audience who might not ever hear their voices another way.

“These programs make a community connection with people who are traditionally invisible,” Johnson County Library Incarcerated Services Librarian Melody Kinnamon said.

In 2003, the Johnson County Library started its program by placing 200 books in a library at the juvenile detention center.

Since that time, the library program has expanded exponentially, serving nearly 9,000 incarcerated individuals — including nearly 7,500 juveniles and more than 1,000 adult offenders at Johnson County detention and residential centers.

Changing Life through Literature is a juvenile program that emulates a traditional book club. Through this program, a library facilitator selects a book to be read by a group of juvenile offenders, probation officers, and a judge. All members of the group read and discuss the book in a book-club-like setting.

“Literature allows you to talk about things going on in your life, without really talking directly about them,” Johnson County Library Teen Services Coordinating Librarian Kate McNair said. “You talk about them through the eyes of characters or through the book’s plot or story line.

“The judges see the juveniles in a different light and vice versa. They meet on common ground — but the common ground is not the courtroom. Relationships are built outside of the courtroom experience.”

The juvenile programs, which can be part of an offender’s adjudication program, also include visits from guest authors.

Jack Gantos, a Newberry Medal winner, discussed his book, “A Hole in My Life,” last year at the Juvenile Detention Center. Before Gantos’ visit, youth offenders read the book, which is based on the author’s prison stay, then discussed it with him.

“Guest authors inspire kids in detention to write their own books,” McNair said.

One of the library’s programs on the adult side is a weekly book club for those in the county’s six-month treatment program. Part of the county’s diversion program, this program serves 10 to 14 individuals in each group.

“I have learned about myself through these programs,” Kinnamon said. “The stories they have to tell are moving and universal, and I’ve learned that we’re all just people.”

The Arts in Prison Writing Program mission closely aligns with the Johnson County Library’s programs. Staffed by volunteer instructors, the program has served the incarcerated population at Kansas prisons and detention centers for more than 20 years.

For the past five years, Arlin Buyert has been the instructor for poetry courses offered at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

In Buyert’s classes, writers study the works of culturally significant poets and also create their own poetry. Buyert teaches two eight-week sessions per year, with approximately 10 students in each class.

He said the teaching process is, first and foremost, a trust-building process.

“It takes time to build relationships with the inmates,” Buyert said. “They ask, ‘Who’s Arlin?’ ‘Will this get out of the room?’ Once the trust develops, the writing truly begins.”

To inspire the creative process, Buyert provides his students with a variety of prompts, such as a poetry form or poem.

“Respect is a huge element — respect they don’t necessarily get in prison,” Buyert said. “I tell them ‘You are a poet,’ ‘You are a writer.’”

Buyert’s class motto is: “In this very room, there is room for love.”

It’s a teaching style that’s proven successful, with tangible and measurable positive student outcomes.

“I never thought poetry would become something to increase one’s self-confidence and self-worth, but that’s exactly what this poetry does,” Buyert said. “It also helps them stay out of prison. I never dreamed that.”

During the past five years, only one of Buyert’s students has returned to Lansing.

”These poets have virtually no recidivism, compared to the nearly 50-percent average in Kansas,” he said,

Two anthologies of Buyert’s student poetry have been published, “Open to the Sky” (I and II), and seem to serve as a form of catharsis.

“Poems inmates write are not soft and pretty,” Buyert said. “They are from the heart and they tell powerful stories. They demand our attention.”

McNair agreed.

“These programs are amazingly powerful,” she said. “Incarcerated individuals don’t get to make many decisions for their lives. Through these programs, they are given an opportunity to express themselves in an unedited form that is truly powerful for them and for those who hear their stories.”

JoAnna Ramsey is one of the writers who discovered this energy and force.

Five years ago, Ramsey, a former Lansing inmate, was the first poet to sign up for Buyert’s class. She is also the first transgender woman to receive hormone-replacement therapy in the Kansas prison system.

“My poetry speaks to my experience as a woman in a men’s prison starting at 19 years old,” Ramsey said. “I write about my trauma and what I’ve had to overcome.”

Although she’s transitioned into a new life, Ramsey continues to write poetry and stays in touch with Buyert, who she now considers a mentor.

“Poetry is a good way to vent in a safe space,” Ramsey said. “As an inmate, you’re voiceless in prison. Poetry gives you the ability to be heard. Reading poetry is very validating. ... The arts programs in prison are so important. They remind us that we are still people.”

Lex Cortes, another former Lansing inmate and student of Buyert, felt the same empowerment.

“Poetry is the best way to honestly express yourself,” he said. “It can capture what you’ve gone through and your experiences in prison.”

Sharing those experiences with others is an important element of the programs.

During the past three years, the Johnson County Library has hosted several Arts in Prison Poetry Readings at which inmates and former inmates read for a community-wide audience.

Ramsey and Cortes shared their poems at a recent reading, which took place the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center.

“The community needs to hear these poets,” Kinnamon said. “We look at audiences during the readings. They’re riveted.”

Excerpts from the recent Arts in Prison Poetry reading

“Hope” by Avrin Chapman

Hope is something or another

invisible and strong.

Trustworthy in its essence

for it leads a man home.

Hope is almost alive

visible from where I’m sitting.

Enabling me to walk

preventing me from quitting.

“Entanglement of Thoughts” by Alexis Cortes

Society judges us with a granite gavel.

When thoughts become unraveled,

vexed and perplexed —

our souls become paper thin,

a symphony of sympathy

composed by our greatest lies.

What happened to our love,

what happened to our lives?

The potency of potential that once was —

“Lessons” by Jacob Waldrop

big leather strap

crying, begging, pleading

hope the pain goes away quickly

Daddy

“Never the Same” by Johnny Duncan

Enemy contact — all guns and hell break loose

Ground shakes, nerves shatter, smoke rises, blood spatters

Intense fear, intrepid terror, death smirks with every error

Intrusive thoughts present pain, nightmares keep my soul stained

Memories seared and replayed, continuing the war inside

Welcome home hero soldier, now another battle begins.

“The Vase” by Marty Robinson

carelessly bumped dreams

shatter like a precious vase

on a cold hard floor

straining over the pieces

who will help me repair this priceless vessel

once filled with things hoped for

tomorrow’s laughter and happy tears

now mingled with dust and dangerous shards

I look up

you’ve already left the room

“Tyga Visit1” by JoAnna Ramsey

I live vicariously, through friends I’ve never met,

experiences not my own.

She makes me laugh and giggle.

Although I’m not too fickle

to use any chance to bury my pain.

Girl, you are my true defender,

keeper of my sanity.

When she gets up and goes,

only God could know how

I’ll make it until she shows again.

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