Melinda Henneberger

No poetry for you: Overreaction ends Lansing prison class, with no chance for appeal

For the last seven years, Arlin Buyert has taught a Thursday night poetry class to inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility. A Navy veteran, retired cattle rancher and now nearly full-time church volunteer, Buyert planned around those Thursday nights. Even when his wife, who is a theologian, took a sabbatical in Minnesota last semester, he stayed behind in Leawood, putting up with a separation he knew would be difficult because he couldn’t bear to disappoint the men.

I sat in on Buyert’s class earlier this month. What struck me, beyond the seriousness of his students and the absence of falseness in their work, was what one newcomer to the class said about how essential that outlet had become. It was a mainstay, he said, in helping him manage his anxiety ahead of his release next August, at age 32 — half a lifetime after he last breathed free.

I had no immediate plans to write about the class before receiving this message from Buyert: “I got barred from my poetry class at Lansing this past Thursday :-(. One of the poets in Volume 3 of Open to the Sky” — the third volume of inmate poetry that he’d gotten published — “was not ‘media cleared’ and I did not know it. So therefore all copies of the book must be destroyed and they terminated me and the poetry program! I feel so sorry for the poets.”

As do I. And that’s not to say I don’t also feel for their victims.

The man whose anxiety has been off the charts ahead of his release next summer is in Lansing because he strangled a 15-year-old schoolmate who refused to have sex with him in 2004.

The man who isn’t “media-cleared” — meaning that his victims haven’t signed a waiver giving permission for his poetry or anything else of his to be published — is the still-infamous Danny Pickerill. On Oct. 11, 1984, Pickerill stormed into the Nickerson, Kansas, home of a coworker who had broken up with him after learning that he had a wife and kids. She was staying with her mother because she was afraid of him, and with good reason: He fatally stabbed her stepfather with a hunting knife, shot and wounded her mother and kidnapped her, along with her 3-year-old daughter.

Even if Pickerill is not that man any more — and over the years, prison volunteers have told reporters that he isn’t — it’s not hard to understand why his victims don’t want to read his sad reflections about his long nights in prison or his conversations with God.

The question, though, is why every inmate in the class has to be punished for what seems like a bureaucratic slip-up. Another Arts in Prison volunteer, who taught a current events class, was also bounced recently after bringing a non-sanctioned Blue Tube headset to class.

Maybe prison officials are still reacting to the volunteer who fell in love with an inmate and helped him escape in a dog crate 13 years ago. But the “sad truth” of the Kansas Department of Corrections, wrote one board member of the Arts in Prison program, in a group email following Buyert’s ouster, is that “They will always remove programs and events for minor infractions,” and “the more you question their decisions, the more they remove.”

This program was a lifeline snatched away, and doing so punishes those who in this case did nothing wrong.

Leigh Lynch, executive director of Arts in Prison, says, “We’ll look for another instructor. Without an instructor, there’s no class.” It wasn’t her decision, she said, but she did not criticize it, either: “We’re there at their invitation, and if they don’t want us, then all the programs go away.”

Prison spokesman Brett Peterson, who attended the poetry class the night I did, praised Buyert as “one of our most enthusiastic volunteers” when I was in the process of getting cleared for that visit. When I called him about Buyert’s ejection, he said the dismissal “would not happen without justification. There is a lot more to it.”

After Buyert signed a waiver giving prison officials permission to explain, they issued a statement saying that he’d been trained on and had signed off on all of the rules and yet had broken several: “Mr. Buyert did not have permission to publish book 2 or 3 ... Mr. Buyert took the poetry of offenders out of the facility without approval ... Mr. Buyert took the names and addresses of the family/friends of inmates that he, without authorization, then used to send the book.”

Before realizing the book was “illegal,” Buyert said, he sent copies to the families of several inmates. In an email to Buyert, Peterson wrote that doing that “is a breach of trust, Arlin — no matter if it is intentional or not.”

I’m not sure how you can breach trust unintentionally, but Buyert insists he didn’t know that he was doing anything wrong in mailing out books at the request of inmates, who when they heard they’d actually been published wanted to show their mothers that they’d done something good — something they could be proud of.

The whole disagreement, resulting in one more loss for the poets of Lansing, comes down to whether Buyert did or did not know that he had to get the permissions that he says he was never told about for this or any of the previous volumes, which were not a secret.

“I’ve never been a rule-breaker,” aside from two speeding tickets, one of which he got on his way to Lansing.

At 76, here’s his schedule: On Tuesdays, he does home repairs, mostly for elderly African-American women, as a volunteer for Metro Lutheran Ministry. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he picks up donations for the nonprofit Blessings Abound. On Thursdays, he prepared for his class at the prison, where he’s also been a mentor to some of those being released. And on Mondays? “I write poetry,” including work nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Even if Buyert is the scofflaw I don’t believe him to be, aren’t our correctional facilities supposed to be showing inmates how to correct mistakes instead of overreacting to them?

We talk a lot these days about prison reform, which everybody from our Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to the libertarian Koch brothers supports. But if the state of Kansas can’t forgive Arlin Buyert, I’m not sure how it will ever give those who’ve committed serious crimes the second chance that we all say we want for them.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.