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Bringing Poetry and Hope into Prison

Poet Tyehimba Jess discusses poetry and the value of education with a rapt audience of prisoners at the Green Correctional Facility in a program put on by the New York State Writers Institute. (Photo by Paul Grondahl)

COXSCKIE, N.Y. (Sept. 25, 2017) — Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess held 72 prisoners spellbound for more than two hours on with an animated performance of his poetry, encouragement about their writing and a frank discussion that ended with Jess imploring them to take advantage of every educational opportunity during their incarceration.

Jess visited Greene Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Coxsackie, on September 14. It was a first-time collaboration between the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, the not-for-profit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. It is part of the Writers Institute’s new mission to expand community outreach and to bring the power and beauty of literature to marginalized populations.

Jess led a seminar on the writing craft that afternoon on the UAlbany campus and performed at an evening event that began with poetry readings from several UAlbany students as part of the Writers Institute’s visiting writers series. Writers Institute director Paul Grondahl and Derik Smith, a poet and assistant professor of English at UAlbany, accompanied Jess for the prison program.

“Read as much as you can,” Jess told the inmates, a diverse group of men who ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. They sat attentively in rows of plastic chairs in a room that serves as the chapel. Several prisoners made notes in composition books. Jess wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with the cover art of Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Breakfast of Champions.”

“Get as many certificates and degrees as you can while you’re in here,” Jess said. “That opens locks inside of you. Building up your mind and gaining knowledge is ultimately what frees you.”

Jess read from his two critically acclaimed poetry collections, Leadbelly and Olio, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The prisoners offered spontaneous standing ovations for Jess, whose delivery bore the cadence and passion of a preacher.

The prisoners seemed particularly interested in the poet’s recounting of the poetic inspiration he took from the life of Lead Belly, born Huddie William Ledbetter, son of a Louisiana sharecropper who became an influential American folk and blues singer and guitarist of the early 20th-century. He also was incarcerated twice. “What got him through his years in prison was channeling his anger into something productive and uplifting, which was his music,” Jess said.

A hush fell over the inmates, a racially diverse group that was predominantly African-American, when Jess recounted his research that chronicled the names, dates and places of 133 black churches across the U.S. that were burned down during a century of hate crimes.

“His poetry was fascinating and it gave me hope,” said Eddie Robinson, 48, who helped start a book club in prison and is working toward an associate’s degree in behavioral science with the goal of becoming a social worker.

“It was remarkably vivid,” said John Wendell, 37, of Harlem, who is in a pre-college academic program.

“I’d never been interested in history before because it was boring, but he made it come alive,” said Francisco Martinez, 28, of the Bronx, a pre-college student.

All the inmates are part of the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a privately funded program that provides courses for 500 students in six state prisons. Over the past 15 years, more than 600 prisoners have earned associates and bachelor’s degrees through the program and the recidivism rate of its graduates is less than 4 percent – compared to a national recidivism rate of 67 percent among all prisoners.

“It shows that education works and it has a redemptive power with prisoners,” said Joel Jimenez, Hudson Link’s academic coordinator in the Greene Correctional Facility.

Jess told the inmates he would mail copies of his poetry books for their prison library and reminded them to work hard in their classes.

“That was amazing,” Jess said as he stood in the parking lot, outside a tall fence topped with razor wire. “They were very thoughtful and asked great questions. I think they taught me as much as I taught them. It was an honor for me.”

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