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Posts Tagged ‘reentry’

Photo: Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor.
“Craig Watson (left), Keela Hailes (center), and Shannon Battle – seen here at the office of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in Washington on June 21, 2021 – form a network of support for formerly incarcerated individuals
,” reports the Monitor.

If you were following this blog five years ago, you might have caught the post about Norway’s enlightened prison system, which focuses less on punishment than on rehabilitation (here). Whenever I read about the system in the US and remember Norway’s impressive success, I just feel sad.

In this country, it’s pretty much up to nonprofits and volunteers to reacclimate ex-offenders to society and prevent recidivism. Today’s story is about one such effort, one that a certain US prison allows to enter its walls.

Erika Page reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “Craig Watson only showed up at that poetry workshop back in 2015 because his prison compound’s championship basketball game was canceled. ‘I was just sitting there, like, “I don’t write poems. I don’t rhyme,” ‘ he recalls, chuckling.

“The facilitator from Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop told him to forget about rhyming and just express himself. The blank page in front of him began to fill up. Poetry offered an outlet for expressing difficult feelings about a childhood marked by violence. During community ‘write nights,’ Free Minds members gave him positive feedback, and he began to lean into that network of support.

“Free Minds, founded in 2002, operates book clubs and writing workshops in prisons around the United States and at the jail and juvenile detention center in Washington, offering constructive connections among its nearly 2,000 members. Members never ‘graduate’ but remain part of the organization for life; thousands are on its waitlist.

When incarcerated people are released, Free Minds helps them find their feet back home through its reentry program. 

“When Mr. Watson returned from prison through the Second Look Amendment Act in 2019, he had 22 years of catching up to do. Free Minds helped him with practical things, like finding his first job, but most important, the organization became an extended family that kept Mr. Watson from becoming another statistic.  

“Every year, the U.S. releases 7 million people from jail and more than 600,000 from prison. Of the latter, more than two-thirds are rearrested within three years. Many return to communities of historical underinvestment with limited education and weak social support. Criminal records make the job search difficult, and drug use and suicide rates are high, according to a report by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 

“Free Minds offers its 330 reentry members workshops, coaching, counseling, group support, and connections to opportunities. But during the pandemic, Mr. Watson, who was serving as a Free Minds poetry ambassador, noticed he wasn’t hearing from a lot of reentry members.

“So in January, he presented his idea: a formalized peer support program, with the goal that every reentry member would have someone to talk to who had been through it themselves. Today, Mr. Watson is one of 12 peer supporters guiding others through the emotional and logistical challenges of starting over after incarceration. That level of peer involvement is key to the success of reentry, experts say. …

“Mr. Watson traces his journey as a peer supporter back to a time in solitary confinement in 2005. In many prisons, incarcerated people sent to solitary confinement end up doubled up in cells together. His cellmate had just learned of the death of his mother. Mr. Watson sat with the man, though he barely knew him. The two talked, heart to heart. Mostly, Mr. Watson listened. When his time in solitary confinement ended, Mr. Watson voluntarily stayed longer, to be there for his new friend. 

“ ‘I know how important it is to have somebody when you’re going through something,’ says Mr. Watson. …

” ‘The prison system is designed to break ties, to separate the person who is incarcerated from their community,’ says Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds. She says that peer support does the opposite. ‘They repair, restore, and create new community connections which are essential to successful reentry.’ …

“The peer supporters say that helping others helps them heal, too.

“ ‘After talking with them, we understand what our family was going through – our mothers, our sisters, our brothers,’ says Mr. Watson. ‘That’s where that connection really builds.’ ” 

More at the Monitor, here.

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I wrote before about a program using the arts to help people in prisons get beyond the prisoner mindset. Here’s a similar story.

Michelle “Bankston, who has short, blond hair and a muscular build, has spent almost 20 years behind bars. She was incarcerated first at a medium-security facility here in Alabama, and then at a private prison in Louisiana (to relieve overcrowding, Alabama sends some inmates out of state), and finally here, at the Montgomery Women’s Facility, a sun-soused cluster of buildings on the outskirts of the capital city.

” ‘A while back I decided that I could either spend decades in the bunks, watching TV or playing cards,’ Bankston says, ‘or I could get out here and take the opportunity to write poetry and draw.’

“That she’s been given this opportunity to do her art is testament to the work of Kyes Stevens, an avuncular and outspoken educator, poet, and Alabama native. Since 2002, Ms. Stevens has headed The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP), which offers literature and art classes in a range of prisons across the state. The program is funded by Auburn University and an array of grants. The teaching staff consists of five Auburn-based instructors and a rotating cast of teaching fellows from the graduate creative-writing program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Classes run for 14 weeks and are rigorously structured, like college courses, demanding a full commitment from students.”

Read the article in the Christian Science Monitor.

On a related note, I met a woman in my playwriting class who founded a nonprofit called On With Living and Learning, Inc. Mary Driscoll lives in the Fort Point Channel area of Boston and works with people who have been through the prison system. She uses theater to generate the catharsis that can result from their telling their stories and also to help them develop “job skills for the 21st century.” Read about her here. A script that Mary was working on in my playwriting class is now going to be made into an opera, with all sorts of helpers, like the Harvard-trained opera composer, the cabaret singer, and the reggae performer.

I can’t help thinking that when these creative people use their talents to help others, they are getting something special in return.

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