Filled with introspection, longing and pain, the poetry of inmates from the Monroe County Jail forces readers to consider the experiences of incarcerated people.
"The message I understand that these people receive is that they are less than human,” said Markus Dickinson, vice president of New Leaf New Life. “For people to recognize and identify with people who are incarcerated is important.”
Throughout February, 10 poems written by inmates from the Monroe County Jail were on display at the Monroe County Public Library. The poems were written through a weekly poetry workshop organized by New Leaf New Life, a nonprofit that offers services to inmates while they are in jail and after they are released.
The poems, no more than a page in length, were lit with spotlights and hung along the walls of a hallway on the first floor.
Frank Brown Cloud, 34, teaches the poetry workshop. Each week, he works with 12 inmates from a cell block. He said his motivation is to make the experience of being in the jail a little less hard on the inmates.
“Any type of writing is both an outlet for the person who is writing and an opportunity to feel like there might be people who are listening to you,” Brown Cloud said.
In addition to writing, Brown Cloud said he has his students read poetry as well. He frequently returns to the poets Bruce Weigle, a veteran of the Vietnam War who writes on trauma, and Natalie Diaz, whose work focuses on her experiences while her brother was addicted to meth.
He said people stuck in the criminal justice system often feel no one is listening. He said they often feel public defenders and judges ignore what they say, but that by writing, inmates have an opportunity for their voices to be heard.
He said the way the criminal justice system treats people isn’t very helpful.
“We are treating them in a way that exacerbates loneliness, exacerbates stress, that makes it much harder for them to recover,” Brown Cloud said.
He said he thinks it’s important to highlight the experiences of these people because it reminds others that inmates are humans too. He said sharing their stories makes more people willing to think about how these people could be treated better.
One poem in the exhibit, “I Report Live” by Zachary, the only name given with the piece, focuses on feelings of being forgotten, being stuck in the criminal justice system and being hopeful for better days to come.
“I report live from the sick side of the lost, hurt, & forgotten
All my life I’ve done nothing but taken losses & chased my coffin
If I die young, they’ll say I’m a good one,
If not I gotta kill the man that I’ll become.
Unless I wanna end up like my momma,
Floppin’ on dope like a piranha out of water,
So, here’s to a life worth living,
Sick ‘n’ tired of coming back, gettin’
Sent to prison. So nail me to the cross
Like Jesus Christ crucified with so many vices,
Might as well take my life, dancing with the devil
Day in ‘n’ day out, better learn how to
2-step but you step in my house,
Electrons ‘n’ protons, negatively charged,
(I’ll) split like an atom bomb in the
Front yard, I sold my old soul at a very young age,
For a pack of smokes ‘n’ a couple
Times like these got me praying for better days,
Not ones where my old ways
Got me locked in this cage.”