Behind a door that said Re-Entry Betterment, 18 men in identical blue uniforms sat behind desks in a large circle. They attentively listened to George as he stood and read his poem:
“Just because I am in prison doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. Just because I was not raised by my parents doesn’t mean I was not raised properly.”
After George finished, the critique began. A man nicknamed Wiz was the first to offer feedback: “It was very personalized, which made it easier for you to express yourself. I think you are on the right track.”
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Throughout the creative writing class at Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead, the men — several with life sentences —supported each other’s written words, shared personal information and even laughed together.
“This is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” said the teacher, journalist Kathie Klarreich.
She first taught in prisons in 2009, and last year founded the Miami-based nonprofit, Exchange for Change. The organization began by teaching one class inside a men’s prison. It has grown to 11 free classes that serve more than 200 people at three state prisons, two re-entry centers and a PACE Center for Girls.
Give Miami Day, an annual 24-hour online giving event, provided the seed money. The University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, Ransom Everglades School, Miami Dade College, PACE and O, Miami became partners.
In some classes, Exchange for Change pairs a prison with a college or high school. The “inside” and “outside” students exchange writing under pseudonyms. Exchange for Change also offers poetry workshops and other writing classes. This month, a pilot program began providing inmates with a private 30-minute tutoring session with a professor from the University of Miami’s Writing Center.
“Our volunteer programs are our salvation,” said Lori Norwood, assistant warden of programs at Dade Correctional Institution. “Over time, as our budgets have been reduced, if it were not for the volunteer groups that have come in and provided these kinds of services, there would be that many more inmates sitting around doing nothing.”
Exchange for Change’s motto is “Writing That Transforms.” Its website www.exchange-for-change.org states that 66 percent of inmates are rearrested within three years of their release and 76.6 percent are rearrested within five years. Studies, including one conducted in 2004 by UCLA School of Public Policy and Research, have found that prison education and writing programs have helped to reverse that trend.
“Inmates who finish the class have a more positive attitude and seem more self-confident,” Norwood said. “Anytime you have inmates out there being a good influence on the others or providing good examples to others is always a good thing.”
That’s true for those serving life, too.
“Many of our lifers are facilitators for other programs that we have,” Norwood said. “. . . And it is especially good for inmates who are young when they came to prison and have unfortunately grown up in prison. They gain insight into their character with programs like this, and it kind of brings them some peace.”
Dade Correctional Institution, located in a rural section of Homestead, houses more than 1,400 adult male inmates. The men in Klarreich’s class were there voluntarily.
After she introduced herself, they clapped. And when she talked, they listened.
Klarreich has a lot to offer them. She has more than two decades of experience as a journalist, working in print, radio and television for outlets that include Time, The New York Times, ABC and National Public Radio. She spent 12 years reporting in Haiti, and after the devastating earthquake there in 2010, received a Knight International Journalism Fellowship to train journalists in investigative reporting in that country.
Klarreich, who is unpaid like most of those involved with the nonprofit, said the inmates and others served by the organization have a lot to offer.
“It’s very hard to feel like you have an impact in the world,” she said. “But when you go into a classroom, especially one inside a prison, and you see this incredible thirst for knowledge by those people who choose to make the most of a bad situation, of which they created, it’s personal satisfaction.”
The classes become more personal the more the students get to know each other. There’s crying. There’s laughing. “Sometimes the jokes lead to tears rolling down cheeks,” Klarreich said. “There’s lots of prison humor. One time I asked for everyone to sign releases. ‘This is a release?’ one person said. ‘Give it to me. Give it to me.’ ”
Exchange for Change’s secretary, Joshua Schriftman, a full-time lecturer in UM’s Department of English, has taught a prison class: “It’s a teacher’s dream to be there. Students at UM are mostly going to college because it’s the thing to do and don’t particularly want to be there. The guys in the classroom on the inside see it as great opportunity and are so grateful for it.”
Education levels in the class vary greatly. One man asked Klarreich: “What’s a verb?”
Klarreich told the group: “Nobody is a better writer or a worse writer. It’s just your voice.”
For the most part, the writing is good.
In the spring, Exchange for Change published an anthology of essays, poems, fiction and non-fiction stories called Pen From Da Pen. The 20 pieces were written during classes at Dade Correctional Institution and include titles: The Dream, So I Learned, Back in Time, and Indict the Mob-Boss Police Departments.
In No Place Like Home, Ronald Jackson begins his essay: “There’s no place like home, I thought, but I can’t really think of where home is.”
The works reveal frustration at the justice system, reflection on mistakes, desires to redo the past, anger at perceived discrimination and the realization that love has finally won over theirheart from hate.
Schriftman said that while his students initially were open to a writing exchange with inmates at Homestead Correctional Institution for women, many viewed it “as a sort of charity.”
“But they soon realized that women on the inside were real people,” he said. “They were moved from being ideas to being human beings. They all discovered commonalities.”
One of his students in another class bonded with a male inmate who continued to try to be a father despite receiving a 25-year sentence for firing a gun in public. His child was about 7 when he was sent to prison. The student’s father left the family home when she was about 7.
“They connected on the issue of fatherhood, and it was a profound exchange,” Schriftman said.
Exchange for Change has proven to be much more rewarding to the inmates than just learning to improve their writing. It has dramatically improved their communication and social skills, Klarreich said.
An inmate nicknamed Hawaii shared with the group how he felt discriminated against solely because of the color of his skin. He is a white native Hawaiian. The other inmates nodded.
Waldo Hewitt, who attended one of Klarreich’s first writing classes and is black, told the new class that he formed “bonds of unity” with fellow writers of different ethnicities.
“I am now more sympathetic of people from other backgrounds,” he said. “In the compound I’ve become good friends with them and I would never have even talked with them except for the class.”
Exchange for Change can use volunteers to work in the office and help with outreach. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 305-280-2819 or visit its office at 2103 Coral Way, Suite 200, Miami.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m. every weekday, inmates line up at a South Florida prison to gain access to the education building. Once cleared by the control room, they walk single file to the right of the yellow line that runs the length of the compound, clutching blue folders. They are on their way to a writing class. For the two hours they are there, they will reside in a world that encourages, rather than penalizes them for expressing their individuality.
The need for education inside our justice system is real. As you may already know, the United States houses five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The prison population in the United States has increased 500 percent over the last 30 years. Incarceration has become our society’s de facto responses to poverty, substance abuse, and inadequate health care; yet prison simply exacerbates these problems. According to a 2014 RAND study, four in ten U.S. prisoners return to prison within three years of their release; however “strong evidence [indicates] that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism.”
Thankfully, prisoners who participate in literacy programs are 43 percent less likely to recidivate and 13 percent more likely to get a job. Participation improves relations with other inmates and staff, and strengthens their relationships with their family members. It improves inmates’ self-discipline, self-esteem, and self-respect. Attending classes reduces disciplinary infractions and helps transform personal identities from what the professionals label “pro-criminal” to what we educators term “pro-social,” which, in non-jargon, means inmates start identifying as law-abiding citizens rather than as law-breakers.
Despite these documented advantages, state funding cuts have left prisons across the country without solid literacy programs. The consequence of increasing budgetary cuts for in-prison educational programs is felt heavily in Florida, which houses the third largest prison population in the country and imposes some of the harshest sentencing policies.
Of the more than 100,000 inmates locked up in Florida prisons, nearly 13,000 of these individuals are serving life sentences. Add to that the number of those with other long-term sentences—and that on average only 20 people a year are awarded parole (which was officially abolished in Florida in 1995 for non-capital felonies), the number of long-term inmates multiplies exponentially.
In fact, Florida has more prisons per square mile than colleges; the only programs the Department of Corrections offers for the general prison population are basic education courses such as those that help prepare prisoners for the GED and English as a second language. Or, if an inmate has less than a three-year sentence, mandatory re-entry classes are required. Notably, nearly three-quarters of all inmates have less than a seventh grade education.
So what options are most commonly available for the tens of thousands of prisoners who want to use their time to educate and rehabilitate themselves?
Almost none. Which is why alternative programs that address this growing disparity are so crucial. Three quarters of all inmates will eventually return to society. Logic prevails that the more prepared prisoners are for re-entry, the easier it will be for both them and for the community into which they will eventually integrate. Well-conceived prison arts programs incorporate skills such as active listening and critical-thinking to make sure that prisoners have a variety of tools to draw upon once released. The cost savings of such programs are also real. Every dollar spent on prison education translates into almost four dollars in savings during the first three years post-release.
Programs like Exchange for Change (E4C), a nonprofit prison writing program, simultaneously address two of our current system’s most glaring problems: the almost total lack of advanced literacy and arts programming in correctional institutions, and widely shared public misunderstanding about who incarcerated people really are. Like many prison arts programs, E4C aims to bridge the gap between our current prison system, which degrades and stigmatizes, with one that respects, rehabilitates, and nurtures the basic humanity of every prisoner.
The E4C program, which began in South Florida with one class in one institution in the summer of 2014, now spans 17 classes in four correctional institutions, and one court-mandated school for juveniles. The program, embraced by the Department of Corrections, grew organically on prison compounds through word-of-mouth. Since participation is voluntary, the organization relies on E4C students for recruitment. Long-term students become role models and leaders to their peers. In one institution, for example, inmate students formed an advisory committee; each member heads or serves one such committee and organizes classes, directs special performances for the public or helps train student teachers, for example. By their own admission, these students have stopped many of the behaviors that previously earned them detentions, as they did not want to be kept from attending classes.
Today, the organization struggles to keep pace with the growing demand for its curriculum which includes debate, rhetoric, journalism, creative writing in Spanish, play-writing, poetry, PTSD journaling for U.S. Veterans, short stories, the “art of the essay,” and E4C’s signature “exchange” course, connecting “inside” students with high school and university students “outside” through anonymous writing exchange classes. It maintains a social-media presence, produces publications, and invites “outside” members to performance-oriented graduations. Such growth speaks to the success of a program that promotes public dialogue and supports participants’ development as both writers and as active citizens in their communities.
The impact is real. As a result of their participation in the program, students have modified their behavior to stay out of trouble in order to attend courses, motivated others to join them, and produced work that has been published in acclaimed national publications and has won awards in PEN’s Prison Writing Contest. The program’s exhibit, Connecting Sentences, which showcases the students’ work, has been extended indifinitely, and has been embraced by the American Library Association to serve as a model across the country.
Ultimately, everyone benefits: Officers have less disciplinary problems; inmates have a new sense of purpose; and the “outside” writing partners have a unique opportunity see their incarcerated partner beyond a stereotypic label. One university student correspondent, for example, even shared with his inmate exchange partner that he was considering dropping out of college to escape his controlling father. The inmate with whom he was communicating shared how he had himself done just that after completing three years on a full scholarship at a top-rated Ivy League school. That decision eventually snowballed and led him to an estranged relationship with his father, substance abuse, and prison, where he is serving a life sentence. It was this story, according to the inmate’s young writing partner, that precipitated his decision to complete his studies.
Other outside student partners have switched majors to become involved in social justice issues, redirected their summer internships, interned in the E4C’s Miami office, and become activists for reform, thanks to the extraordinary influence of this partnership.
These connections and actions offer hope and perspective to both sets of students. When inmates are presented with an opportunity to learn and express themselves in a healthy manner—and when the outside community recognizes that criminals are more than just the crime they committed—everyone, including the Department of Corrections, wins. The DOC needs to recognize that it has more at stake than dollars when it chooses where and how to invest. An educated inmate is their best commodity.