P&W-supported writer John Wareham recently taught a workshop for prisoners at the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York. He blogs about his years running workshops in prisons.
I have spent a lifetime advising corporations how to select and develop winning teams and leaders. One day nearly twenty years ago, an aspiring executive client with a drug habit wound up in Rikers Island, and gravitated to a rehab program.
Noting that I had visited him a few times, a program official asked if I might come along one day as a guest speaker. I had already written a couple of self-help books, so I figured I would use some of that material, with the emphasis on people and communication skills. The class went so well that I've been running it ever since.
I decided early on that my students should graduate with a first-rate skill, so I focused on public speaking. Then I added parliamentary debating. Finally I integrated a series of life-changing discussion readings into my class. To the surprise of prison officials, I began with readings from philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Epictus; and psychologists Freud, Adler, and Berne. Shakespearean sonnets also proved highly apt. I compiled all the readings into a book and had forty copies delivered. Alas, the title, How to Break Out of Prison, attracted the attention of security officials, who confiscated everything. But when the carton finally came back to me, half a dozen copies were missing.
I moved on to teaching longer term offenders, including those at the maximum security unit at Downstate Correctional Facility. My students there are serving serious time for violent crimes, mostly armed robbery, manslaughter, or murder.
Three years ago, I added the creation and delivery of poetry to the public speaking element. I was surprised at how well this went. The guys loved being able to express themselves, as they put it, “freestyle.” Poetry was more important than politics; they could say anything. The poems were great and so was the delivery. My stipend from Poets & Writers enabled me to assemble their poems into a neat book.
This year, I had my each student in class deliver both a speech and a poem recounting key milestones in their journey from childhood to arrest, conviction, and incarceration—and then, to deeper self-recognition and enlightenment. I was struck by the honesty, wit, and profundity. I caught the attention of a publisher, who asked me to include insights of my own. I’m proud and excited to be sharing How to Survive a Bullet to the Heart.
Two poems from the book:
Who am I?
What have I done?
I can't believe I did that.
What have I become?
Why are those guys oozing red?
That one looks just like he’s dead.
They’re staring at me, everyone.
Wherever did I get this gun?
Shades of Gray
Racism in the ghetto
was just another day.
When it came to black and white
there were no shades of gray.
I wised up to that jungle
and tried to get away.
Hey, not so fast, the devil said,
and I was shred and lay
bleeding in a gutter
with a bullet in my tray.
First I saw black
then I saw white
but never shades of gray.
The Readings/Workshops program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.