The Local Voice

Mississippi’s Prison Writes Initiative: Changing Lives One Word at a Time


You may chain my hands, you may shackle my feet, you may even throw me into a dark prison; but you shall not enslave my thinking, for it is free. –Kahlil Gibran

The low literacy rate of those incarcerated is well documented. According to the Official Blog of Literacy Mid-South, high school dropouts are 63percent more likely to be incarcerated than their peers with four-year college degrees. Half of Mississippi’s inmates never finished high school. Multiple studies agree that the rates of recidivism for those who complete literacy programs in prison are lower than for those who do not.

The majority of those imprisoned will one day return to freedom. The more educated they are, the easier it will be to find credible employment and be a productive member of society. Through hopes and dreams an inner sense of purpose, direction, and self-motivation can bring lasting success and value. Wouldn’t you rather them re-enter free society with those skills and virtues rather than a PhD in criminal behavior? I know I would.

A couple of months ago, in the auditorium of the Alcorn County Correctional Facility in Corinth, Mississippi, people gathered to hear nine incarcerated men read poems they had written through Oxford-based VOX Press’ Prison Writes Initiative (PWI). Among the attendees were Louis Bourgeois (cofounder/executive director of VOX Press, Inc.), Asya Branch (Miss Mississippi), Josh Davis (warden), Myra Burns (director of education), Amanda Garvin (creative writing instructor).

The Prison Writes Initiative is much more than a literacy program, although participants do improve their levels of literacy in the process of creative expression. PWI gives people in prison ways to explore and express their innermost thoughts and feelings. In doing so, intangibles like hope and dreams for the future are fostered.

PWI, the only program in Mississippi that offers a comprehensive liberal arts education for its inmates, has classes in five Mississippi prisons. Three hundred inmates have successfully completed the program. When asked why he has such a passion for this work, Bourgeois said, “It makes a difference in people’s lives that you can actually see.”

The nine men who read their work in Corinth that day shared reflections regarding their past mistakes and spoke of taking personal responsibility for their lives. One wrote, “Every day is my time to change.” We could all do well to embrace that for ourselves.

The nine praised PWI saying things like, “It does wonders for us.” That was reflected in their poetry with their openness about things like broken heartedness and redemption. One wrote about how Ghandi, though physically small and weak, had an inner strength that changed the world. Nearly all spoke of the fundamental importance of their spiritual faith, and of the most influential person in their lives: their mother.

Miss Mississippi 2018, Asya Branch, addressed the men after the reading. Her platform as Miss Mississippi is Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents. Branch herself is the daughter of a father who is currently incarcerated in Parchman Penitentiary, lending great credibility to her words. In her comments she praised the work of the nine writers and encouraged them to continue their work. Then she said perhaps the most important words she could have uttered that day: “I recognize you as human beings.”

VOX PRESS Executive Director Louis Bourgeois and 2018 Miss Mississippi Asya Branch

The very nature of being held in prison and stripped of freedoms is, in and of itself, dehumanizing. Branch’s words affirmed the personhood of each individual— something that is vital in building a sense of self-worth despite one’s circumstances.

VOX Press, Inc. has published two collections of writings from its graduates: In Our Own Words: Writings from Parchman Farms and Unit 30: New Writings from Parchman Farm,.both of which are available locally at Square Books or online at Amazon. The third volume, Mississippi Prison Writing, is scheduled for release this Fall. Perhaps a few of the writers from PWI will see success from their future writing, but most assuredly they may find something far more valuable: a sense of hope and worth as a person. With that, hard work, and a little luck, anything can happen.

Those who are incarcerated are just as human as you and I. The idea of them being on easy street is pure B.S. We can help them buy back their dignity and give them a fighting chance to change their lives for the better. PWI is making a difference. Are you?

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