Published on December 1st, 2014 | by Nature Humphries0
“Prison Writes Initiative: An Interview with Louis Bourgeois”
Mississippi State Penitentiary, perhaps better known as Parchman Farm, is Mississippi’s oldest prison and the only maximum security prison for men. Until recently, inmates have never had the opportunity of a creative writing class. In January of 2014, VOX Press Executive Director Louis Bourgeois decided to change that.
With over 20,000 inmates in the Mississippi prison system, it only makes sense that educating these people could help to increase their chances of success when they return to the general population. “VOX PRESS believes that teaching students to read and write can provide invaluable skills for newly released inmates who are entering the job market. Prison Writes will enhance job-seeking, critical thinking, and reading/writing skills through the study of creative writing at Mississippi’s largest prison.”
According to their mission statement, “VOX Press was founded [in 2004] as a literary journal and continues to publish works of experimental literature, chronicling important voices outside of traditional publishing.” You can learn more at www.voxpress.org, and all donations are tax-deductible.
What was the impetus for creating this program, the only creative arts program for prisoners in the state of Mississippi?
Well, I was interested once again in prison writing and art and needed some way to gather inmate writing and art, setting up classes seemed to be the way to achieve this end. But the more I taught the class, the more I realized how much was being learned from the inmates and myself. We began teaching each other the creative process, and that’s when I took the class seriously as an educational opportunity and not just a place to solicit prison art and writing.
Who are the instructors involved in the program?
Currently, I’m the only instructor, but, of course, as the program grows, we want instructors in all sorts of fields, not just writing.
How many students are in your class, and what are their backgrounds?
This is our second class. We started in early September and the class is now at 15, which is the perfect number for me. Most of the students are from the Mississippi Delta and have never written before, and have never followed intellectual pursuits before. What’s startling is how quickly they have adapted to this often demanding writing and philosophy class. It’s really something. I’ve taught in college off and on for many years, but this class at Parchman is by far my favorite.
Which literary selections did you feel resonated most with the inmates?
Good question. What’s amazing to me is how this group of men, mostly from the Delta and many of them not even making it to the 10th grade, are so easily drawn to and have an amazing understanding of the many writers, poets, and thinkers we discuss in class, including Jean Paul Sartre, Plato, George Eliot, Marianne Moore, Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath, Barry Hannah, Jane Hirshfield, Mirabai, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, George Jackson, John Adams, Walker Percy, Donald Barthelme, and many others.
Were there any especially profound moments that stand out during the course?
This semester almost every class is profound, in that, apart from the memoir writing we’ve been conducting, we’ve also turned part of the class into a philosophy workshop of sorts. I have a new respect for Existentialism now!
Why do you think education is so important within the penal system?
There’s all sorts of supposed research that somehow proves these kinds of classes reduce recidivism and that sort of thing. And if that’s true, then obviously that’s fantastic. But for PWI’s purposes, our point is to give another human being a sense of self-worth. So many of these people have never had the experience that they are worth listening to, and that’s not fair.
What have you personally learned from this program?
So many things. The most important, perhaps, is the reaffirmation that one should not approach any educational situation with any preconceptions. You have to be disciplined enough to allow the experience to speak for itself, not what you want it to say or render. Another reaffirmation I’ve been retaught since teaching in the PWI is very simply but very profoundly this: WE ARE ALL TRAPPED IN AN EXTREMELY FLAWED CAPITALISTIC NIGHTMARE. This is true of those in prison and those without.
Do you plan to continue offering this course at Parchman? How can people help the program?
Yes, in fact, we’ve been teaching again since September 8 at Parchman. In late January, we intend to open two more classes down in Rankin County, one for the women prisoners, and one for the children prisoners. We have received a small grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council, which will help us out this summer, and we are quite grateful to them for the assistance, but we are a long way from a self-sustaining program, which is truly needed to make this very important work a permanent fixture in Mississippi’s Prison system. In other words, we are in real need of money. Anyone can make a cash donation to the program at www.voxpress.org. Also, buying the book from the program, In our own Words: Writing from Parchman Prison, will help the program as well.
I wanted to conclude by saying the folks who run Parchman have been very supportive of PWI. Too often programs like this are not supported by Incarceration Centers. But that has not been our experience at all. In fact, we owe part of our great success to the fact that Unit 30 at Parchman has given us their total cooperation.
This article was originally printed in The Local Voice #217 (published November 20, 2014).
To download the PDF of this issue, click here.