Randy Weeks

Published on January 26th, 2022 | by Randy Weeks

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The View From The Balcony: “Hope Behind Bars”

What difference does it make for someone in prison to have the chance to learn how to write poetry, and why should we even care?

There is this word, “hope.” Of this word Wikipedia says: “Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.”

On December 13, 2021, I joined Louis Bourgeois, Gaetano Catelli (aka Billy Joe Russell), and Louis’ daughter Simone Bourgeois on a visit to the Alcorn County Correctional Center in Corinth, Mississippi, to attend a reading of poetry by some of the incarcerated men who were learning to write poetry through Bourgeois’ Prison Writes Initiative (PWI) via VOX Press.

Rachel Embry, instructor for the writing class, said, “The purpose of poetry is to help us voice things. It enables us [the writers] to be heard.” The testament to that is in the words of her students (shared with their permission).

“I am most proud of the blessings of memories that dance in my mind.” (Jhermie McCamey)

Richard (last name withheld by request) wrote, “The world I live in is one of mirrors. I act as if I’m invisible. We are lost souls, trapped in a forest of minutes where the wind says, ‘Woe is me.’”

Andrico Pegues wrote of unexpected loss and declared himself to be an “unfinished masterpiece.”

Corey Tate wrote, “Am I living life or is life living me? What do you do when your past keeps calling you back?” He wants the world to know that “I’m a success story, brick by brick, piece by piece.”

“I am,” said Corderrell Black, “and I thank God for my blessings.”

Milton Butler wrote of his regrets, swallowing his pride, heartbreak, and of his desire to improve his life and be a better man, stepping into “bigger sized shoes.”

“Is there happiness left for me?” asked Jake Moore. In answer to the writing prompt “What the world should know about me?” he wrote enthusiastically, “I’m coming!”

Thomas Hamer, who wrote in high school, said that poetry helps him express his positive self. “It’s changed my life,” he said. “I got my voice back.”

I got my voice back.

Is not one of the most crucial needs of humanity to be heard? Those who are imprisoned lose more than the freedom to walk around without restraint. They most often also lose their ability to be heard. Despite the many prison staff who do their best to help, what we call a “corrections system” falls woefully short of correcting anything, both externally and especially internally.

Incarceration by its very nature sets the stage for the murder of the soul. That is not to say that those convicted of crimes have no price to pay. The loss of physical freedom is one thing, but the lack of nurturance of the spirit is costlier still and contributes significantly to recidivism. It rips hope from the heart and the mind and habitually invokes in a destructive manner the most basic function of the human brain: physical survival. The introduction of hope can change that.

Statistics show than most who are in prison will eventually be released. They will come back into the workplace and our living spaces. Common sense tells us that it is better for all that imprisoned persons set free have not had their spirits crushed. A person with hope and a belief that they matter is a person who can still be a force for good in this world.
Programs such as PWI feed the heart. They feed the mind. They feed the soul. They foster hope. They affirm the humanity of those who are often thought of as sub-human.

Sometimes a flower or a tree will push its way through a stone into the fresh light of day. I submit that the reason for that is that the plant has hope. It knows there is an end to darkness and it does everything in its power to escape that night. We must cultivate that hope.

Prison bars can suck the life out of people, but they do not have to. I believe we are morally obligated to see to it that those behind bars retain their personhood. We fail to do so at our own peril.

Randy Weeks is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Certified Shamanic Life Coach, an ordained minister, a singer-songwriter, and an actor. He believes in compassion for all. Randy may be reached at randallsweeks@gmail.com.

Milton Butler. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
Andrico Pegues. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
Corey Tate. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
Cordarrell Black. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
Jhermie McCamey. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
Jacob Moore. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
Thomas Hamer. Photo by Gaetano Catelli.
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