Poetry Behind Bars: The Lines That Save Lives — Sometimes Literally

Most of the poets who submitted to the Words Unlocked contest are between the ages of 14 to 18.

Most of the poets who submitted to the Words Unlocked contest are between the ages of 14 to 18. Richard Ross/Courtesy of CEEAS hide caption

toggle caption Richard Ross/Courtesy of CEEAS

The way Jimmy Santiago Baca tells it, poetry saved his life — but he’s not speaking in hyperbole. Long before the poet won an American Book Award, Baca was in prison on a drug conviction, where he was facing down a prison-yard fight with another inmate.

Baca sought padding however he could get it.

“So I got a bunch of tape and a bunch of books on the library cart and strapped them around my stomach,” he recalls, “and when this guy pulled out his shank, I was like, wow, this ain’t just a fight — this guy wants to kill me.”

The guy he was fighting connected on a few swipes, he says, but each time, the books — and one thick one, in particular — took the blow.

“Had the book not been there, I would have been dead; it would’ve cut all the way to the tailbone. When i went back to my cell, I looked at this one book where he had gouged it about an inch deep.”

Jimmy Santiago Baca's latest book is Singing at the Gates. Baca, who was illiterate when he entered prison in the '70s, won an American Book Award in 1988.

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s latest book is Singing at the Gates. Baca, who was illiterate when he entered prison in the ’70s, won an American Book Award in 1988. Esai Baca/Courtesy of Jimmy Santiago Baca hide caption

toggle caption Esai Baca/Courtesy of Jimmy Santiago Baca

It was an anthology of poetry, Baca says.

“That’s when I sat down on the cot in my cell and started looking at this book that saved my life and realized that these poets had in a very real, real way saved me,” he says. “And when I began to read the words, I was astounded by their beauty and eloquence, and how the arrangement of words made me happy.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that these days — decades after that prison term — Baca serves as the final judge in a contest designed to encourage some of the country’s youngest prisoners to turn to poetry themselves. He hopes poetry, that vessel of a million meanings that saved his own life, may do the same for them.

‘Children Of Whitman’

Words Unlocked — an annual poetry curriculum and competition launched in 2013 by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Spaces — draws submissions from students in juvenile correctional centers across the country. Poets in facilities from Alaska to Florida have sent in their work this year, according to CEEAS Director David Domenici, and the number of submissions has reached 1,000 and counting.

“Young Boy,” from Beaumont Youth Correctional Center, outside Richmond, Va.

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Excerpt from “My Life,” from Logansport Correctional Facility, Logansport, Ind.

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“Love Poem,” from Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility, Logansport, Ind.

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Baca hasn’t gotten a look at this year’s poems yet; he won’t make his selection until a crew of other judges, led by Christy Sampson-Kelly, first whittle that number to just 10 or 15 finalists. But this isn’t his first experience with the contest. He judged last year’s crop, as well.

“Last year, when Christy sent me the submissions, I was just blown away by the high standards of the writing, and by the depth of emotion that was expressed in the poems,” he says. “You would think that they were all the spawn children of Whitman or something!”

Though this year’s contest hasn’t been decided yet, several of the young poets did record their entries for All Things Considered. And while NPR does not have permission to use their names, their voices give life to the words they’ve put to paper — which you can listen to via the audio links on this post.

Baca believes these poems will serve them well on the outside.

“Literacy is probably the foremost resource that they need to become successful human beings. To be able to deal with sorrow, joy, loneliness and isolation, the first step is that you have to be able to put your feelings into words — and you have to share those words with people,” he says.

“They’re going to begin to have a sense of appreciation when they read this poem. They’re going to begin to understand what’s really going on in your heart. So let’s give them this gift.”

And that gift, like Baca’s story, may be more than a metaphor. The poets recognized by the contest will be included in an anthology of their own — not unlike that poetry anthology that Baca says saved him.

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Taking On Poverty And Education In School Costs A Lot Of Money

Kennedy Park, 4, is in her second year of pre-K in Camden. All 3- and 4-year-old kids qualify for two years of preschool in New Jersey's lowest-income cities.

Kennedy Park, 4, is in her second year of pre-K in Camden. All 3- and 4-year-old kids qualify for two years of preschool in New Jersey’s lowest-income cities. Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC hide caption

toggle caption Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC

There’s a long-held debate in education. ” ‘Do you fix education to cure poverty or do you cure poverty to cure education?’ And I think that’s a false dichotomy,” says the superintendent of Camden schools in New Jersey, Paymon Rouhanifard. “You have to address both.”

That can be expensive.

In 1997, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school funding formula was leaving behind poor students. It ordered millions of dollars in additional funding to 31 of the then-poorest districts.

One result: Camden City School District spends $35 million a year on preschool. That buys two teachers for every 15 students and quality coaches for those teachers.

Four-year-old Kennedy Parker is in her second year of pre-K at Early Childhood Development Center. She can spell her name, count to 20 and write her ABCs, she says.

Has the money paid off? For more on Camden’s story, click here.

The story of school funding in New Jersey’s poorest school districts is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Join the conversation on Twitter by using #SchoolMoney.

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Training Helps Inmates Build A Bridge To Life Outside Prison Walls

Attorney General Loretta Lynch tours a factory where inmates work at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. on April 29, 2016.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch tours a factory where inmates work at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. on April 29, 2016. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

toggle caption Evan Vucci/AP

The nation’s top law enforcement officer walked past a barbed-wire fence, through passages lined with rust-colored walls, to meet with a special audience. But this was not a normal meet-and-greet — a stern-looking FBI security detail tracked her every move.

Inside the visitation room in this federal correctional institution, five men in khaki uniforms and black Crocs slippers were waiting to give Attorney General Loretta Lynch a glimpse of their struggles.

“Just because we’re locked up doesn’t make us bad people,” says Tony Moses, 47, a self-assured, tall man who’s locked up until January 2041 on armed robbery charges. “We just made some bad choices.”

Attorney General Lynch made the trip to highlight the need for more programs to help inmates transition out of incarceration and re-enter society. She mixed, carefully, with the general population at this federal correctional facility where 42 percent of inmates are locked up for drug crimes and 33 percent are facing years behind bars for weapons offenses.

“Certainly by providing individuals coming out of institutions with ways to become productive citizens, we reduce recidivism,” Lynch tells NPR in an interview. “What that means is we reduce crime. There are fewer victims when individuals have options — when they have job skills, when they have life skills, we break the cycle of children following their parents into institutions.”

Elsewhere on the sprawling prison campus, past a group of inmates who wear hair and beard nets while roasting a barbecue lunch, Lynch was greeted in the sky-lit chapel by 96 prisoners undergoing drug abuse treatment.

It’s not your father’s prison unit. One inmate made an announcement about weigh-in for their “biggest loser” health competition. Another confessed he was shaking off feelings of aloofness after refusing to dance with the group earlier in the week. Talladega prison’s 9-month drug rehabilitation and work-training program is a big draw here and in other prison facilities.

Attorney General Lynch talks with inmates, from left, Tobin Lyon, Bilal McElroy, Derrick Cash and Derek William Spinks, during a visit to Talladega Federal Correctional Institution on April 29, 2016.

Attorney General Lynch talks with inmates, from left, Tobin Lyon, Bilal McElroy, Derrick Cash and Derek William Spinks, during a visit to Talladega Federal Correctional Institution on April 29, 2016. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

toggle caption Evan Vucci/AP

Derek Spinks, 36, who pleaded guilty to helping steal $4 million from Bank of New York Mellon, and who was handpicked to meet with the attorney general, explained why. “You wouldn’t get this help on the street,” Spinks says. “It saves lives. … I think the program should be offered to all inmates in federal prison.”

For now though, prison officials say there are no plans to expand the drug treatment offerings. Rather, they’re using scarce resources to develop more programs for women behind bars — and trying to shore up the struggling prison industries unit known as UNICOR.

In Talladega, about 290 men in the UNICOR unit stop their work sewing camouflage pants for military uniforms to gawk at the visitors from Washington. Superintendent of Industries Carrie Thorson tells the attorney general 80 percent of these men never had a legal job before this factory work. They earn, on average, $250 a month. And their rates of misconduct in prison are lower, Thorson adds.

“These guys don’t have misconduct in that they know if they screw up they’re done … they’re terminated immediately,” she says.

Clarence Aaron spent 22 years rising to top jobs at UNICOR in Talladega and other prisons before he won clemency from President Obama in 2013. He’s now living in Mobile, trying to find a job that suits his business studies and his lengthy experience in an office. So far, Aaron says, the best offer he’s received involves emptying trash cans, in “custodial maintenance.”

Prisons give inmates training, he says, but there’s not much of a bridge between them and the world outside. “I’m trying to do my best,” he says, his voice breaking with emotion. “I’m not asking nobody to give me nothing, I want to earn everything I get. It’s just about an opportunity.”

Attorney General Lynch, who met privately with Aaron in a short visit to Mobile, seemed to agree, telling NPR he made an “excellent point.”

Lynch adds: “We’re now going to work to make sure there’s a bridge from the institution back home, not just for the individual, but for the skills that they’ve gained.”

Attorney General Lynch gave a wide-ranging interview to NPR as she marked her first full year on the job. Here are some other topics she discussed.


Interview Highlights

Voting rights, as cases in Texas and North Carolina work through the courts

Certainly in a larger sense, supporting every individual’s right to vote is of great importance to the Department of Justice and to me as the attorney general. Voting is how we participate in a civic society — be it for president, be it for a municipal election. It’s the way we teach our children — in school elections — how to be citizens, and the importance of their voice. And I’m committed as AG to doing everything we can to ensure we keep the road to the ballot box unimpeded and open for all Americans.

Civic unrest and police actions in Baltimore, where she intends to return for a visit later this year

It’s an ongoing process. It was obviously disturbing not just for me but for the people who live there in Baltimore. … We have have to listen to the pain behind that process and find ways that we can be responsive to that.

The extradition of accused drug lord ‘El Chapo’ Guzman

With respect to Chapo, we have an excellent relationship with the Mexican attorney general’s office and they’ve been incredibly responsive to our extradition paperwork. We’re hopeful we will soon see movement there and I thank them very much and appreciate their efforts in that case.

On remarks by Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie Sanders, that “it would be nice” if the FBI sped up its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email setup

We don’t talk about the timing of open matters but I certainly agree with the FBI director that in every investigation no matter whom it involves, we are thorough, we are fair, we are efficient, and we move through the facts and the evidence and come to the conclusions that are called upon. I would agree with the FBI director that our goal is to be thorough because we want to make sure that in fact we have looked at everything we need to look at before we come to any final conclusions, whichever way.

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Weeping For All That Is Lost: A Harsh Migration Out Of India

The Year of the Runaways

Sunjeev Sahota has written what I suspect will be finest novel of the year. I know, it’s still early in 2016, but hear me out. The subject at the heart of The Year of the Runaways is illegal immigration, which is currently the source of much hand-wringing both here in the U.S. and across the world. Sahota, a British writer of Indian origin, has written not only a timely book, but a gut-wrenching, emotionally honest one, as well.

The Year of the Runaways, as the title suggests, chronicles a year in the lives of four people who have left home. Three have left India to establish themselves in the United Kingdom under one subterfuge or another: Tochi is a low-caste man who travels to the U.K. illegally; Avtar arrives on a student visa, but intending to work; Randeep, Avtar’s friend and neighbor, is the beneficiary of a sham marriage. The fourth, the only woman, is looking to aid this migration at great personal cost. Narinder is a deeply pious girl, born and brought up in England. She will marry Randeep and become his “visa wife.”

The book oscillates between the year that these four spend in England, and the intertwined stories of their respective migrations. They are young — in their late teens and early 20s — and life has already been cruel to them. Tochi has lost everything, Randeep and Avtar have essentially given up school, and moved, hoping to support their families in India. As Randeep says to Avtar, at one point, “It’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Avtar, demonstrating Sahota’s deep understanding of India and Indian families, replies, “Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.”

The book is littered with moments like this, exposing inner lives that are raw and real. There are plenty of twists and turns to the story but Sahota’s tension is created instead through the tenderness of his characters — their enormous restraint and empathy, their depth of feeling, combined with a willingness to hurt, to make bad decisions, to wound. In Sahota’s hands the angry, Tochi, who has lost his family to mob violence in India, is as capable of stealing another man’s job as he is of profound tenderness; towards the end of the book after a an altercation at a Sikh temple has caused him to question, and perhaps puncture, Narinder’s commitment to religion (“where was god when they set me on fire?” “When they knifed my sister’s stomach open?”), he knelt beside her and “put his head in her lap. He felt her hands lightly touch him and they both wept for all they had lost.”

Sahota also does a masterful job of dissecting the immigrant experience. These are economic migrants in search of better lives, but by exposing the casual violence inflicted on these people, their wariness, their isolation, their daily humiliations and fears, their desperation to keep their dignity intact, Sahota also demonstrates how complex and often dangerous that experience can be; at least one of them ends up in an hospital; Randeep, stabs another immigrant in a fight. Too afraid of being caught, he leaves the man at the door of a surgery.

Finally, the author demonstrates a deep understanding of South Asian culture: the complex role played by families; the strictures the young feel towards their elders; Narinder provides us a window into the most observant kind of Sikhism. Through her, we also get a penetrating look into the role of women in South Asian society. The way they are often bullied by older brothers; the way many sacrifice everything to please family and sustain their parents’ honor in a society quick to judge.

Sahota has done well. His writing is purposeful — there isn’t an overwrought sentence. Not a big word in sight. I looked. Perhaps the only false note is that occasionally, inexplicably, in a world that is harsh and unforgiving, people are improbably nice. All four characters are helped, sometimes for reasons that are not wholly convincing. Despite that the book carried me with its power and honesty. And I loved the understated yet utterly compelling ending (no, not all the knots get tied up neatly). The stories of Tochi, Randeep, Avtar and Narinder will stayed with me long after I’d put the book down.

Nishant Dahiya is NPR’s Asia Editor.

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