We tend to forget that incarcerated individuals are human too and that their stories deserve to be shared. Durland Alternatives Library, located in Anabel Taylor Hall, houses the Prisoner Express Program. This is a project of the Centre of Transformative Action (CTA) which seeks to give a voice to those behind bars with a limited means of positive self-expression. The library staff and student volunteers led by Gary Fine who is the Program Director of Durland Alternatives Library dedicate hours to interact with prisoners from around the United States, receiving thousands of letters daily from incarcerated individuals. Their work promotes hundreds of prisoners’ stories to the general public, offers distant learning opportunities and secures donations such as books for the prisoners. One of the projects under Prisoner Express Program is the Poetry Project, which allows participating prisoners to submit their original poems for a chance at publication in the Prisoner Anthology. This winter, Prisoner Express published a sixteen page anthology — Anthology Vol.15. It was compiled by Jenna Clift, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences who read and selected the poems which would be featured in the Anthology from hundreds of entries submitted by mail.
On Wednesday, April 13 at Anabel Taylor Hall’s chapel, Durland Alternatives Library Prisoner Express hosted a Poetry Reading Night during which several of the most impressive poems from this collection were read aloud by Cornell student volunteers, some who are members of Cornell’s poetry slam club Swoopers and Bashers: Jenna Clift, Yvette Ndlovu, Atsufui Manigar, Eva Jahan, Alexander Rodriguez, Alexander Flynn, Kevin Tal, Della Herden, Clara Lee, Lisa Malloy, Rachael Smith and Javier Agredo.
In addition, the poets whose work was showcased at the event were asked to submit their biographies and explain what writing meant to them. Michael Lanning, who has been imprisoned since he was 34, sees writing as a therapeutic medium to help him remember the positive aspects of life. Many prisoners have responded similarly. Others, such as Geneva Philips view writing as a “natural way to condense and extrapolate my experiences, feelings, thoughts into a manageable piece of work. ”
Prisoner Express Program encourages constructive dialogue about struggling prisoners and offers them a way of moving forward from past mistakes. Showcasing prisoners’ artistic talent to the world provides vital motivation and has encouraged many prisoners to further their learning. “It is very encouraging and deeply heartening to know that somewhere, someone is reading something I wrote and that it is being found worth while- that someone has gotten something out of it.”
Their responses are nothing short of uplifting, highlighting the merits of programs such as these which are a bridge between prisoners and the outside world. Gary Fine, the Program Director of Durland Alternatives Library, described his work in a moving speech during the event as highly rewarding, especially since it paves a path for incarcerated individuals to find their way back into society. The Program shows how the pen is a powerful tool in driving change. Small steps like these have broader implications for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals — they imply second chances, chances to rewrite their stories.
Yvette is a freshman in Arts and Sciences who is unapologetically Undecided. She can be found shivering down the arts quad in a giant brown coat (don’t be afraid to say hi!) because she is from Zimbabwe which has all year round summer and was voted the best climate in the world by UNESCO. In a few years she will be found on the NY Times Bestsellers list, with a Pulitzer Prize in her purse and her book series on screen. Her blog appears alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.