Linbo Fan / Sun Staff Photographer

May 2, 2017

Stories of Incarcerated People Resonate With Cornell Students

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Though he was not able to deliver them in person, Jesse Vaughn’s words echoed through the bookstacks of the Alternatives Library in Anabel Taylor Hall on Tuesday.

“All the people that were around me accepted prison as a part of life,” read the essay of Jesse Vaughn. “I was raised knowing that one day, I would end up in prison.”

The event was called Telling Your Story, and it was named after a newsletter that solicited life stories from currently incarcerated men and women. On Tuesday, Cornell students gathered to read the stories that the writers could not share themselves.

A product of the Prisoner Express program based in Durland Alternatives Library, Telling Your Story was created to humanize prisoners and give them an outlet for self-expression.

Prisoner Express founder and Alternatives Library Director Gary Fine introduced the public reading by explaining how his correspondence with one prisoner about 15 years ago led to the growth of the program.

“I can keep pointing to his first letter that inspired me to do this — to the power of the pen, the power that prisoner’s words have even though they’re locked up,” Fine said. “[The correspondence] means more than we can understand. … Getting something from somebody on the outside — it kind of in some way helps you establish an identity of yourself as other than just being a prisoner.”

Prisoner Express now connects 4,000 active incarcerated members with the outside world through journalism, art, poetry, essays and educational programs, Fine said.

Through volunteering at Prisoner Express, Cornell students like Clara Lee ’18 and Michelle de Leon ’18 have put their passions to use by contributing to programs and even creating their own.

Lee, after noticing recurring grammatical errors in the essay submissions, created grammar lessons.

“Telling Your Story is a compilation of selected essays from the essays we’ve received that responded to the prompts,” Clara said.

De Leon channeled her love of storytelling into generating creative writing prompts for the prisoners.

“The mission of this project Telling Your Story was to engage prisoners in a self-reflective writing process,” de Leon said.

Some of the pieces spoke of past struggles with recidivism, temptation and family.

“Being taught the principles my parents laid upon me, I made a conscious decision to deflect negative influence and practices,” read Richard Woods’s piece. “Temptation eventually made its way to me, despite how hard I tried. … If I could teleport back to 1995 and speak to myself, I would encourage the past me to walk away. Trying to impress others is not worth the 20 plus years in prison.”

Williams Andrews spoke of the grief associated with his father’s suicide.

“For a time, I felt that the beginning of my adulthood was milestoned by my father’s tombstone,” he said. “The day after I was told of his suicide, the world seemed to be a harsher and colder place than before.”

Fine said that this method of swapping stories was a source of support for the prisoners who may have felt isolated in their own experiences.

“The biggest common denominator that prisoners would be writing about all the time is that they were going crazy,” he said. “But when they started reading each other’s writings, and they saw that the other prisoners were having the same experiences that they were and saying the very same things, all of a sudden it kind of normalized the experience.”

For de Leon, the event was an opportunity to give the prisoners agency as well as a voice.

“Oftentimes prisoners write to us about how they feel forgotten,” de Leon said. “Prisoner Express really gives them an opportunity to express their humanity.”