IMPACT

‘I Am Free': Former Inmates' Poetry Proves Our Hopes, Fears And Dreams Are Universal

02/23/2015 10:19 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2015

It’s not every day that Chicago photographer Sandro Miller — whose John Malkovich photo series received widespread media acclaim — receives a handwritten letter in the mail.

But one day in early 2014, Miller opened his mailbox and found a message from advertising copywriter Brandon Crockett, who proposed an idea for a project that was close to his heart.

The contents of that letter set into motion “Finding Freedom,” a captivating art book that's currently in the works. It features Miller's photographs alongside poetry written by residents at St. Leonard's Ministries, a halfway house on Chicago’s near west side where Crockett began teaching a monthly poetry class seven years ago.

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Miguel, one of the residents in Crockett's poetry class, is pictured (right), next to his poetry (left) in this mockup of how the book.

In 2008, then a recent college graduate who had just moved to Chicago, Crockett discovered St. Leonard’s through a volunteer organization called Chicago Cares. He began attending a monthly discussion at the halfway house, and through that event, he developed an interest in its residents. Having taken up writing poetry on the side, he spoke to the halfway house’s volunteer coordinator and asked whether he could teach the residents how to write poetry. She said yes.

“Luckily she didn't ask for any qualifications because I have absolutely none,” Crockett told HuffPost via email.

The classes follow a simple structure that hasn’t changed much since Crockett started volunteering. He begins each one-hour class with an icebreaker to help get residents to loosen up, followed by a discussion on a poem or two concerning a certain topic, such as friendship or dreams. After that, he encourages the residents to write their own poems, which are finally shared out loud.

It wasn’t long after the classes got underway that Crockett felt he had something truly special on his hands.

He began to visualize putting it all together in a book, with each poem placed directly next to its author’s photograph, but he ran into roadblocks in his early attempts to get the project off the ground. After he discovered Miller's photo book spotlighting actors at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, however, something clicked.

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Another of Crockett's students.

Miller responded to Crockett immediately after reading his letter, and the two met shortly thereafter to discuss the project. Soon, they began to photograph the residents taking part in Crockett’s poetry classes.

Crockett said it was a marvel to watch Miller photograph the residents.

“He would compliment the men telling them how powerful, courageous and inspiring they looked,” Crockett told HuffPost. “And when they walked away from their photo session, they were walking in the clouds. I didn't ask any of them, but there was a feeling in the room that he was treating them better than they possibly have ever been treated before.”

The process clearly touched Miller, as well.

“Several times I was moved to tears as in front of my camera sat a person, with heart, feelings and an undeniable need for understanding,” Sandro wrote in a statement. “I wanted to save them, hold them and listen to them. Instead they saved me with their words of life, broken dreams, new dreams, uplifting dreams and dreams of a new beginning.”

That new beginning now is “Finding Freedom,” which Crockett is attempting to finance via a Kickstarter fundraising campaign launched Thursday. Any donations beyond the book’s production costs will be donated to benefit St. Leonard’s, which provides housing and a range of programs — including education, employment training, exercise, addiction recovery and life skills — to help low-level offenders transition from prison to newly independent living.

In addition to raising awareness of the important work done at St. Leonard’s, Crockett said he hopes the book will help everyday people understand that the core hopes, dreams, fears and desires of the formerly incarcerated aren’t all that different from anyone else’s -- that they, too, are deserving of compassion and understanding. While Crockett says there are no plans, currently, to make the book available for sale beyond the copies distributed as Kickstarter rewards, any extra copies printed will be given to St. Leonard's to distribute as they see fit.

“The people at St. Leonard's are people. And that's about it,” Crockett said. “I came in there thinking the guys would be hard or put on fronts, or whatever it may be and I'd be one who could break through. And it wasn't about that. The guys were just like anyone else you'd meet on the street.”

Take a look at more of Miller's photographs accompanying Crockett's students' writing below:

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