THE BLOG
04/17/2014 09:38 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2014

How Poetry Alters Prison Inmates' Minds, Hearts, Hopes And Lives

"I felt guilty for liking and admiring those criminal poets," said my guest, a top chief executive, as we exited Downstate Prison.

Next week, I shared his confession with the class, and asked two questions. "Why do you think he liked you--and why did that make him feel guilty?" Moses, a forty-five year old with seven years left to serve on a twelve-to-twenty sentence, stepped into the silence. "Because our hearts and lives were on display. He saw that we were the same as him and don't deserve to be here."

Most people feel a similar disconnect when reading poems by my inmate class. They don't expect maximum security inmates to be capable of writing insightful poetry. Then, noting the quality of the writing--and the sensitivity on issues of love and race--they assume, incorrectly, that the act of writing poems has effected personality turnabouts, and want to know precisely how that works. Well, yes, poetry is a powerful tool. But it is also only one element of a life-changing process. Let me explain.

It is hopeless to wag a forefinger, and tell people to stop doing bad things. That fails because we only pay attention to things that we discover for ourselves. The pathway to enlightenment passes through a bramble of conflicting ideas--especially mysterious poems. Confusion precedes clarity--if there's no initial confusion, no ultimate clarity emerges.

That's why I open my class with a confusing, contrarian idea. "No matter what crime you committed, whether you dealt drugs or committed murder, you are not to blame--you are, in fact, a victim."

Most inmates argue the point. Some are even offended. They insist on telling me that what everyone else has been telling them--they wound up in prison because they made wrong choices. At this point I move the discussion to lines from Shakespeare: "If Hamlet when he's not himself does wrong then Hamlet does it not. Who does it then? His madness. If it be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged; His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy."

What Hamlet calls madness, I call mindlessness--the absence of authentic contemplation and truly rational choice. "Your judgment of why you committed your crime is hopelessly flawed," I explain. "Sure, you thought you intended to commit a crime. You thought you did so because you believed you could get away with it. You imagined, you could and should have made other choices. But in that moment you could conceive of no other choice--and so, for you, none existed." I don't let anyone off the hook. "But that victim card is only good for past crimes. If you come back to jail after you graduate this class, the blame will be all yours."

Here's a neat illustration of a "choice" that never truly was. The exercise was to write a poem about, "the moment of my crime." Sheldon, a twenty-five year-old with fifteen years left to serve on his sentence, shares his feelings:

Who am I?
What have I done?
I can't believe I did that.
What have I become?
Why are those guys oozing red?
That one looks just like he's dead.
They're staring at me, everyone.
Wherever did I get this gun?

There it is! An astonishing confession of crime, guilt and confusion within a memorable, stream of consciousness poem. It is also an elegant example of notion that victims exist at both ends of a gun. What sort of society do we live in that denies intelligent young men the education they need to live a decent life, but which guarantees them an easy supply of guns?

For sure, Sheldon's life took a fateful turn. Playwright Eugene O'Neill said that, "none of us can help the things that life has done to us, they're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things, and you have lost your true self forever." My mission is to reverse that syndrome.

Confusing people is easy, but achieving a state of constructive confusion requires imagination and skill--and a set of big ideas and poems to talk about. Back on Rikers, I distilled the insights of great philosophers, psychologists and poets, classic and modern into a neat work-book. Officials argued that inmates would never understand this kind of stuff. In fact, it is easier to imprint big ideas than small ones.

At Downstate Prison, encouraged by Writers and Poets, we pitched the weekly creation and recitation of a relevant poem into the overarching intellectual model. The results were dramatic. These personal creations came from the deepest possible places. Reciting them in class unleashed raw emotions. Here are two lines from one of the first presentations. David shares his feelings--and the actual words he uttered--when he came before the judge.

In the moment of my sentence
I said, You can fuck repentance.

The entire poem was in the same sardonic and politically incorrect tone. All the guys, especially the poet, were surprised at my response: "Hey what a great poem. You caught the moment perfectly--I love it!" I was judging the poem not the poet. Everyone got that.

In my experience most prisoners have an untapped gift for penning poetry. Sure, they need to learn how to polish it up, but that's easy. The essence of a poem is the feeling that lies within it. A great poem does indeed put a heart on display. The lack of any kind of censorship did more than produce great poems. As we journeyed on the poems took a turn. They released poison from hidden wounds, and, ultimately, conjured real insight and authentic remorse.

Realizing the power of these confessions, the intellectual and emotional journeys they shared, and the hearts they healed I felt a compulsion to craft these poems into a life-changer, How to Survive a Bullet to the Heart. I introduce each milestone then take the reader into the classroom to share the final class. For now, though, let me give the last word to another young man with fifteen years still to serve. Benjamin entered the first the class a sure-of-himself, surly rebel. Confusion followed, then enlightenment, humility and hope--all of which appear in the poem he penned just before graduating:

Farewell and fair well,
sounds the liberty bell.
Hearts assail
the justice scale,
but souls, my friend,
are not for sale.
This ark is made to sail;
if you think you're gonna fail
come follow me, and we'll prevail.
Farewell and fair well,
sounds the liberty bell.