Summer 2005

Poets Behind Bars


Desert Lament

Oh ice white stars shining bright
Oh polished silver moon smiling down
Oh velvet black shadows flitting about
Oh brick red rocks sitting on high
Have you passed judgment on me yet?

I can’t live among you anymore
massive stone walls
    cold steel bars and
    razor sharp wire
    have come between us

Never fear old friends
One day, we will meet again.

— Dave Noyce
Inmate at Hutchinson
Correctional Facility


What is there to do in jail?

We all know the stereotypes: get in fights, lift weights, stamp license plates. But thanks to some WSU faculty, inmates at Hutchinson (Kan.) Correctional Facility are trying their hand at a more productive pastime — poetry.

John McConnell came to WSU’s English faculty from Baltimore, Md., where he’d worked full-time at Ordnance Road Correctional Center, an experimental institution devoted to providing prisoners soon to be released with skills they could use “on the outside.”

When he relocated to Wichita, it was a natural step to contact Gary Isaac, head of Offender/Victim Ministries in Newton, Kan. Through this program, he began teaching creative writing at Hutchinson, in the fall of 2003. In 2004, unable to teach himself, he recruited six creative writing graduate students and GTAs, who taught in male-female pairs — a precaution, most of the teachers agree, that proved unnecessary.

“They were very respectful,” says poet Michele Battiste ’04, “and treated me no differently than they did Jason (Harper, a fiction student and her prison program partner).” She was, in fact, surprised by how similar the teaching experience was to her regular freshman comp duties: “We went in expecting an artificial environment, and it turned out to be a class.”

Harper, whose students included Dave Noyce (see poem above), agrees that their students were well-behaved and “so happy to have an outlet. They’re so enchanted and awed of all the different interpretations and connotations that you can glean from reading a poem.”

He and Battiste shared poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and e.e. cummings and fiction by Tim O’Brien with their class.

Robert Graves ’02/05 also found his students to be “eager, well-read and humble. I quickly forgot I was talking to medium to maximum security prisoners.” McConnell credits the inmates’ exemplary behavior with the special relationship they have with their teachers: “You’re one of the few people that they see who is dealing with them as a human being. They see you as an ally, recognize that you’re trying to help them out. It’s a non-aggressive relationship different from that formed with guards or other prisoners.”

Many people in today’s society view poetry as a luxury for English majors, and some might argue that inmates would be better off learning “real” skills.

But according to Graves, poetry is already a major part of prisoners’ lives. His students told him that most everybody in prison writes poetry. He remarks: “The place of poetry in prison is where I wish it were in the world — extremely important.”


Poets Behind Bars

Poets help prisoners at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility express their feelings.

The Right Ingredients

WSU has a new “front door,” in the form of the recently dedicated Marcus Welcome Center.


These Gleanings entries survey the current university scene.