The Poets of Hamilton County Jail

[Originally printed in Catalpa Magazine, Spring 2020]

The gate slams shut behind us. We walk down a gray corridor, toward an elevator with flat gray walls. There are no buttons, just an electric eye, watching us. Slowly we ascend to the fourth floor of Hamilton County Jail, in downtown Chattanooga. My two fellow teachers share fragments of their day as I take in my surroundings. 

It’s my first time in a maximum security jail, where over 500 men are kept for sentencing before being transferred to state prison or released. We exit the elevator, waiting for a guard to open the classroom – another gray, concrete room, with gray tables and plastic chairs.

Twelve men filter in, floor by floor. Most are dressed in orange jumpsuits. Others are in red. We shake hands with every man who walks in. Their wrists are shackled. So are their feet.

I try to “act natural” – which only makes me more self-conscious. I’m a young woman after all, and don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself. Thankfully, there’s Kris, the seasoned lead teacher, who confidently takes charge. Hailey and I slip easily into the role of her assistants, taking seats beside the men at the U-shaped table. 

We read the mission statement, crafted by the women of Bradley County Jail with Dr. Victoria Bryan, the founder and director of Turn the Page. This program brings creative writing and critical literacy skills to men and women who are imprisoned and in recovery in Tennessee.“ In this classroom, we read, write, talk, and listen. We speak, but we don’t interrupt. We offer support, and not judgment. We are here to critique our writing, not each other’s pasts.”

A program of the Southern Lit Alliance, Turn the Page fills a needed void. While there are a number of prison writing programs across the U.S., workshops for men and women in jails are more unusual. This is because jail is considered a transitory space, a holding pen as people await sentencing. Yet this waiting period can last several years.

We are a nation of inmates. Over 2 million people in the U.S. are behind bars. One in every 37 American adults is under some form of correctional supervision, according to the NAACP. Add to this other forms of imprisonment: self-harm, addiction, abuse, mental illness. Trafficking and sexual enslavement. No one is untouched by mass incarceration.

One by one, we introduce ourselves. The guys seem curious about us, but not rude. I stop worrying about my demeanor, and open my ears.

The men at Hamilton County Jail write poetry. Their words are close to the bone, close to the unspeakable soul. Each man has a music all his own. Rap pours out of the younger men, streams of urgent rhyme about violence ingested and multiplied into a living nightmare. Some of the older men have gravitas and undeniable wisdom. Andre* (not his real name), a gentle gray-haired man, begins the story of his life with these haunting words:

Let me tell you a story
about a lil’ boy growing up
in a lost world…

Students share insights gained after first-time or repeat offenses, months in “the hole” (solitary confinement), and months or years in a cage with eight other men. They want to understand: How did I get here? What happened to me and what am I responsible for? Eugene explored these questions in a letter to his ancestors. As a Black man, he made the connection between his own shackles, and the chains of his slave forefathers: 

You were forced to do things against your will and were even killed along the way. You sacrificed your own lives to protect and make life better for the ones who came after you…

Eugene expressed deep pain and contrition for putting “the chains and shackles back on.” But he also sees the trap of poverty, drugs, and life on “the streets”:

Because it seems like nobody else
is concerned about how 
the “Streets” is kidnapping our kids,
raising them up,
then sending them back home
for us to bury them.

Another student, Manuel,* traced the generational effects of trauma. His father is a paraplegic, caused by a car accident when Manuel was only five. This man projected his rage and helplessness onto his young son. Manuel wrote in his father’s voice:

I know there is no use…So instead of hope,
I feed my eldest son verbal abuse…

He don’t give up though, win or lose…my son says to me one day
“I’ll always be there Dad, but you’ll have to choose”…

Then I make a decision to change my life…And do my best
to provide for two boys without a wife.

One night, Eugene shared a supplication he’d written – from an unborn child to his drug-addicted mother: I guess you ain’t listening, I guess I’ll keep kicking you until I get your undivided attention. God, haven’t we all felt that way sometimes? Felt like kicking ourselves, our parents, and the whole damned world until our voice is heard?

Going to jail every week is full of rawness and contradiction. Eugene, whose smooth skin belies his forty-some years, tells me about a child that he and his ex-girlfriend helped raise. He shows me photos of a bright-faced little girl, dark hair combed into two pom-poms. She’s paralyzed from the waist down – a victim of gun violence and gang warfare. 

And yet, there is a strong current of positive energy that flows through every class. For an hour and a half most Thursday nights, the bars dissolve, and we laugh, shed a few tears, show our real faces and scars. Despite the level of emotional honesty we’ve established over time, I was still amazed by this poem by Ron, who has a chiseled face and deep-set eyes:

Ok

As a child it was ok to watch cartoons and eat peanut butter crackers.
During Halloween, it was ok to dress up as the action figure hero 
and pick through a bag full of candy. 
To catch bumblebees in a jar without getting stung.
To toss a football in the yard with my dad.
It was also ok to pick the plums off my granny’s tree, even though I never ate any.
It wasn’t ok that I had to experience sex abuse at the age of ten.
It wasn’t ok that I was coerced to have sex with my babysitter; she was eighteen.
It wasn’t ok that I kept it a secret. My mother never knew.

Making honor roll and the dean’s list were ok. Being a football star was ok. 
I was the jock on campus, but I really wasn’t ok within myself.
It wasn’t ok that I sold drugs, that I hung out with gang members 
who stole and robbed innocent people. 
Peer pressure got the best of me, that wasn’t ok.
Cancer took its toll on me, I ended up ok.
It was never ok that I sexually assaulted a young lady.
Sometimes I consider myself ______?_______
and not sure if I’m going to be ok.

After the very first class, I headed to Miller Park, an oval of green surrounded by city life. I lay with  my back against the earth, wishing I could transmit the cool grass and black sky to my students. We had just read Langston Hughes and Rumi: We have fallen into the place where everything is music. Against my stomach was pressed a poem I’d written, sitting next to Andre, a few minutes before:

Jailbreak

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music
where everything pierces and shimmers
with a thousand glittering edges 
and eyes, teeth of flame
and leaves of light.

We have fallen
and sometimes it feels
like we’ll never get back up
never feel the rough tongue
of grass beneath our feet
never know the blessed voice
that sings in our minds and binds
these wounds that cry
in the dead of night.

We have fallen into this place
where death is close
but salvation is closer.
Close your eyes.
Let the ghosts dance free
and let your own sweet breath
tremble

and ignite.

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