Youth Uprising‘s Poetry and Prison Project is a youth-led citizen journalism effort that uses poetry to speak about the effects of mass incarceration on young people in urban America. The project’s multimedia study, Poetry and Prison features videos of program participants reading their original poems and discussing how writing poetry impacts their lives.
One of the program participants, poet and researcher Alberto Perez, is interested in exploring the interactions between poetry and prison. In this short clip (2:45) Perez discusses how writing poetry gives those impacted by incarceration a link with humanity and a positive vehicle for the emotions they experience.
Perez has also written about the intersections between prison and poetry. In his essay “Poetry: A Means for Prisoners to Maintain a Hold of their Humanity” (published in the Spring 2008 edition of The Berkeley McNair Research Journal), Perez explains that individuals who enter the prison system undergo a “hardening” process whereby they learn to withhold their emotions. Writing poetry gives these emotions a safe outlet. As Perez insists, “Convicts who write poetry find that it enables them to privately connect with feelings that they must openly negate.”
B*Janky, a 22-year old Youth Uprising member from Oakland, California, wrote the following spoken word piece “Four Walls” while incarcerated. The piece addresses the injustice of a system that sets individuals up for failure and argues that educating our children is a way to stop the incarceration cycle:
The Poetry and Prison Project is clearly a step forward in implementing B*Janky’s advice and fulfilling Youth Uprising’s mission to spark “personal transformation that builds [young adults’] capacity to transform experiences of trauma and oppression into opportunities for positive personal and community change.”
Both writing poetry and discussing great literature enable individuals to express feelings previously kept private and both hold the potential for great transformation. Are there advantages to using poetry writing over literature (or vice versa) to encourage expression and change? How do these routes to transformation differ? We’d love to hear your thoughts.