Youth Uprising’s Poetry and Prison Project

picture-1Youth 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. 


9 thoughts on “Youth Uprising’s Poetry and Prison Project

  1. Readers need writers of course–and writers need readers. Without contraries there’s no progression, as Blake said. I’ve always thought that reading was one side of the coin; writing was the other side. I think when we read “deeply,” we are always re-writing the text –and our own lives as well. So I’d say, keep reading and keep writing!

  2. Writing, I feel, may be more intimidating to individuals at first. Many people have a stigma about writing and believe that they cannot write anything of value. Further, writing is a deeply personal (and often confessional) process. It requires the person to unearth and reveal emotions previously buried or kept hidden. For someone not used to writing and who is not accustomed to acknowledging his or her feelings, composing poetry can be an intimidating prospect.

    Reading and discussing good literature may very well open the doors for an individual to grow more comfortable with writing. Anybody with an average reading level can read books and share his/her opinions on the plot and characters within them. When reading literature, individuals begin opening themselves to their emotions and experiences without even realizing that they’re doing it. Reading, it seems, is less intimidating at the onset.

    Thus, I think reading opens up the gateways for writing. Once individuals begin acknowledging their feelings and seeing that everybody has a story to tell, the thought of putting their own experiences into words becomes less overwhelming.

    I know that the folks in the Dorcester men’s CLTL program now integrate poetry writing into their CLTL curriculum. I’d be interested to hear their perspectives on how the two acts relate to one another.

  3. Certainly writing must have come before reading (or, at least, hand in hand with reading). My comments were directed towards the benefits and downsides of using one or the other (or both!) as rehabilitative or transformative tools, rather than establishing a historical precedence or preference for either.

  4. In “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions”, Dr. James Pennebaker, Professor and Chair Department of Psychology at The University of Texas, makes a strong case for the healing potential of confessional writing. The book contains some really remarkable empiricall founded evidence that confessional writing–and confession in general–has a positive impact on health. VERY interesting work.

    Reading is likely more approachable for individuals inexperienced in the arts, but writing may be more approachable for some as well. This post discusses poetry, and I think poetry already has a wide audience under its guises ofhip hop verse, slam poetry, freestyle battles, and even insult competitions. So, like my definition of poetry, perhaps we can ammend a definition of reading to incorporate the aural and interactive elements of performance.

  5. Hi Allan–We didn’t feel it’s appropriate to tie a name to every blog entry. We’ll always name the authors of guest blogs and personal stories or narratives, but will keep some of the posts nameless–with only CLTL as the author.

  6. Hello, I would like to invite you to join; The Poetic Voice Community. It is a writer’s site where you can enter contests – add poetry and get feedback. The latest entries are listed on the blog posts. Click on link, and check us out! Then join, and post.


  7. Pingback: The Power of Prison Poetry Programs | Education Behind Bars

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