The Prison Poetry Project

Submitted by Rod Martin on June 13, 2017 - 3:15am
A creative writing workshop guide for prison settings

I teach Creative Writing at Halawa Prison on the island of Oahu, in Hawaii, and have compiled a book with guidelines and poetic examples for sixteen writing sessions.

Besides using the guide as a tool to help those in prison settings create poems on a variety of topics and styles, the book’s poetry collection can provide a wealth of material for spoken word presentations and theatrical performances.

When I retired from teaching Language Arts in the public school system in Hawaii, I began my search of how I could be of service to my community.  I even asked for divine guidance and was lead to a Bible Verse (Matthew 25:36) saying Jesus thought it a good idea to visit and encourage those in prison.  Since I'm a poet and have enjoyed helping others find new ways to create poems, it seemed like a good fit to offer creative writing classes in prison settings, so I volunteered at several correctional facilities on our island of Oahu.  

Having been at this for several years now, I've learned by trial and error what sort of "poetic challenges" (writing activities) work well in a prison setting (as opposed to teaching eighth graders).  I decided to try to be organized, so I began keeping a record of the writing activities that worked best along with examples of the poems. Now that this Poetry Project curriculum has reached some four hundred pages, I thought it might prove worthwhile to share it with others in hopes of encouraging more creative writing groups in prisons (or anywhere for that matter).

For Instructors

Below is a sample introduction for you to deliver in the early stages of your writing workshops, to help lay the groundwork: 

I’m glad you’ve joined us for these creative writing sessions.  Our main focus will be poetry, though stories, speeches, essays and letters are fine as well.  You can write in any style, about any topic you want. In each session I’ll give you some suggestions for styles to try or topics to ponder, but the choice is ultimately yours. I just want you to write.

I believe we get better at things by practice and that’s why I want to encourage you to write as often as possible about things you care about or want to remember.  It can help you understand issues you’re going through by writing it out, not just thinking it through.  You may find when you start writing about a topic or experience that you end up with unexpected conclusions.  The very act of writing can surprise you.

I hope you’ll be willing to share your work by reading it aloud to the group.  I believe poetry is meant to be spoken aloud, not just read silently.  You can always pass on sharing which is totally voluntary, but most poets, you may find, like being heard.  I encourage and insist that you listen carefully and respectively to each poet as they share their work.  Try to remember or write down any phrases that impressed you and then give them that feedback after they’re done. We can all benefit from constructive criticism.

If you’re proud of your work, you can turn it in me and I’ll type it (or find someone to help type our poems) so we can give each of you a copy or collection of our original writing. If you want help with spelling or grammar or editing, I’ll do my best but it’s fine if you want it typed word for word. I would usually avoid censoring your work but I should let you know I’m not a fan of swearing, violence or lewd material. I prefer poems that encourage and uplift the human spirit, but it’s OK to express the fears and heartbreak that come from being human.

I’ll suggest topics or styles you can write on your own between sessions.  These are not mandatory, but sometimes it helps to have more time than just a class session, and you may find it helpful to find a quiet time when it’s easier to concentrate and you can hear the sound of the poetry in your head.

Finally, I hope you will enjoy yourself and freely share your thoughts, ideas and opinions and I welcome your ideas for writing topics and anything we can do to make our writing sessions more meaningful.


Comments from inmates participating in the Poetry Project:

 We just need an outlet
Someone to trade wit with
Getting better at putting words together
Word play and rhymes
A metaphorical metronome keeping time
Pencil taps and knee slaps and abstract raps rhythm
We have a place to share this: call it Creative Writing Class
A day to look forward to
It is to me what holiday is to you
Could do this thrice a week
(but Teacher needs his sleep)
But we need to speak
This class is better than buddy bars and pop tarts for lunch
And that’s sayin’ a bunch
Thanks for your time, your spirit
And giving us a time and place to spit these lyrics.

I have really enjoyed myself in this class.  It has allowed me to freely express myself in ways that I never could have while with the rest of the population.  There hasn’t been a time when I didn’t go back to my unit feeling refreshed.
This class will open your mind to a new way of thinking, where you can express your creativity and learn more about yourself.
This course provides me with an opportunity to hear, discuss, and write about ideas that are not usually verbalized in ‘the quad’, in a safe environment.  I’m exposed to the creativity of others, and receive feedback on my own writing.  It’s nice to not be treated punitively, but to have help learning a new skill.
The Poetry Project has been incredibly enlightening and edifying.  I hope this class is still in existence next time I come back to prison.
This class will light the fire underneath your poetic butt and get it moving to new lyrical heights.  It has inspired me to express my creativity in new and innovating ways.  Mui Excellente.
This creative writing class helps me to actively participate in writing skills that help me cope with the moral decay of negative attitudes that has ultimately pervaded our prison rehabilitative structure.  I can for once come to a class that reinforces positive intellectual thinking and encourages inmates to be creative, poetic, and positive during a very discouraging time.  I hope this class will continue to be offered to inmates who are aspiring writers.


Access the Prison Poetry Project - A Guide to Creative Writing