UNLEASHING TALENT FROM BEHIND THE WALLS: MICH. REFORMATORY POETRY SLAM

The video above is from the Lansing State Journal, taken during one of the poetry classes held Jan. 17, 2018 at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

By Ricardo Ferrell

April 30, 2018

Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) expands poetry class to a group of inmates at the State’s oldest prison, the Michigan Reformatory making it the second adult facility to be offered such an initiative.

The MSU RCAH Free Verse Arts Poetry Slam Contest held on Monday, April 30, 2018, at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan, was a success.

Utilizing what they learned in various styles of writing poetry, e.g., Ghazel, Pantoum, Sestina, Haiku, etc. several inmates participated in the prison’s first poetry slam. They were allowed to perform their pieces in the chapel before fellow prisoners, MSU faculty, Reformatory’s Administration/Staff, and staff from the Handlon facility which is where the MSU Free Verse Arts Project began two years ago. Being afforded the opportunity to write out some of their thoughts presented many with new views and perspectives.

Michigan Reformatory at Ionia/ Photo by Grant M.

Topics ranged from the #MeToo movement, social justice issues, inadequate educational opportunities, mass incarceration, family, poor health care, poverty, and lifestyles back on the block.

Some came away feeling a new sense of meaning and purpose for their lives realizing that within them lies talent, skill, and potential. The creativity realized and explored by the prisoners was priceless because they’ve embraced the concept of wasted talent as being a thing of the past and they’re committed to moving forward and bringing out the best in themselves and becoming more meaningful and significant in their own lives as well as that of others.

The daily writing exercises and homework given by RCAH’s Instructor Guillermo Delgado were both fulfilling and definitely had a therapeutic value. In an environment where most men usually suppress, hide or camouflage their emotions and true feelings in an attempt to mask the pain and hurt they experienced before and during their incarcerations the 16 men who participated were willing to let down their guards, thus dissolving their rigid demeanors and allowing the moment of the poetry slam to give them a different lens by which to see themselves and those who were witnessing the humanity they demonstrated through their written expressions.

Guillermo Delgado MSU Academic Specialist/Photo courtesy of MSU

Some of the men who participated in today’s poetry slam had never composed a poem before while others experienced their first slam. Many in the audience stated they really enjoyed the program. Stephen Esquith, Dean of MSU’s RCAH expressed his satisfaction of the slam and mentioned to one of the participants how much he liked his piece and deliverance and they both discussed the possibility of more programming being offered by MSU to the Michigan Reformatory and other facilities.

Dr. Kevin Brooks, Arzelia Williams, and Katie Harger, all from Michigan State participated in the poetry slam making it all the more interesting. The panel of judges consisted of a combination of Ms. Leach (VPP), Ms. Laurie Bollinger (RCAH), Dean Stephen Esquith (RCAH) and two prisoners Milton & Walker.

We also had in attendance and gracing our presence; staff from the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, Jodie L. Heard, (CPC) and Vickie Ortiz, (CPC) they both were enjoying the slam from start to finish and excitedly applauded after each performance by the poetry slammers. Ms. Heard and Ms. Ortiz both are instrumental in orchestrating the MSU classes and programs over at Handlon, i.e., Poetry, Drama and My Brother’s Keeper.

First place: Sherman Wagner

Second place: Leroy ‘Luqman’ Harris

The Poetry Slam Contest winners; 1st) Sherman Wagner; 2nd) Leroy ‘Luqman’ Harris; and 3rd) Ricardo Ferrell, each delivered jaw dropping performances. Wagner spitted his piece metaphorically speaking to the gist of his story about the power women possess.

Harris shocked the consciousness of those listening with his dynamic rendition of his life story called ‘Prison’ speaking to his transformation. Ferrell (myself) meant to capture the audience’s attention by performing my joint called ‘Whatcha Gonna Do Now’ in the style of a spoken word trying to awaken those who are asleep. A. Smith, he delivered the fire; M. Reid-El’s poem ‘You’ had heads nodding feeling it; and open mic performances by Vinson, Davis and Lewis were an added plus to the slam.

Vinson’s ‘I Shed These Tears’ was the balance needed, and the other men in the class who shared are: M. Lewis; M. Williams; L. Pate; R. Whittenburg; D. Lumpkins-Bey; M. DeCosey; D. Bell; and B. Gaines. Among the prisoners in attendance watching everyone do their thing and showing support was Lee Glover and Edward Jones, both aspiring writers, “I hope to be afforded the opportunity to participate in the next class this fall,” said Glover. “Man, this was nice everyone did good, I’m glad that I came over,” stated Jones.

Thanks to the MC’s A. Davis & A. Shahideh and Music Artist – B. Grandion for the selections. Special Thanks/Acknowledgements: Dean Stephen L. Esquith; Prof. Guillermo Delgado; Dr. Kevin Brooks; Assistant Arzelia Williams; Katie Harger; Sahar Mahmood; Laurie Hollinger; Matthew Kulju; Jodie Heard; Vickie Ortiz; A/Warden Gregory Skipper; A/Deputy Warden James Miller; Dan Schafer, Rec. Dir.; Jen Houck, Classification Dir.; and Ms. Leach, VPP Coord.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Sharif Street has introduced a bill to end LWOP sentences, which would make PA the first state in the nation to do so.

Mr. Schafer who actually coordinated the event said afterwards, “Guys this turned out great.” And, as a final note we should all be proud because this clearly shows how there are some of us who are engaging in positive and constructive self-help programs to better ourselves and at the same time setting an example for others to follow. The certificates and awards presented to the participants were a gesture by staff from Michigan State University expressing their appreciation to the men who participated in the poetry class and slam.

VOD editor’s note: our apologies to Sherman Wagner, Leroy Harris and Ricardo Ferrell for using their MDOC photos from OTIS, for lack of alternatives. All three men are serving life terms; their literary work as chronicled by Mr. Ferrell shows that the U.S., the only country in the world to have actual life without parole sentences, needs to abolish that heinous, inhuman practice. Everyone deserves a second chance; no one is irredeemable. To be serving LWOP and still striving to develop oneself as a model human being is an act of courage that is nothing short of astounding. Read about Pennsylvania Sen. Sharif Street’s introduction of a bill to end life without parole in that state at https://www.upi.com/Pa-lawmaker-aims-to-end-life-without-parole-sentences/6671522117906/.


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