Arts and Entertainment

Poetry in prison: Alaska inmates find creative outlet -- and national recognition -- through art

Sitting in a room lit with natural light and surrounded by empty chairs, Jennifer Prince began reciting her poem on a June afternoon. 

"… I've gone to war and back to unpaint the image that a real world exists between the moon and me …" Prince read in a calm, steady voice off a sheet of paper.

She was interrupted by a male voice calling for a visitor over the intercom at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. When the voice cut out, Prince immediately resumed reading.

Prince, 37, has been an inmate at Hiland for about a year. Before that, she was at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. She had been on probation for a theft charge she pleaded guilty to. After relapsing on alcohol and meth while on probation, Prince tried to fake a drug test at a probation office, she said.

"I know that I let a lot of people down," Prince said. Before her slip-up she'd been working as an optometric assistant at an eye clinic — an "amazing boss" had given her a chance. Her youngest daughter lived with her in Juneau.

Prince says she's struggled with alcohol most of her adult life. Drug use entered the scene in her 30s.

She started doing opioids and then heroin with her second now-ex-husband "and in three months, my life just completely flipped upside down," she said. "We lost everything."

They stole purses, checkbooks, debit cards, credit cards and pawned "anything worth value" to support their addiction. Her wedding set, worth thousands of dollars, was pawned for $200.

"It becomes your identity," she said of addiction. "It becomes you. Not a part of who you are but who you are when you're getting high."

Jotting down her thoughts on paper has stirred up some of those darker moments. But writing has also been therapeutic, she says, and a way to "put into words things that I'm not able to communicate with other people."

The poem she read at Hiland last month received an honorable mention in the poetry category of the 2016 PEN Prison Writing Contest, open to people serving time in federal, state or county prisons in the U.S. There were about 1,500 submissions that came from almost every state, said Tim Small with the PEN Prison Writing Program.

The poem is a gritty account of being sentenced and the emotions that go along with that. While she had previously tried to hide the fact that she's a recovering addict, her poem is upfront about her past: "And just like every lie I've ever told, I convince myself anything is the truth if I believe it hard enough," the poem reads.

She says she's thrilled to get recognition for her work.

"It's a national contest and they said that this piece was good enough that they want to match me with an established author to mentor me for future projects if that's something that I'm interested in," Prince said. She's interested.

Something more

Prince isn't the only incarcerated Alaskan writing poetry. A teen who was at the Mat-Su Youth Facility earlier this year recently placed third in the 2016 Words Unlocked poetry contest for students at youth facilities around the country. The competition is put on by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a nonprofit that aims to improve education in youth facilities.

The poet — referred to as "KH" on the contest's submission form to protect his identity since he's not an adult — wrote a 14-line piece called "Something More." He says he wrote it about one of his peers at Mat-Su Youth Facility.

"Every time he talked with me … I understood what he said, he wasn't slow," KH said. "I always felt like he left things out. Like he was editing. Not telling me everything he wanted to. And I always thought there was something more. That's why I wrote that poem:"

Your eyes – a deep ocean of sorrow and grief.
Your tongue – like earthquakes so violent and strong, but brief.
Your voice – a sound of trumpets that tumble down or soar.
Your thoughts – a mystery, a puzzle, unsolved because there's something more.

KH — a tall, lanky teen with brown hair that goes past his shoulders — is now at another Department of Juvenile Justice facility in Alaska. He'll be there for several more months because of the "devastating" period of his life that landed him there, he says. (Because he is not 18, officials would only grant a reporter access to interview KH on the condition that his crimes not be written about or his full name included.)

"You never know what you have until you lose it," he said. "And if you do realize what you have beforehand, make every moment count. Because you never know when you'll lose it. And when you do know when you lose it, it can make every moment more difficult."

KH says he "wouldn't change a scene" of his life though, and seems like a typical teen in some ways. He likes the Harry Potter and Twilight series and Edgar Allan Poe. English is his favorite subject and he loves to write, but math comes easiest, which he attributes to his years spent playing the piano. His slender fingers danced along a keyboard at the youth facility on a recent morning as he skillfully played some of the music floating around in his head.

"It changes every time," he said of the music.


In the case of KH and Prince, an encouraging person helped the poems get written in the first place.

For KH it was Tom Pine, the sole teacher at the Mat-Su Youth Facility (there's also a tutor). Pine says he likes working with the kids who need extra help. At the Valley youth facility, it's not uncommon for students to have special needs, be behind in their classes or have dropped out of school entirely.

"He's been in a tough spot for a little over a year," Pine said of KH. "And to be able to write this and have hope and to see that spark within him was really nice."

KH was one of several students at the Mat-Su Youth Facility who entered the Words Unlocked contest. Many were enthusiastic about writing poems, Pine said, and were eager to get feedback. He thinks poetry's connection to rap made writing creatively more enticing, though that wasn't the case with KH, who says he's more interested in music like the Beach Boys and Michael Jackson.

"A lot of it is them wanting to get some praise and some attention," said Pine, who says he makes a point to not learn what crimes got his students locked up because he doesn't want it to affect how he treats them. "But then a lot of it is they are pouring out their feelings here, and maybe in the only way they know how."

Overall, Pine said he was impressed with the poems. They had "maturity and real depth." Some were cheesy, but then there were cases like the student who wrote about his mom losing a baby, the hardship she endured and his perspective on that.

Prince's motivational figure for poetry was Ernestine Hayes, author of "Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir" and Prince's son's grandmother.

"She has been such a positive influence in my life and she's always encouraged me to write," Prince said of Hayes.

Prince was at Lemon Creek last year when Hayes, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, taught creative writing classes to female inmates. Hayes' colleague Sol Neely works with male inmates at the Juneau prison, and Hayes said she wanted to reach out to the women, who are in the minority there and don't have as many programs offered to them.

Prince wrote an essay in Hayes' class that was published in Tidal Echoes, a literary and art journal featuring work by Southeast Alaskans.

"When my essay was published I felt really inspired and thought, 'Wow, I'm going to be another great prison writer.' So I had my daughter Google 'writing contests.' And so one of the searches that popped up was this particular contest," said Prince. That's how she found out about the PEN Prison Writing Contest.

The importance of an outlet

Giving inmates a creative outlet to process their emotions is a good thing, Prince said.

"Most everyone in here, if not all, suffer from a mental illness or addiction," she said. "And so we're left having to address these situations, the chaos we've left our lives in, the messes that we've made along the way. There's a lot of remorse."

Having things to do helps keep her out of trouble, she says. She's in the Hiland orchestra and learning to play the violin. She's also part of a give-back crochet program.

"There's drugs in jail. There's tattooing, there's cheeking your meds, there's a lot of things in jail that can get you into more trouble," she said. "And so finding a positive way to release the emotions or process through the emotions rather than just self-medicating is really important. Otherwise we're going to be the same leaving this place as we were coming in."

Pine agrees with that sentiment. He used to work at the Mat-Su Day School, an alternative transitional school. Some of those students have ended up at the Mat-Su Youth Facility, some multiple times.

In several cases, students will do well in the structured environment of Mat-Su Youth Facility but fall back into risky behavior when they get out, Pine said. It's easy to mess up on probation.

"I'm not stupid. They're gonna walk back into their same lives and it's gonna be hard to continue to do better," he said. "But at least they've got some kind of positive background that they can go back and say, 'I can do better than this.' "

KH says he's motivated to do better. Sitting in a youth facility classroom, he read off a nearby poster: "You are not finished when you lose. You are finished when you quit."

Marc Lester contributed reporting.

"Something More"

Like there's something hidden deep below the ocean's salty shore,

It is hidden deep beneath your heart — yes; there's something more.

Like an unfinished book that someone has yet to explore,
It is an unfinished product of your speech — yes there's something more.

As if the mighty lion has lost the will to roar,
You too lose the will to speak of something — something more.

As if a dam has blocked the path from which the rivers pour,
You block the flow of emotions and thoughts — still; there's something more.

Why do you offer the lonesome silence?
Yet ignore what's lost at your own expense?

Your eyes — a deep ocean of sorrow and grief.
Your tongue — like earthquakes so violent and strong, but brief.
Your voice — a sound of trumpets that tumble down or soar.
Your thoughts — a mystery, a puzzle, unsolved because there's something more.

— By "KH"

"Tick Tock"

It's 2:15.
The C.O. escorts me to booking where I sit and wait for the transport officer to handcuff me.
I mentally prepare myself to leave the prison like I do every time I leave for court.
A lot of people say they enjoy their "field trips."
I don't.
I hate them.
I've gone to war and back to unpaint the image that a real world exists between the moon and me.
And just like every lie I've ever told, I convince myself anything I say is the truth if I believe it hard enough.
I sit on the wooden bench that doesn't exist.
In the cell that doesn't exist.
In the courthouse that doesn't exist.
Waiting to see the judge that doesn't exist.
To accept the four year deal;
Which is the only thing right now that DOES exist.
The stainless steel toilet in the corner of the cell is stained with dried piss and spit and I stare at it with burning temptation.
I fool myself into thinking my friends are lucky enough they will never see the inside of this cell.
I fool myself into thinking I HAVE friends.
I close my eyes and listen to an imaginary clock tick.
I open them and stare at the walls….scarred with the names of people I know…scarred with the names of people I don't.
Over twenty years of bad luck carved into the walls I beg to implode on me.
Names of rats scratched into stone as warning signs to the next.
Love sworn forever in blurred lines only capable of tearing families apart.
I strain to hear the ghosts in the hall whisper the sinful secrets of the last person shackled in this cell.
I walk over to the toilet and with the cold steel of heavy handcuffs I've come to know so well cutting into my soft flesh; I tug at my pants and pull them over my thighs.
My weak muscles burn as I hover over to pee.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
The officer unlocks the cell and tells me to kneel on the bench.
Leg shackles for added shame.
I follow him into the courtroom where everything is the same and nothing changes.
In the matter of the state vs. Jennifer Prince.
Ms. Prince, how do you plead? …

— By Jennifer Prince