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Poetry Helps Inmates Cope in Prison

April 11, 2016

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

SHELTON - Living in prison isn't easy. There's little privacy and a near-constant cacophony of people moving around, staff radios crackling, announcements blaring over the intercom and heavy metal doors clanging shut.

But Hans Hale, an inmate at Washington Corrections Center (WCC), has found a way to cope with it all -- poetry.

"It gives us great enlightenment, and provides a different avenue than being physical and confrontational," said Hale, 46. "Poetry has taught us you don't have to use fists, you can use words."

Hale is one of 28 inmates who recently read and performed their works during a poetry slam at the prison, timed to coincide with National Poetry Month, which runs through April. This is the second year the prison has held the event, which was started in 2015 by Jessica Aws, a former library associate at the prison.

Aws initially created a poetry 'open mic' night as a way to introduce poetry to inmates and help build their self-confidence. The program became so popular, she decided to start holding a poetry slam where inmates perform their works in front of students from The Evergreen State College The students are enrolled at a "social psychology of the prison-industrial complex" course at the college. They act as audience members and observe the impact poetry has on inmates.

Jeanne Thietje, a WCC community partnership program coordinator, said the poetry slam has been a positive experience for both inmates and students.

"It gives (the inmates) a sense of reconnection and belonging. It shows them how important their contributions are to the greater local community and reduces their sense of isolation from the 'real world,' "Thietje said. "It's a thread back to life outside, where, of course, most of them will return in the coming years."


Inmates said that poetry allows self-reflection, and a way to find a voice many of them didn't know they had.

Several of them are also members of a writer's group that meets regularly to share literary projects. Some are also members of a theater group that puts on plays and performances.

Milord Gelin, 39, who is serving a sentence for burglary, theft and assault, began writing poetry seven years ago. He finds inspiration for his poems from his memories of Haiti — he immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean country in 2004. His poems are a combination of prayers and song—telling stories of people in his country stricken by poverty and famine and singing about the hope that God will comfort them.

"It's a way to express my mind and see the real me and show the different experience of other cultures and let out what I didn't let out before," Gelin said.

Thomas Mullin-Costin, 36, integrates music into his poetry. He rapped a poem about his fiancé, talking about how his love for her and their family gives him solace while he's behind bars. Mullin-Costin has 13 years remaining on his sentence for first degree murder. He says he often records his poems and songs and sends them to his family to keep bonds alive.

"There's things you can't convey in a poem you can share in a song," Mullin-Costin said. "When I talk to my son on the phone, he's excited and says 'I'm so proud of you and I let all my friends hear it.' It's a way to connect with my family other than the normal way though letters."

Hale, who has 33 years left on his sentence for two murder charges, often uses his poetry to describe what it means to be Native American. He says he is inspired by the work of his late uncle, noted Native American author, poet, and political activist, John Trudell This will take you to another website. Trudell became a spokesperson for American Indian protestors during an occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. His poem, Human Beings, described what it felt like to be discriminated against as a Native American.

"You go into our communities and many of us are fighting to protect our identity as being an Indian," Hale said.

George Bell has been to prison four times since 2002. The 42-year-old's poem, The Status Quo, describes how Bell has tried to break a long intergenerational cycle of incarceration. His poem details how growing up with parents who were involved with drugs and prostitution led Bell to wind up in prison. Bell's serving 15 years on his most recent convictions — for manslaughter and witness tampering. He says writing has helped him understand social circumstances that can fuel crime and what factors may have led him down the criminal path.

"It allows you to escape the world," Bell said. "It allows people to familiarize themselves with the things that led them to come here. It lets them find the problem. If you can't find the problem, then you can't start working on the solution."