Author: Emily Gao
10,000 minors are locked up in adult prisons and jails on any given day, according to The Atlantic. Numerous barriers to re-entry, such as limited rehabilitative programming in prisons and societal biases, have created a recidivism crisis across the nation in which 50 to 80 percent of formerly incarcerated juveniles will have repeated contact with the criminal justice systems within a few years of release. InsideOut Writers (IOW) aims to reduce the recidivism rate by using creative writing and artistic expression as a catalyst for person transformation, encouraging currently and previously incarcerated youth and young adults to channel their adversity into prose and poetry — empowering them with the skills they need to successfully re-enter their communities.
The Office of Community Engagement (OCE) has partnered with IOW for several years to help facilitate creative writing workshops at IOW’s headquarters in East Hollywood two Thursdays of every month, though IOW welcomes Occidental students every week. In addition to these workshops, Occidental students host an InsideOut Writers Open Mic on campus at least once a semester, to give IOW a chance to meet and collaborate with a larger group of Occidental students, as well as to push Occidental students to break down misconceptions about those who have been incarcerated.
The most recent open mic took place in Pauley Hall’s MLK Lounge last Thursday. The co-leaders of the collaboration are Anisha Banerjee (junior) and Emma-Cecilia Shahriar (sophomore). This event in particular was also assisted by Shawn Cremer* (sophomore), Oren Torten (junior), Soumya Kandukuri (junior), Dana Rust (senior), Wellesley Daniels* (junior) and Assistant Dean for Community Engagement Ella Turrene.
The student organizers split the night into two parts: From 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., Occidental students and IOW members sectioned off into smaller circles to get to know each other more intimately in a communal writing workshop. For this exercise, one person would write a line of poetry on a piece of paper and then pass it to their right for the next person to continue. With each move, the paper was folded so the writer could only see the line immediately before.
“The end product is a poem for each person, compiled of everyone’s contributions, truly collaborative works. It’s a great bonding experience,” Banjeree said via email. “And the poems usually turn out really cool and sometimes quite profound, just by coincidence.”
After the last person completed their group’s poems, volunteers took to the middle of the room — intentionally positioned in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote painted on the wall, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” — to read them aloud. Fairy lights wrapped around the room, surrounding the audience and acting as a makeshift stage.
Writers were given 10–15 minutes to craft new or add to older pieces, centered loosely around the theme of community, before the open mic officially began. The first performer was an IOW member who dedicated her piece to her daughter, reminding her to “keep her heads in those books” and that “you don’t have to lie on your back to get what you deserve.” Margaux Ziss (sophomore) used jellyfish as a metaphor in her poetry to talk about asexuality. Candace, an IOW alumna, opened her piece with a moment of silence for her grandmother, the subject of her spoken word. Later, exchange student Euella Jackson read her piece “Sticks and Stones” about the hardships of love.
Multiple performers from IOW expressed how the organization had been therapeutic and empowering for them. One performer named Ramon had been a part of the program since he was 13 while he was facing a life sentence in Los Angeles County jail. His piece entitled “Losing My Vision” highlighted the new sense of hope and purpose writing gave him. A recurring theme in the poems from IOW participants was a desire to establish themselves as more than the convicts that the public sees them as: as artists, as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and, more than anything else, human beings.
The collaboration between IOW and Occidental provides a unique opportunity for two seemingly different and isolated groups to engage with and be inspired by one another, ultimately reminding participants that they aren’t so different after all.
“Each group inspires the other and it brings us all together in a way we couldn’t be before as we share our most intimate, heartbreaking, and uplifting stories or memories with each other,” Banerjee said via email. “This is too cheesy but it feels like a true meeting of minds and hearts because the information shared is so personal and moving,”
Students also appreciated the opportunity to better understand and break down misconceptions about those who have been incarcerated. Dire Ezah (first year) was eager to attend the event and was inspired by the talent showcased during the open mic night.
“I thought that it was refreshing to get different perspectives and different styles of poetry, seeing as many of the people from the community were expected-convicts, and so we heard powerful stories and first hand accounts of hardship,” Ezah said via email. “It was moving to witness.”
*Cremer and Daniels work for the Oxy Weekly.
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