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More than rhyme schemes

Poetic Justice gives incarcerated women a voice

Geneva phillips, poet and poetic justice participant

Checking everyone in to a Poetic Justice workshop takes fifteen minutes. The events are held in correctional facilities, so making sure everyone is accounted for is crucial.

Then, there’s an icebreaker. What is one thing people need to know about you? How has writing changed your life? What’s your favorite comfort food? The women take turns answering the question. After that, they do three or four rounds of breathing exercises. Breathe in for four counts, hold for seven, breathe out for eight.

“And then it really calms down,” said Ellen Stackable, the executive director of Poetic Justice, a nonprofit that sends volunteers into prisons and jails across the state to teach imprisoned women to write poetry.

Classes are two hours long. It’s a writing workshop, but Hanna Al-Jibouri—a Poetic Justice chairwoman—says that only about fifteen or twenty minutes are spent on writing.

“We have to build trust with them,” Al-Jibouri said. “We have to make sure they know that we’re intentional with every single move we make. It’s so much more than a writing workshop.”

So, what is it? The women throw out a lot of phrases: therapeutic writing, restorative writing, creative writing, storytelling. “It’s hard to land on one thing, because I don’t feel like any one of them encompass what we’re trying to do,” Al-Jibouri said.

“We do what we do under the guise of poetry,” Stackable said. “But it’s more about therapeutic work. It’s the affirmation of you as a human being. Looking at you in the eyes. Treating you as an individual. We let them make the rules. They hold each other accountable, and that’s empowering.”

What she means is: They’re teaching more than rhyme schemes.

“What I love about it, for these women, is that it also means they can find confidence in their voice,” Stackable said. “Cloaking it in poetry means they have freedom to write from their heart to the paper. There are more stories to be told than just looking at a rap sheet and what the news reported about them.”

Stackable closes her eyes and smiles when she listens, as though each syllable she hears could be some vital piece of verse. And for the women she serves across the state, every syllable is that important.

“There’s always another story,” she said.

And it’s quite a story. Oklahoma incarcerates 151 out of every 100,000 women—a rate doubling the national average. And while 151 out of 100,000 may seem like a drop in the bucket, consider that states like California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota incarcerate fewer than 30 out of every 100,000 women.

According to Dr. Susan Sharp, the David Ross Boyd Professor of Sociology Emerita at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rate is due to a number of policies. Most notable, she said, are Oklahoma’s low use of probation (Oklahoma is one of the few states to have more people incarcerated than on probation or parole, according to the latest data available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) and inadequate mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

“The number one offense is drug possession. The number two offense is drug delivery. Low-level property crimes are also responsible for quite a few admissions. In other words, we are not incarcerating that many dangerous women. We are incarcerating women who are poor and who are addicted.”

Many of the women in Poetic Justice have higher-than-average scores on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) quiz, a set of ten questions about childhood events—things like, Were you ever hit? Did your parents ever separate? Did anyone in your house ever abuse alcohol or drugs? Did anyone in your house ever attempt suicide?—that occurred before the age of 18. At the end of the test, your number indicates how adverse (difficult or harmful, essentially) your childhood was.

My score is 1. The national average is 1.6. But 75 percent of the women who go through the Poetic Justice program while incarcerated have ACE scores above 4. The score that occurs most frequently among Poetic Justice participants is a staggering 8, only 2 points away from the full score of 10.

Dr. Chan Hellman, the director of the Hope Research Center at OU-Tulsa, compiled this data for Poetic Justice. He pointed me toward a few statistics from Bessel van der Kolk (author of “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”): Going from an ACE score of zero to a score of six, the likelihood of someone attempting suicide increases by 5,000 percent. People with scores of four are seven times more likely to be alcoholics than those with scores of zero. When someone has a score of six or more, they are 4,600 percent more likely to use IV drugs. This narrative suggests that childhood trauma is as responsible—if not more responsible—for incarceration risks than individual factors.

Hellman studies hope and researches how social service agencies can provide individuals with the ability to hope.

“What we know from the data is that having a coping resource like Poetic Justice buffers the negative effects of adversity and stress, predicts positive outcomes, and can be learned and sustained,” Hellman said.

In Hellman’s research, these same benefits (buffering the negativity of adversity and stress and predicting positive outcomes) come from hope, which he suggests Poetic Justice helps create.

According to Stackable and Al-Jibouri, Poetic Justice participants have higher-than-average scores in hope after they’ve gone through the program: higher, even, than the average unincarcerated population. That’s surprising, considering how few of them will see freedom again in their lives. Poetry, it seems, brings hope, even in prison.

“Oklahoma is unique in a lot of ways for women,” said Dr. Lisa Lewis, a poet and professor at Oklahoma State University, “and none of them are good.”

Poetry is always concerned with justice, she said, because it refines and changes our ability to perceive and imagine people.

“Poetry is anti-cliché, and injustice thrives on clichéd assumptions and language,” Lewis said. “Poetry means to look past surfaces into the center of things. That’s very similar to what [Percy Bysshe] Shelley was talking about when he said that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ though [right now] the lack of acknowledgement is even harder to overlook.”

While Oklahoma locks up its women at alarming rates, Stackable and Al-Jibouri believe we can’t sit back and hope for the best. Besides hindering their own lives, many of these imprisoned women have children, and, according to Dr. Sharp, those children experience trauma due to separation. It’s not just that a woman is serving seven years—it’s that a child spends that time without their mother.

“When I’ve looked at the women in Poetic Justice,” said Stackable, “I’d say that maybe twice in four years [I have] had the thought, ‘This person should not ever be out.’ A lot of the women I meet would be tremendous assets to our state.”

“I am an inmate,” Angelina wrote in one poem. “My number is 67812, / The number of a single mistake / And one I must wear for life.” She describes how she lost all five children to the system. “I write to my pain, my children, my past. I write for change.”

Wanda wrote a love/hate poem to meth: “And then getting high became a job and not an adventure. And by the way, you were a sucky boss. The fringe benefits were shit and this is a fucked up vacation plan.”

“I have never known a safe place,” wrote China, “my entire life.”

Poetic Justice is working towards solutions. One goal is to screen their documentary, “Grey Matter,” in all 77 Oklahoma counties before the November elections. The film, produced by Scissortail Media, reveals the human side of harsh and discriminating sentencing practices. They’ll be showing the film at OSU-Stillwater on April 6 and will hold an event with Oklahoma Poet Laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish at OSU-Tulsa on April 21, during Tulsa LitFest.

Shame (in all my places)

By Geneva Phillips

Childhood should be happy
And love should not hurt
I know of these things
But I do not know about these things

Words are weapons
They cut you in pieces
No one will ever see
Places that scar
Places that never really
Heal all the way

Indifference is a glacier miles thick
It is insurmountable
You are encased in it
Ever alone

Darkness is a place
Where things happen
That no one seems to remember
Except you
It is a place of silences and secrets
Where you are always
Small and weak

And I know that once the words have stopped
Once the indifference has faded
And the darkness receded to a distant shadow
That can no longer hurt you
But never goes away
That the one thing I have left is shame

I have shame on my fingertips
I smear it on the glass
I have shame in my ears
Where it echoes of the past
I have shame on my tongue
In every word I speak
I have shame on my mind
In every thought I think
I have shame in my eyes
It colors all I see
There stands shame in the mirror
Staring back at me
It is in all my places
And when I look at other people
I find it reflected in their faces

This is what I know
Childhood should be happy
And love should not hurt.


By Geneva Phillips

Hope is the shining thread that binds me to life
It is the knitted ribbon that I wind
Through the breath of my prayers
Hope is an impregnable shelter
Against dark, crushing moments.

Hope is the drum that turns the earth
A deep steady rhythm
Each newborn recognizes
As a heartbeat

Hope is the power to rectify wrongs
Hope refuses to be silenced
It is hope that gets up one more time
Hope offers help.
A hand,
A hug.

Hope builds bridges between colors,
Ideas and dreams.
Hope honors, encourages and applauds
Every effort towards goodness.
It comforts failures and always
ALWAYS tries again.
Hope is an anchor
It is the keystone upon which all things hinge
Hope is the center that holds when all else fails.

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