Jim Reese is one of five artists-in-residence throughout the country who are part of the Arts Endowment’s interagency initiative with Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons. Here he established Yankton Federal Prison Camp’s first creative writing workshop and publishing course, editing a yearly (perfect bound) journal, 4 P.M. Count, which features creative writing and visual artwork by inmates.
4 P.M. Count isn't for sale but is provided free to individuals for educational purposes. Interested parties can use the Contact Form to obtain a copy.
WRITING FOR TRANSFORMATIVE JUSTICE AND HEALING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE FENCE
An Introduction by Dr. Jim Reese
Right now, there are approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars. The United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, and twenty-five percent of its inmates. Each year, more than 600,000 inmates are released from federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million individuals cycle through local jails. Around seventy million Americans have some sort of criminal record— almost one in three Americans of working age (White House).
From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every thirty-one adults, or more than three percent of the population is under some form of correctional control (NAACP).
There are 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities and 3,200 local and county jails. To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S.—5,000 plus—than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses (Ingraham).
WHY SHOULD WE CARE? Chances are really high that crime has affected you, your family or your extended family in some capacity. As a taxpayer, I know I don’t want to pay money just to lock someone up. I would hope incarceration is teaching these men something. Is just locking someone up doing that? Statistics say no. Statistics say two-thirds of men will reoffend within three years, unless they receive some education and/or vocational training. If those services are utilized recidivism rates go down.
I think it’s crucial to mention a 2013 RAND Corporation report that found strong evidence that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism: The study concluded that every dollar spent on prison education translated into four to five dollars worth of savings during the first three years, post-release. The article states:
Prison inmates who receive general education and vocational training are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities, according to a new RAND Corporation report.
The findings, from the largest-ever meta-analysis of correctional educational studies, suggest that prison education programs are cost effective, with a $1 investment in prison education reducing incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years post-release.
‘We found strong evidence that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism,” said Lois Davis, the project’s lead researcher and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Our findings are clear that providing inmates education programs and vocational training helps keep them from returning to prison and improves their future job prospects.’
Researchers found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not. The estimate is based on studies that carefully account for motivation and other differences between correctional education recipients and non-recipients.
Writing for Transformative Justice helps amend lives on both sides of the fence. As we know, a crime doesn’t just affect the perpetrator and victim. It affects families and communities. Scholars define Transformative Justice as a general philosophical strategy for responding to conflicts. Writing for Transformative Justice includes accountability, knocking that crow off one’s shoulder and writing the truth. It’s an act of coming to terms with the burden that a person carries with him or her. It’s a means of healing and a restorative response to conflict and crime.
“I would add that it’s a strategy to allow inmates to reflect inward about how their actions have affected others. It’s a partnership between the student writers and the program facilitator [Dr. Reese]. Students open up and accept instruction in reflective writing that allows each of them to make positive changes to their lives and perspectives,” says Kyle Roberson, FPC Yankton Supervisor of Education.
For the past nine years I have been one of six artists-in-residence throughout the country who are part of the National Endowment for the Arts interagency initiative with the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons. Through the FPC Yankton Writer-In-Residence program that lasts for nine months and currently has sixteen inmates participating, I teach inmates to communicate through writing, using this theory of Transformative Justice.
“This program has helped in [my] healing process,” said inmate Bowie, who added, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to share part of (my) personal story in hopes that others can learn from (my) mistakes.”
You can lock a person up and let him out after so long. Maybe during his incarceration you teach him a trade—that’s great. What you also have to do is help him tap into the emotional instabilities that brought him to prison in the first place. Writing, art, and more importantly, education in corrections, helps open that door. If a person never comes to terms with himself, one more angry person will be released back into society.
This has been the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve ever had. It’s made me a better professor. It’s made me a better person. I really feel I am making a difference in these guy’s life—or helping make a difference. My students at Mount Marty College, where I am an Associate Professor, benefit, too. My creative writing classes work together at both locations to workshop their creative writing. MMC students visit the prison once a semester to see what an education program looks like in corrections and to work with other creative writers. They get feedback and opinions on their work from inmate students who take their classes very seriously. Everyone benefits—and he or she is learning a lot more than just how to make his or her creative writing better. There’s a large empathy factor that comes into play for all the students participating. All of the students take this experience with them for their future endeavors. One can read about these interactions in this year’s journal and also view a few pictures of them reading their work together at Mount Marty College’s Great Plains Writers’ Tour event.
Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain said and wrote a lot of great things and I’m glad this particular quote was brought to my attention because I really feel like what I’m doing at the prison is what I have been called to do. I’m human, I’ve made some mistakes in my life. I wish I could take them back, but I can’t. There are a lot of guys at the prison that are in that same boat. Heck, we’ve all made mistakes. My students at the prison can do their time productively and walk out richer for the show.
This year I asked my students to write a sentence or two about how the class has affected them. This is what they had to say.
The creative writing program at Yankton FPC has helped me come to terms with a lot of issues dealing with my past. It has given me a chance to better my writing skills and helped me strengthen my familial relationships. This class truly helps heal the damages caused over the years by reflecting and writing about the emotional demons inside us all.
The creative writing class has help me to unlock a bottle of stories, events, and emotions that have shaped my life. I’ve learned to communicate these via the written word in ways that I believe have impacted the reader. That makes me feel productive and gives me a greater sense of purpose.
The creative writing class at FPC Yankton gave me the chance to tell my story, to put my life in perspective, and to chart my future.
The creative writing class has been a blessing to me. In the past I have struggled with the rigors of this world. Through my newfound interest in writing, I have found a positive outlet to deal with the emotional, physical, and spiritual issues that I encounter each day.
Dr. Reese’s creative writing class at FPC Yankton has been a source of therapy for me. Through writing, I’ve been able to open my soul to a river of emotions which have obviously flooded, overwhelmed, and guided my past behaviors. Before this class I have never been able to touch on many of the feelings I have placed on paper. I will forever remember the beginning of my healing process.
For me, the program has been beneficial in a great many ways. Primarily, however, it has allowed me to open up. I have always been a private person who hid his dreams deep inside. The opportunity to write about some of the experiences that brought me to prison in a safe environment has allowed me to finally leave them behind.
This creative writing program has given me the excuse I have needed to write. I have always wanted to write but never actually pursued my dream of being a writer. Taking this course has made me put the words on the page and has opened my eyes to all the possibilities that words can reveal within me.
I spent two terms in the creative writing course. Our time in prison has been greatly enhanced by this freedom of expression. You’re able to hurt, heal, rest, and renew your self-esteem while challenging the future and challenging yourself to be better than the past. I recommend this course as a form of therapy for the soul. Well, at least that’s been my personal experience. Take the class.
The creative writing class is a good class to take, because it allows you to challenge yourself to write things you normally wouldn’t write. It allows you to be around others who enjoy writing to where you can get a better understanding of other types of people. Some of the different videos Dr. Reese shows are very interesting, informative, and I learned a lot of new things that I can take with me once I’m through with the class.
Dr. Reese and his tutelage of the creative writing class has been a wonderful experience. Dr. Reese has helped me as an individual look back into my past and be proud of my accomplishments and path through life. Having communication skills is paramount to becoming successful in life and being a productive part of society. Dr. Reese has inspired me to get the “crow off my shoulder” and to open up and write thoughts down on paper. Hope to take the class again if offered. Also I enjoy being in the midst of articulate people.
The ability to express oneself in writing is uniquely human. This class helps one find and explore those expressions.
This year we were able to upload the last few issues of the journal online. To read the 2014, 2015, or 2016 issue of 4 P.M. Count please visit: www.issuu.com and type in “4 P.M. Count” in their search engine (issuu is the largest collection of free-to-read publications from publishers around the globe).
Another book of interest that featured our program this year was the Federal Bureau of Prisons publication of Making Changes. This publication highlights programs, events, inmate reentry stories, and more to showcase the various ways the Bureau supports inmates in making a successful transition to the community. To download and read this visit: https://www.bop.gov/resources/publications.jsp
I am honored and grateful for being the National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence at FPC Yankton for the past nine years. I believe all people want to do the right thing—to live healthy, productive lives—to give to their communities, even if they’ve failed at such endeavors before. If given a chance to learn, lives can change. All of us make misdirected decisions, but that shouldn’t restrict anyone from the right to an education, or a right to a second chance.
Dr. Jim Reese
Federal Prison Camp Yankton, 2016
4 P.M. Count intro from 2012:
An Introduction by Dr. Jim Reese
The United States is the world-wide leader in incarceration—2.2 million and growing.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2,266,800 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2010. Additionally, 4,933,667 adults at year-end 2009 were on probation or on parole. In total, 7,225,800 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009.
In a recent Yankton Press and Dakotan article “Prison Group Eyes Rising Numbers” (August 28, 2012) The South Dakota prison population has grown more than 500 percent since 1980, from about 600 inmates then to more than 3,600 today. If the state does not contain that growth, it is estimated the prison population will exceed 4,500 inmates by 2022, at a cost of more than $224 million to taxpayers.
According to “The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism by John H. Esperian in the December 2010 issue of The Journal of Correctional Education 61(4):
Statistics support the claim/hypothesis that educating prisoners contributes significantly to reducing recidivism. [General numbers provided by research suggest 50% to 70% re-incarceration within three years. ("Congressional Leaders" 1 ; Education Newsletter ll 2)|
a.) Three state recidivism studies made in 1997 by Steurer, Smith, and Tracy, conducted in Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio involved 3600 men and women inmates released from prison at least three years. The study showed that male and female offenders who participated in education programs while in prison reduced re-incarceration by 29%. ('Recidivism Rates" 3,4)
b.) A 2007 study of incarcerated mothers in Colorado found that recidivism rates of women who participated in vocational programs had a recidivism rate of 8.75%, those who completed their GED, 6.71%, and those who participated in neither a vocational or academic program, 26%. ('Recidivism Rates" 5)
c.) Another study in 2002 surveyed research in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Results indicated that educational programs cut recidivism from 49% to 20%. ("Recidivism Rates" 6)
d.) 'National studies show,' write Keys and Jackson, 'that college classes cut recidivism by 30% or more. That would make a good investment for state taxpayers."
e.) A West Virginia study (1999-2000) found dramatic outcomes. Records of 320 adult male inmates discharged in 1973 were followed. At the end of four years, there were 76 recidivists; 55 had not participated in an educational program, only 7 had completed a GED program, and four were college level participants. (Cordon and Weldon 202)
f.) According to the National Correctional Association, in a 2009 report, inmates who earn an AA/AS are 70% less likely to recidivate than those who do not complete a program, a GED, 25% less likely to recidivate, and those who earn a vocational certificate, 14.6% less likely to recidivate. (Education Newsletter 1 n.pag)
g.) A recent U S Department of Justice report says that 'Prison-based education is the single most effective tool for lowering recidivism. According to the national Institute of Justice Report to the U S Congress, prison education is far more effective at reducing recidivism than boot camps, shock incarceration or vocational training." The report goes on to say that 'Other studies sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Prisons find that...the more educational programs successfully completed for each six months confirmed, the lower the recidivism rates. The exact figures indicating these inverse recidivism rates for degree recipients were: Associates (13.7%), Baccalaureates (5.6%), Masters (0%). (Education Newsletter II 3)
At the conclusion of this article Esperian notes:
Undoubtedly, some individuals-murderers, rapists, child molesters-are either unwilling or unable to live and work as honest, hard-working brokers within the framework of society. These dangerous anti-social cases need to be kept in confinement permanently for the safety of the community. As Jeffrey Rosen and Stephen Richards point out, however, in 'Beyond Bars', more than 600,000 men and women are released from prison each year. The significance of these numbers is compounded by the fact that the U S represents 5% of the world's population and nearly 25% of the world's prison population (Rosen 38). Common sense would suggest that it is in society's best interest to do whatever it can to prepare released felons to function successfully in the outside world.
Fortunately, the numbers of those beyond rehabilitation are comparatively small, and most criminals, there is reason to believe, can turn from crime and live a productive, law-abiding life. Unfortunately, there is no litmus test to determine which individuals have the potential to change or to recidivate. And that, it would seem, is the primary reason that the opportunity must be extended to all incarcerated felons. For, as the research suggests, an education is the cornerstone to a structured life of work and learning-for former felons especially. 'In a country,' writes Vivian Nixon, 'where second chances and opportunity are professed values, democratic access to high-quality higher education must include access for people in prison. We cannot bar the most vulnerable people from the very thing that has the greatest potential to change their lives' (qtd in Brazzell et al 41).
As a professor at Yankton Federal Prison Camp, I’ve learned to open my eyes to this world. As a teacher, you have to. For the past five years I have read as much as I could on arts in corrections, have made trips to San Quentin and Folsom to see how art and writing programs work in maximum security prisons. I have asked a lot of questions. And you know, teaching at the prison, work-shopping and training at San Quentin, this is all much bigger than one person, one course. Those of us that teach within the prison system believe in the greater goal. Education is key to turning our justice system around. The United States is the worldwide leader in incarceration. We have to re-evaluate what we want to do here.
You can lock a person up and let them out after so long. Maybe during their incarceration you teach them a trade—that’s great. What you also have to do is help them tap into the emotional instabilities that brought them to prison in the first place. Writing, art, and more importantly, education in corrections, helps open that door. If a person never comes to terms with themselves, you are just going to send an angry person right back out into society.
We publish 4PM Count once year here at Yankton Federal Prison Camp. I tell my students, forget all those grammar rules. We’ll learn some of them soon enough. What is brewing inside you? Let that voice out—let it ride. Forget about all the rest. This is a hardcore writing process. These guys all want to be published, but they have to earn it. They have to create something that really matters, something from the heart.
I bring in guest writers from throughout the country. The students write letters to the authors after they visit, and then the authors respond with a letter back to the whole class, which you can read here. Guest writers understand the power of voice—understand how powerful words can be, how voice can help.
Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” He was right on there.
I am honored and grateful for being the National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence here for the past five years. I’ve come to understand what the word empathy really means. I believe all people want to do the right thing—to live healthy, productive lives—to give to their communities, even if they’ve failed such endeavors before. All of us make misdirected decisions in our lives, but that shouldn’t restrict anyone from the right to an education, or a right to second chance. I do hope these educational programs continue throughout the country. Enjoy the book.
Dr. Jim Reese
National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence
Yankton Federal Prison Camp
Yankton, South Dakota