Jim Reese was one of five artists-in-residence throughout the country who were part of the Arts Endowment’s interagency initiative with Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons from 2007-2021. 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 featured 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—Jim Reese’s introduction to the 10 Year Anniversary Issue of 4PM Count
“You’ve been teaching at the prison for ten years already? Man, time flies.” This is an expression I hear from close friends and associates, and I’d like to believe time does fly for my students in the creative writing class at the prison—that it’s given them a purpose and something to look forward to. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life helping men, through writing, come to terms with why they are in prison.
Did you know around seventy million Americans have some sort of criminal record? That’s almost one in three Americans of working age (White House). Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated are getting out of prison (Bureau of Justice). “Do you want them educated or not?” That’s what our former warden, Jordan R. Hollingsworth, used to ask. “These guys are coming to a neighborhood near you. Do you want them educated or not?” He taught us to prepare men to be better people.
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.
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.
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 guys’ 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.
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.” 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 who are in that same boat. My students at the prison can do their time productively and walk out richer for the show.
This year I asked my students to answer this question: What’s the purpose of this class? Here’s what they had to say.
“In prison there is typically little to look forward to
other than the day you are released. However, over the past
two years I have found myself looking forward to Tuesday
afternoons. That is when I report to Dr. Jim Reese’s Writing
for Transformative Justice class at Yankton Federal Prison
Camp. It is here that I am able to spend time searching
myself and my life and expressing what I discover in both
poetry and prose.
“Being in my early sixties, I feel that I have experienced a
lot in life. It appears that I have found that voice that wants
to tell my stories and I can’t seem to stop it from speaking
to me. The guest speakers add to Dr. Reese’s expertise and
bring more real-world experiences to my writing. I also have
found a sense of pride, which is sometimes hard to come
by right now, in having things I have written published in
our journal titled 4 P.M. Count. Being able to express myself
through writing has been such a blessing for me and I am
grateful for this opportunity.” – Frank Constant
“Dr. Reese’s creative writing class provides me with: a
channel for my pent-up energy, a productive and proactive
use of my time, an avenue for bringing my experiences out
of the dark and into the light as printed text, an opportunity
to develop my writing skills, and a way to cultivate my
potential to communicate with people. Additionally, the
class offers an opportunity to interact with professional
writers and realize that regular people can become noted
authors and produce best-selling books. The time and
effort of both Dr. Reese of Mount Marty College and Mr.
Roberson of the Yankton Federal Prison Camp Education
Department were well spent guiding participants of the
creative writing class towards enhancing their knowledge
of writing. This was not only a learning experience that
made me feel like a better person, it was a step towards
rehabilitation.” – Mike Murphy
“To me, the purpose of this class was expression. By
having us share our personal stories on a level that allows
us to be vulnerable, open, and honest in hope of inspiring
others to share of themselves is a big risk in a prison setting;
but sometimes it is necessary for change. Hopefully this
class makes a major difference in someone else’s life by
letting us take off our masks to show others that we also
have ugly scars that we carry around. Creative writing
uncovers wounds that need air to breathe so they can heal.
Additionally, I hope that this project shows that we are all
the same despite our differences of race, religion, wealth,
and social status, and that if we work together we can all
make this world a better place.” – Marquise Bowie
“The purpose of the Creative Writing class is to teach
inmates how to escape from prison; even if it is only to the
inside of our own minds.” – Jon Sloan
“This class was very beneficial and it helped me step
outside of myself to explore and learn better writing
techniques. Since I look forward to being a professional
writer, this class allowed me to reach deeper than the
surface by talking, questioning, and learning from those
who are already established as writers. This class allowed
me to dig deeper and face myself; this allowed the truth to
flow. I would say that I feel this class was more than a simple
opportunity; it enabled me to experience what I feel is my
purpose on a level outside of dreaming.” – Micah Morgan
“The creative Writing class offered me the opportunity
to practice and improve on my writing skills. I was able
to express my thoughts, emotions, and parts of my life
story, so I could reflect on past mistakes and come to terms
with them. I forgave myself for my blunders and now aim
to practice beneficial behaviors daily for constant self-
improvement. Class interactions with Professor Reese and
fellow classmates, along with visits and video conferences
with writing professionals, presented a valuable exchange of
knowledge that benefitted everybody involved.” – Binh Vo
“My purpose for participating in the Creative Writing
program has been to learn how to share myself through
my writing. I have become deeply engaged with my own
emotions and the cathartic process that prison fuels by
participating in the many writing prompts and exercises
presented. I believe that my developing writing and
communication skills will help lead me to a full and
excellent life.” – Edward Allen
“The purpose of this class is to assist incarcerated
individuals in clear communication. Additionally, many
class participants may discover that they have a skill or
interest in writing. Furthermore, the more people use their
minds to write, the more they seem to read. As people read
they become more educated and creative, therefore they will
likely decrease their chance of returning to prison.”
– Donald Hynes
We have uploaded the last few issues of the journal online. To read the 2014, 2015, 2016, or 2017 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 is the Federal Bureau of Prisons publication of Making Changes. This publication highlights programs, events, inmate reentry stories, and more to showcase 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 ten 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 people are 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.
Jim Reese, Ph.D.
Federal Prison Camp Yankton, 2017
Bureau of Justice Statistics “Reentry Trends in the U.S.”
“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP, National Associationfor the Advancement of Colored People, donate.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.
Ingraham, Christopher. “The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here’s a map of where those prisoners live”
Office of the Press Secretary. “FACT SHEET: White House Launches the Fair Chance Business Pledge.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/04/11/fact-sheet-white-house-launches-fair-chance-business-pledge