PARCHMAN – Picture students in a classroom, poring for weeks over Spoon Jackson, Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes and others.
Later, armed with new perspectives from such masters, the students create their own words, mining their own experiences and feelings for nuggets of insight and truth.
The class might be at most any college in America, except students’ clothing signifies not school pride but security status, and their campus is surrounded by razor wire.
This is “Mississippi Prison Writes.” This is Parchman Penitentiary.
About a dozen inmates spent the spring semester under the tutelage of writer and publisher Louis Bourgeois. The program emerged from the mission of the nonprofit he heads, Vox Press, to support efforts to give voice to marginalized artists.
“Some of our greatest writers and artists may very well be housed in Mississippi’s oldest and largest prison, Parchman Farm,” he said at a June 2 graduation ceremony.
Teaching the five-month class has done nothing to dampen that outlook.
“Their awareness was heightened by the exercise of writing, because none of them had ever written before … in this particular way,” Bourgeois said.
Nathaniel Murphree works with the Adult Basic Education program at Parchman and has been a liaison with the Mississippi Prison Writes program.
“This is the first time we’ve done this,” he said. While many students are seeking general equivalency diplomas (GEDs), this class was designed for a different kind of student. From high school dropouts to those with college experience, all came equipped with a craving to learn.
“We had to find the folks that we thought would be most interested,” Murphree said.
Bourgeois said students’ writings helped him see more clearly how they ended up in prison.
“They came up with some fairly rich accounts about their mostly impoverished childhoods,” he said. “You’re seeing how they eventually got into trouble … from the way they grew up. There’s a lot of self-awareness in their writing.
“There seems to have been a brutal honesty.”
Selected writings from the class are aimed for publication as a limited-release volume, “In Our Own Words,” by Vox Press.
On the last day of class, students read excerpts from their memoirs. One black man related his first day in school in the 1960s, where he was around white children for the first time and wondered why many avoided him. For good and bad, he said, school opened “a new world that would change me forever.”
Another described a childhood home where poverty and hunger and chaos were interrupted only by occasional visits to his grandmother, whose cooking and compassion seemed almost magical.
At home, he said, “The only thing that seemed to change was the days of the week. Christmas … was something that didn’t happen for us.”
One inmate recalled catching a ride with a policeman at age 9, when a downpour threatened his armload of library books.
“There would be many more such rides in my life – none of them with so happy an ending,” he mused.
Mississippi Prison Writes is sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Fedder Foundation, Neil White, Carol Dorsey and the Cox Foundation.