Mississippi Prison Writes at Parchman
PARCHMAN – Picture students in a classroom, poring for weeks over the works of Rita Dove, Spoon Jackson, Eudora Welty, Barry Hannah, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes and others.
Later in the semester, 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 students might be from most any writing class at most any college in America, except that their 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 have spent the spring semester under the tutelage of writer and publisher Louis Bourgeois. The program emerged from the mission of his non-profit, Vox Press, to support publishing, performing and preparing efforts to give voice to marginalized artists.
“We realized that some of our greatest writers and artists may very well be housed in Mississippi’s oldest and largest prison, Parchman Farm, and we thought it best to establish classes to help them organize their creative potential,” he said.
The experience of teaching the five-month class hasn’t dampened 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 of the literature and writing experiment.
While many students taking classes at Unit 30 are seeking their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs), this class was designed for a different kind of student. Most hadn’t finished high school, but some had college experience, and all came equipped with a craving to learn.
“We had to find the folks that we thought would be most interested,” Murphree said.
Once the writing portion of the class began, Bourgeois said he realized more clearly how these men 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, and it’s all connected from the way they grew up. There’s a lot of self-awareness in their writing.
“One of the principles in this class I’ve tried to instill is an utter honesty. I told them I would never lie to them, and I would hope for the same to them,” Bourgeois said. “And 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.
One inmate, eager to be included, asked of his longhand scribing, “Could you read my writing?”
Bourgeois answered with a friendly smirk, “The typist managed to decipher your penmanship.”
The last day of class featured participants’ reading aloud excerpts of their memoirs. One narrated his first day in school in the 1960s, where he, a black child, was around white children for the first time, and wondered why most of them avoided him. For good and bad, he said, school opened “a new world that would change me forever.”
Another described a childhood home devoid even of running water, where poverty and hunger and chaos were interrupted only by occasional visits to his grandmother, whose three daily meals and caring countenance seemed almost magical.
At home, he said, “The only thing that seemed to change was the days of the week. Christmas wasn’t anything real to us. That was something that didn’t happen for us.”
Yet another told of leaving his hometown library, at age 9, with an armload of books when a downpour began. A policeman offered him a ride home.
“There would be many more such rides in my life – none of them with so happy an ending,” he mused.
The June 2 graduation from Mississippi Prison Writes was marked with handshakes, certificates and a rare sampling of Coca-Cola and cookies. Bourgeois worried aloud before refreshments were served about where any leftovers might be discarded, prompting one participant to joke, “There shouldn’t be any problem with having to dispose of evidence.”
Mississippi Prison Writes is sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Fedder Foundation, Neil White, Carol Dorsey and the Cox Foundation. Bourgeois said he hopes it proves as valuable in Mississippi as similar programs in other prison systems in giving inmates more self-awareness and self-worth, providing a new direction.
For at least one, the exercise of writing has provided some unexpected restoration.
“It helped me discover a lot about my past,” a participant said. “I’d had a bad car wreck and had lost much of my memory. Writing helped me remember.”