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Friday, December 30, 2016

Exploring Freedom Through Free Verse Arts

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Six weeks after beginning a Free Verse Arts poetry workshop at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, prisoner participants are feeling a renewed sense of hope and inspiration.

Free Verse Arts is a collaboration between the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University, Ingham County Youth Services Center in Lansing, and the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility. It is lead by Project Director and RCAH Academic Specialist in Community and Socially Engaged Arts Guillermo Delgado.

The project provides a space to participants to use arts as a tool for community engagement and to foster positive social change in the prison system and beyond. According to the Free Verse Arts official Facebook page, "our goal is to shine a spotlight on the unseen and unheard." It is an ambitious undertaking that, though on its face some audiences may initially question its purpose, upon closer examination discover is a worthwhile and meaningful endeavor.

Professor Delgado was accompanied by several students from one of his MSU RCAH classes who assisted him with teaching and leading weekly exercises and projects which included learning to compose various styles of poetry, doing art projects, and creating journals an chapbooks. The MSU students were enthusiastically engaged in the workshop the entire time and exuded a positive energy. This helped some of the first-time prisoner participants be more comfortable and not succumb to the fears that threaten to shut them down when expressing themselves through their art and poetry.

Each week workshop participants read their finished poetry in front of the classroom and shared enlightening stories about thir personal growth. Their confidence grew exponentially as they developed new skills and discovered ways to explore their imagination and share it with others. Everyone present encouraged each other during readings and construction of art and poetry. They also fostered an enriching learning environment with helpful comments, finger snaps, and smiles. Laughter reverberated throughout the classroom during some of the entertaining poetry readings.

One prisoner in the workshop named Jaime Lopez Lorza stated, "Being in Free Verse Arts was a very motivating experience. I am grateful to have participated in the project. Professor Delgado and the students did a wonderful job guiding and teaching us steps to expand the creative aspects of our minds."

Lorza added, "The workshop taught me that my creativity is connected to past life experiences. Expressing those experiences not only helps me become a better person through introspection, it helps me also teach others valuable lessons in the process. Professor Delgado is a wonderful and inspiring human being. I am honored to have met him."

A workshop participant myself, it is always a great experience to witness how much prisoners can learn and absorb from art and poetry workshops. I have participated in art and poetry workshops conducted by other universities in the past and had the pleasure of witnessing their enormous impact on prisoner lives. Until I began participating in the workshops I had never created art or poetry, nor was I interested in it. The workshops awakened my creativity in ways previously unimaginable.
The Free Verse Arts workshop was mentally and emotionally liberating. For the two hours the class was held each week prisoners knew they would be in a space that nourished their potential in myriad ways. It was a time that allowed them to transcend the daily experiences of prison life and transform ourselves through the healing power of art and poetry. Unfortunately prisons themselves do not offer arts and poetry workshops. Such programs are made available to prisoners only from citizen volunteers.

Incarceration and isolation evoke painful feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, and loneliness. These things make it very difficult for prisoners to engage with others even in a space designed to help them (e.g., Free Verse Arts workshops). Prisoners often descend into depression as they struggle to resist exploration into the dark caverns of their past they find themselves incessantly trapped in. The fact that the workshops are able to connect with prisoners against this backdrop, and summon their creative genius, is a testament to the efficacy of them empowering people to explore their creativity and imagine a better future.

Professor Delgado recognizes the intrinsic value in others and the importance of the concept of redemption. His genuine interest in offering rehabilitative programs to adult prisoners and incarcerated youth are admirable and deserving of recognition. Though not the central theme of his work, he is creating a safer society by building a bridge between the community and prisons to help incarcerated men and children become better returning citizens.

It takes courage to do the work Professor Delgado and others like him do going through the rigors of entering prisons and youth centers. The same can be said for the students who joined him. They traveled nearly an hour each way to the prison weekly and were subjected to clothed body searches by guards -- a policy all volunteers who enter prisons are required to do. Still, they are sacrifices of time, personal space, and dignity that they chose to endure because they wanted to provide a life-changing opportunity to prisoners seeking to improve their lives.

By the conclusion of the workshop many lessons were learned by everyone involved. Prisoners were reminded that they are not forgotten, they are human beings capable of change, and with a little encouragement and genuine concern they can accomplish constructive things while incarcerated. They also learned that a life of service and kindness to others can reciprocate those actions in return. In other words, we can strengthen the fabric of humanity by projecting positive energy into the world and becoming agents of social change.

MSU students discovered that in the midst of a caged environment isolated from the world there exist people who became entangled in the criminal justice system but possess the capacity to not be defined by it. The students also experienced a semblance of what it can feel like to be deprived of physical freedom and denied privileges and basic enjoyments of life often taken for granted. It is a humbling experience that is certain to impact them for the remainder of their lives.

Prisons and legislators would do well supporting projects like Free Verse Arts that generate substantive results. Our state prison system would benefit greatly by making similar projects available at prisons across the state. These projects are investments in the future that can yield a greater return to the public for a fraction of the cost necessary to operate less effective programs. And, they make the community safer by rehabilitating returning citizens in ways that actually work.

The Residential College of the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University is becoming a leader in prisoner reformation through the programs it currently offers at the Handlon Correctional Facility. In addition to Free Verse Arts they are offering the Story Catcher's Drama Club lead by Dr. Lisa Biggs, as well as the My Brother's Keeper program lead by Program Director Dr. Austin Jackson. (Posts about the latter two programs are forthcoming.)

I want to extend a special thanks to Professor Delgado for bringing Free Verse Arts to the Handlon Correctional Facility and to Ricardo Ferrell for inviting you. I want to also thank all the MSU students who participated. I hope you take the lessons learned and use them to help generate social change throughout the world. To Madeline, the MSU student who assisted prisoner Lorza and myself during the workshop, thanks for the encouragement, support, and best of luck to you as you pursue your career path.

I strongly urge people to support Free Verse Arts and the work being done by Professor Delgado in prisons and youth centers. "Like" the Free Verse Arts Facebook page, share it with others, and encourage people to learn more about the project.