Behind a door that said Re-Entry Betterment, 18 men in identical blue uniforms sat behind desks in a large circle. They attentively listened to George as he stood and read his poem:
“Just because I am in prison doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. Just because I was not raised by my parents doesn’t mean I was not raised properly.”
After George finished, the critique began. A man nicknamed Wiz was the first to offer feedback: “It was very personalized, which made it easier for you to express yourself. I think you are on the right track.”
Throughout the creative writing class at Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead, the men — several with life sentences —supported each other’s written words, shared personal information and even laughed together.
“This is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” said the teacher, journalist Kathie Klarreich.
She first taught in prisons in 2009, and last year founded the Miami-based nonprofit, Exchange for Change. The organization began by teaching one class inside a men’s prison. It has grown to 11 free classes that serve more than 200 people at three state prisons, two re-entry centers and a PACE Center for Girls.
Give Miami Day, an annual 24-hour online giving event, provided the seed money. The University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, Ransom Everglades School, Miami Dade College, PACE and O, Miami became partners.
In some classes, Exchange for Change pairs a prison with a college or high school. The “inside” and “outside” students exchange writing under pseudonyms. Exchange for Change also offers poetry workshops and other writing classes. This month, a pilot program began providing inmates with a private 30-minute tutoring session with a professor from the University of Miami’s Writing Center.
“Our volunteer programs are our salvation,” said Lori Norwood, assistant warden of programs at Dade Correctional Institution. “Over time, as our budgets have been reduced, if it were not for the volunteer groups that have come in and provided these kinds of services, there would be that many more inmates sitting around doing nothing.”
Exchange for Change’s motto is “Writing That Transforms.” Its website www.exchange-for-change.org states that 66 percent of inmates are rearrested within three years of their release and 76.6 percent are rearrested within five years. Studies, including one conducted in 2004 by UCLA School of Public Policy and Research, have found that prison education and writing programs have helped to reverse that trend.
“Inmates who finish the class have a more positive attitude and seem more self-confident,” Norwood said. “Anytime you have inmates out there being a good influence on the others or providing good examples to others is always a good thing.”
That’s true for those serving life, too.
“Many of our lifers are facilitators for other programs that we have,” Norwood said. “. . . And it is especially good for inmates who are young when they came to prison and have unfortunately grown up in prison. They gain insight into their character with programs like this, and it kind of brings them some peace.”
Dade Correctional Institution, located in a rural section of Homestead, houses more than 1,400 adult male inmates. The men in Klarreich’s class were there voluntarily.
After she introduced herself, they clapped. And when she talked, they listened.
Klarreich has a lot to offer them. She has more than two decades of experience as a journalist, working in print, radio and television for outlets that include Time, The New York Times, ABC and National Public Radio. She spent 12 years reporting in Haiti, and after the devastating earthquake there in 2010, received a Knight International Journalism Fellowship to train journalists in investigative reporting in that country.
Klarreich, who is unpaid like most of those involved with the nonprofit, said the inmates and others served by the organization have a lot to offer.
“It’s very hard to feel like you have an impact in the world,” she said. “But when you go into a classroom, especially one inside a prison, and you see this incredible thirst for knowledge by those people who choose to make the most of a bad situation, of which they created, it’s personal satisfaction.”
The classes become more personal the more the students get to know each other. There’s crying. There’s laughing. “Sometimes the jokes lead to tears rolling down cheeks,” Klarreich said. “There’s lots of prison humor. One time I asked for everyone to sign releases. ‘This is a release?’ one person said. ‘Give it to me. Give it to me.’ ”
Exchange for Change’s secretary, Joshua Schriftman, a full-time lecturer in UM’s Department of English, has taught a prison class: “It’s a teacher’s dream to be there. Students at UM are mostly going to college because it’s the thing to do and don’t particularly want to be there. The guys in the classroom on the inside see it as great opportunity and are so grateful for it.”
Education levels in the class vary greatly. One man asked Klarreich: “What’s a verb?”
Klarreich told the group: “Nobody is a better writer or a worse writer. It’s just your voice.”
For the most part, the writing is good.
In the spring, Exchange for Change published an anthology of essays, poems, fiction and non-fiction stories called Pen From Da Pen. The 20 pieces were written during classes at Dade Correctional Institution and include titles: The Dream, So I Learned, Back in Time, and Indict the Mob-Boss Police Departments.
In No Place Like Home, Ronald Jackson begins his essay: “There’s no place like home, I thought, but I can’t really think of where home is.”
The works reveal frustration at the justice system, reflection on mistakes, desires to redo the past, anger at perceived discrimination and the realization that love has finally won over their heart from hate.
Schriftman said that while his students initially were open to a writing exchange with inmates at Homestead Correctional Institution for women, many viewed it “as a sort of charity.”
“But they soon realized that women on the inside were real people,” he said. “They were moved from being ideas to being human beings. They all discovered commonalities.”
One of his students in another class bonded with a male inmate who continued to try to be a father despite receiving a 25-year sentence for firing a gun in public. His child was about 7 when he was sent to prison. The student’s father left the family home when she was about 7.
“They connected on the issue of fatherhood, and it was a profound exchange,” Schriftman said.
Exchange for Change has proven to be much more rewarding to the inmates than just learning to improve their writing. It has dramatically improved their communication and social skills, Klarreich said.
An inmate nicknamed Hawaii shared with the group how he felt discriminated against solely because of the color of his skin. He is a white native Hawaiian. The other inmates nodded.
Waldo Hewitt, who attended one of Klarreich’s first writing classes and is black, told the new class that he formed “bonds of unity” with fellow writers of different ethnicities.
“I am now more sympathetic of people from other backgrounds,” he said. “In the compound I’ve become good friends with them and I would never have even talked with them except for the class.”
Exchange for Change can use volunteers to work in the office and help with outreach. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 305-280-2819 or visit its office at 2103 Coral Way, Suite 200, Miami.