South Florida

Life behind bars: Inmate stories to be featured at Main Library

Kathie Klarreich, founder of the non-profit Exchange for Change, leads a creative writing class at Dade Correctional Institution.
Kathie Klarreich, founder of the non-profit Exchange for Change, leads a creative writing class at Dade Correctional Institution. Miami Herald file photo

Raquel Martinez, wife of a Dade Correctional Institution inmate, describes her husband as a man of few words.

She says the years he has spent in prison have made her husband, Eduardo, who is serving a life term for second-degree murder, very reserved. But after he joined an inmate writing program at the South Miami-Dade prison, she said he has opened up.

“[He’s] kind of a like a book,” she said. “If you don’t open it to read it, you’re not going to know what’s so beautiful in those pages.”

On Saturday, Raquel will read one of his stories at the opening of the Exchange for Changes exhibit, “Connecting Sentences,” at the Miami-Dade Main Library. The exhibit will feature stories from inmates at various South Florida correctional facilities, read by family members or former inmates.

Kathie Klarreich, founder of Exchange for Change, a Miami nonprofit whose board members include Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and novelist Russell Banks, said she hopes the event will help bridge a gap between the public and the incarcerated.

“We’re trying to prepare the community to receive them in the same way that we’re helping to prepare the inmates for their release,” Klarreich said. “And by getting their voices out, it’s a way to put an end to this bridge-gap.”

Klarreich, a freelance journalist, began conducting writing workshops in local prisons in 2009. Today, Exchange for Change offers 18 writing classes at five correctional facilities: Dade Correctional (men); Everglades Correctional (men); Everglades ReEntry Center (men); Homestead Correctional Institution (women); and AMI Kids in Virginia Key, a court-mandated school for juveniles.

As proof of its success, Exchange for Change has worked with more than 400 inmates, including 20 who have been released, Klarreich said. None of the 20 have returned to prison, she said. Studies have shown that inmates who get an education in prison are much less likely to be arrested for new crimes when they leave prison.

Exchange for Change has partnered with the University of Miami, Miami Dade College, Florida Atlantic University and Ransom Everglades School. The students at those schools and the inmates exchange ideas on shared literature.

“Inmates who finish the class have a more positive attitude and seem more self-confident,” Lori Norwood, assistant warden of programs at Dade Correctional, told the Miami Herald last year. “Anytime you have inmates out there being a good influence on the others or providing good examples to others is always a good thing.”

Take Carl Shuck. He was an inmate for 32 years, serving a life term for first-degree murder. Since July, he has been living in a halfway house in Tampa under a prison-release program.

“You were just a number in prison. You’re just another face in the crowd. You have a tendency to blend in and to feel insignificant,” said Shuck, 49, who began serving his term when he was 17. “And having that avenue … it gave me direction, it gave me a focus.”

Shuck said that in the darkest of times, writing became his therapy. He went on to write hundreds of pieces — ranging from poetry to short stories.

Since his release, Shuck works as a maintenance worker and has been meeting with nephews, nieces and cousins he had never met before. He’s also been introduced to Facebook and text messaging — and now uses both as outlets for his writing and to keep in touch with former instructors.

“They’re still reaching back for me,” he said of his instructors. “They still care.”

If you go

Connecting Sentences: Former inmates and family members of current inmates will read stories written by the inmates in event organized by Exchange for Change; 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Miami-Dade Main Library, 101 W. Flagler St. Free. The writings will be on exhibit until Dec. 31.

Info: 305-375-2665