Writing For Release
Inmates at the Monroe County Correctional Center discover the liberating power of words through a weekly poetry class.
Every night for the first 15 months of Max Smith's time in the Monroe County Correctional Center, a steel door locked him into a 70-square-foot cell he shared with another inmate. From 11:30 p.m. to 10 a.m., he would sit or lie on his bed.
At 6, breakfast was served in the cell. At 10, the doors opened, and the 53-year-old inmate would take some time to shower before 11, when he had to go back into his cell for lunch. From 1 to 3 p.m., Max went to a room with about 30 other men. Some played cards, some did push-ups, and others sought out weaker inmates to prey upon.
Max, his smile missing a front tooth, always kept his eyes to the ground. He wasn't looking to fight.
From 5:30 to 6, he ate dinner. After that, he searched for ways to pass the time, the same questions echoing in his head.
When am I going to get out?
Are any of my personal belongings still going to be there?
How did I ever get here?
He never thought he'd find the answers through poetry.
Fifteen months into his sentence, Max moved into a recovery dorm in the lower level of the jail where he shared the space with 11 other men in the New Leaf - New Life program. When he began the program designed to help inmates make the eventual transition to the outside world, the weekly poetry class led by volunteer Frank Brown Cloud might have seemed like a side note. However, Frank's weekly writing prompts, the distribution of poems and the readings of other inmates' work became an escape for Max.For the last two and half years, men like Max have written hundreds of poems and even had their words published in newspapers and a book titled "Poems From the Jail Dorm." The stories of three of those poets illustrate how the class has helped inmates grow during their time in the Monroe County Correctional Center, giving them an artistic outlet that can continue to flourish outside those walls.
How New Leaf - New Life works
The non-profit New Leaf - New Life has been working in the Monroe County jail since 2006. The program currently brings meetings for substance abuse and art classes for intellectual stimulation. Additionally, from 2006 to 2017, men like Max had the opportunity to do their time in an addicts' recovery dorm among 11 other men who hoped to leave jail and find a better life.
The program was initially funded by a $171,000 grant from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. By 2009, that grant had run out, and the program began receiving funds from the jail to provide GED classes to inmates. In 2015, those classes were taken over by another group, and the New Leaf - New Life program now relies on local grants and donations for support.
In addition to courses and meetings dealing with substance abuse, New Leaf - New Life has provided classes on song-writing, philosophy, meditation and poetry. What started as an outlet to help these men express their thoughts has led to public readings, a poetry display in the Monroe County Public Library and the publication of "Poems From the Jail Dorm."
Due to programming changes in April 2017, New Leaf - New Life's operations are now limited. The recovery dorm has been removed and New Leaf - New Life is now restricted to a few classes on Fridays. But Tania Karnofsky, the former director and now a volunteer, still believes poetry and other art classes can change these men's lives for the better.
Some research bears that out. In 2014 the Justice Policy Journal conducted a study on inmates in California prisons, 62 percent of inmates involved in a 12-week art class got along better with fellow inmates. Ninety percent said the classes gave them confidence to pursue other education or vocational programs.
Incarceration is a time when people are open and focused, Tania says. "Reading and writing poetry is a wonderful way to explore and communicate feelings, discover common ground and develop self-awareness and an understanding of others."
MAX SMITH, 53
Dressed in a boxy orange suit he wore every day, Max stood in the Monroe County Correctional Center staring at a set of doors that wouldn't open. He was expecting to go to court and hear about a plea bargain he was told could only get better. The original deal offered by the prosecutor, Max says, was a cap of 18 years for a sack of methamphetamine in a truck he had stepped out of but didn't own.
As Max tells it, he was a successful drug user. In 2008, he worked with a thriving small construction company and he flew 20,000 miles for this job in the same year. He built his own home and owed nothing on it, drove newer vehicles and even had good credit. However, his drug habit caught up with him.
As he waited for the hearing that day, Max's weary blue eyes gazed at the doors, and his confusion escalated to anger. "I was pissed off," he says. He hoped he might get into a treatment program or even be released on probation. But Max's public defender hadn't told him his court date had been rescheduled.
Soon after, he walked into his weekly poetry class with New Leaf - New Life. The moment the pen was in Max's hand, the words came out like fire. His disappointment, coupled with news of presidential candidate Donald Trump's advocacy of "stop and frisk," fueled a poem Max wrote in three minutes flat and can spit out from memory to this day.
"Stop and Frisk" captured his anger with stigmatizing people who struggle with addiction and also revealed his own story. A fellow drug user reported Max to the police to lessen his time behind bars. After 15 months "cooking in jail," as Max calls it, he finally escaped into the four walls of a poetry class.
Since that day, Max has written about everything from politics to the death of his girlfriend, who lost her life to drug use in November 2014. Each week that Max wrote a poem, instructor Frank Brown Cloud would type it out and add a page of feedback. Max was baffled that someone gave so much thought to the words he had written. In the class, he formed relationships and found support.
Max has been out of jail since September and has completed his required time at the drug addiction treatment facility Amethyst House. He currently works as a carpenter in Bloomington on commercial buildings and lives in his own apartment. He walks away from his two and half years in jail knowing that the words "freedom" and "friendship" share the same Latin root for a reason. And as for the poems Max wrote in class? He still has every single one.
by Max Smith
We pull into the fifty
In the maroon B felony loner
Slap hands, walk into grannies
He knows I don't mess with old man
So my boy just chops out two
Snorts his, hands the glass to me
As I chop out part of yours I say I'll do a lil'
Just don't want you to get ass'd out
You go back to the car
So I can take care of my thing
I get back to the car and see
You, silent, I ask if you're ok
Your eyes are open, you're breathing
I get my boy, he says you're not ok
I give him the zip back and drive
Saturday night, 2 a.m., we pull out of fifty
I've seen you worse, I love you,
I shouldn't be driving, I'll park here
Wow, what time is it? You're looking at me with love
I smile, yawn, it's 2 p.m., I tough your sweet face
You're cold as tears, sorrow, sorrow begin
Flooding my eyes, mind heart
AARON CRAFTON, 33
When Aaron Crafton wrote his favorite poem, "Sinner's Prayer," he wasn't writing for an audience. He was just tired of seeing people dying.
He has some tattoos on his forearms and hair trimmed close to his head, and he speaks calmly, even though a nervous smile occasionally breaks through.
The first time Aaron did heroin, the high was like no other. But that was the problem. He couldn't stop chasing the euphoria he only once experienced. So when he got into Frank Brown Cloud's class he wrote about his struggles with heroin and the death the drug has brought to others.
Before being sentenced for a theft charge, Aaron was living with his mother and strung out on heroin. According to Aaron, the addiction is a lot deeper than what it's stereotyped to be. "It's not just a choice," he says. "It's really a lifestyle. It's a demon."
When he first walked into Frank's classroom in November 2016, he didn't think he could do it. He didn't know anything about poetry, but he decided he would try. His work has since been published in the community publication Safety Net. But he also writes for a much smaller audience, his mother.
She's a psychotherapist and has watched him struggle with an addiction that led to overdosing four times. It wasn't until she read the poems that she began to understand his battle with heroin. Two years after he gave her his poems, she still has them neatly folded in an envelope.
While it's been important for Aaron's mother to read his work, he often writes his poems like he's speaking to someone else. He uses "you," "Lord" and "God" in his writing. He says he is not religious, but spirituality, on the other hand, is what keeps him going.
Growing up, he got involved with gangs, a mentality he describes as "one way is the only way." Yet over time, his experiences behind bars changed that outlook. One of his best friends in prison was Muslim, and they would pray together. While Aaron doesn't worship a particular god, it was revelatory to him that he could co-exist and respect the beliefs of another who did.
Aaron now lives with his mother and is working as a carpenter alongside Max Smith. In his free time, he still likes to pick up the pen, even without his instructor's weekly writing prompts.
While poetry for Aaron can help him with kicking addiction, communicating with family and voicing spirituality, what he enjoys the most about writing is how the message can be completely different for every reader. "Each person who reads it has a different view," Aaron says. "That's one of the most beautiful things about it."
By Aaron Crafton
I’d rather see my sermon, then hear it any day.
I try to be a man of love, but often fall away.
I’ll always be real with you, but so fake to myself
And in my mind is a war, my self-created Hell.
I think about it daily, I question who I am.
But I hear you whispering in my ear, “for you I have a plan.”
You say you use the foolish things to always scheme the wise.
But in my heart I’m struggling Lord, please open my eyes.
I know this is so much deeper, then just things I see.
But how do I explain this to people pointing fingers at me?
Oh how I want so bad to overcome this war,
I’m so sick and tired Lord, of shoving needles in my arms.
I know you’re there telling me, “Son come just as you are.”
Well here I am Lord, but yet I still feel so far.
I know I once was rooted, so deep into your love.
And here I sit broken, contemplating giving up.
But let me flip the script now, and be real with the men I see.
It’s no longer I who lives, it’s you who lives in me.
CRAIG GRIMES, 38
When Craig Grimes was a restaurant manager, he would toss aside an application if the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” was checked “yes.” He never thought that one day he’d be on the other side of the table.
Craig graduated from Ball State University with a love for cooking. He became a general manager at a Steak n’ Shake and eventually took over seven stores in central Indiana. Later, as executive director of a retirement community, he cooked meals for residents three times a day.
But the party that started with marijuana when he was 17 never stopped for him. He moved from pot to alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy and then, in the last couple of years, methamphetamine, which he used to wean himself off pills.
He wasn’t just enjoying the high anymore. He needed it. That’s when he realized he had a problem.
One day, Craig was driving to Bloomington from Kokomo to visit a friend when he got pulled over for speeding. He had six grams of methamphetamine and $1,500 cash. He says the money came from a house he helped flip. He was incarcerated for dealing methamphetamine, but he insists it was for personal use only.
Two months into his 23-month stay at the Monroe County jail, Craig moved to the New Leaf – New Life dorm, where he began the weekly poetry class taught by Frank Cloud and at the time, John Michael.
The class was a crowd favorite. He and the 11 other men would lie awake in their bunk beds at 2 a.m., bouncing ideas off one another for the week’s writing prompt.
Unlike most men in the class, Craig had written poetry before being incarcerated and had even shared his work on poetry.com. When he started writing in class, he knew he needed to break away from the orderly rhythm he’d been taught.
When John told him to write about a travel experience, he launched into his visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. He wrote about walking into a grand library with three mahogany walls of books, 30-foot ceilings and a fireplace burning. His vivid retelling was published in “Poems From the Jail Dorm” along with two of his other poems.
Craig is now a cook at the Runcible Spoon in Bloomington and is over two years sober. While he was a writer before jail, he says Frank and John helped him challenge his writing in a new way. He says a poem doesn’t always have to be a revelatory story, but it has to be honest.
“The rawness of it is what makes it beautiful.”
By: Craig Grimes
Addiction needs a pacifier
The feeling of this poison taking me higher
I thought it felt right but that right was wrong
Trying to figure out what it’s like moving on
‘Cause we’re living at the mercy of the pain and the fear
Until we get it, forget it, let it all disappear
So picking up the pieces, now, where to begin
The hardest part of ending is starting again
Frank Brown Cloud: The teacher using reflection, not punishment.
In November 2016, Frank Brown Cloud was about six months into his time as a poetry teacher at the Monroe County Correctional Center when his mother-in-law was murdered in Albany, New York.
The man who killed her had previously spent 10 years in prison in two stints. Each time, he had gone to jail on charges of selling small amounts of drugs. Many of the men Frank works with today do time for similar crimes.
Following her death, Frank, now 35, continued his poetry class without hesitation. Her murder didn’t convince him that incarcerated people are malicious. It supported his belief that the incarceration system is failing.
“It seems very unlikely that he would have been hurt so much that he would do this to my mother-in-law if we hadn’t taken away his life and ruptured all of his social networks,” Frank says.
Frank believes his actions were influenced by the trauma of being released from jail after almost a decade without the skills or experience to fit back into society.
About 76 percent of U.S. prisoners are rearrested within five years of release, according to the National Institute of Justice. Frank doesn’t claim poetry is the solution to these relapses, but he does believe that reading poetry can help inmates deal with the emotional trauma with which many of them struggle.
Frank, a full time writer and dad, was volunteering with the not-for-profit Pages to Prisoners, a group that sends books accompanied by personal letters to inmates, when he was approached by the current president of New Leaf – New Life Lindsay Badger to start teaching a poetry class in the jail.
It has been nearly two years since his mother-in-law’s murder, and Frank continues to teach in a way that focuses on reflection instead of punishment. He provides inmates with intellectual stimulation, which he believes is a missing component in the incarceration system.
Even as New Leaf – New Life struggles for funding, Frank lays poems on folding tables in a dark room at the Monroe County Correctional Center every Friday at 4 p.m., hoping to bring a thought-provoking hour to these men’s lives.
He listens as they share their poetry and then rereads them at festivals and community events. A poem asks for five minutes, he says. By keeping the message short, Frank hopes to show the people who read or hear the poems that the poets are men who are human just like anyone else.
When asked why poetry is such a powerful art form for the inmates, his answer is simple.
“They’re just words, and everybody talks.”