Poetic Justice Seeks to Transform Lives of Women Behind Bars
By: Rachel Benbrook
It has long been a known fact that Oklahoma typically leads the nation in incarceration for women. Amidst this troubling statistic comes the lesser talked about fact that around 80 percent of those women are nonviolent offenders, and a shockingly high number find themselves incarcerated for their first offense. Even more heartbreaking is the fact that nearly 90 percent of all women incarcerated in Oklahoma have previously been a victim of some form of abuse during their lifetimes.
Although it may seem at times that these individuals are overlooked in society, one Oklahoma nonprofit has set out to make a difference for women who find themselves behind bars.
Warm faces greeted me as I walked into the coffee shop for a poetry reading, and the launch of the programs second official publication of published work, hosted by the passionate and dedicated leaders who drive the Poetic Justice Program. Poetic Justice is a nonprofit that consists of a group of women who strive to teach English and poetry classes to groups of inmates at the David L. Moss and Mabel Bassett Correctional facilities. The nonprofit started in 2014 with only two volunteers, and expanded rapidly into a functional nonprofit. Those who volunteer are required to attend a 5-hour training course to become familiar with the protocols that come with volunteering regularly behind bars.
“Our goal is to empower women and build hope. We want to give the women a sense of self worth, “ said Ellen Stackable, the Executive Director of Poetic Justice.
Many of the speakers reiterated the message that often times, these women are committed to improving their lives. Many of them do not want to return to prison, or to be judged for something that they have done, and have this impact them in the future. The program has seen many women be transformed by the power of the written word, as well as healthy and positive ways of self-expression.
These sentiments were echoed by community member Susan Esco, who attended the poetry release, and has worked in several capacities with prison ministries.
“I've been volunteering at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center and in transitional ministries since 2007. From the start it was clear that those who are incarcerated in Oklahoma are the outcasts and the overlooked in our society. Not everyone who is incarcerated wants change but those who are ready to do their part are eager for guidance and education. Jesus is our hope and He offers new life, truth, guidance and the power to live differently. I have had great advantage through my family and community. Many have not. We are all broken and we all need help. I have been given the opportunity to invest Christ's love in the women I volunteer with and I have also seen many women living a life that will not lead back to prison. Now that is something to celebrate! Poetic Justice is a beautiful part of the healing process for those who participate. I have found in this area of need, the hearts of those who are in prison ministries and programs are working together for a unified purpose, to lower OK recidivism rate through true restoration,” Esco said.
The evening began with promoting the organization’s second anthology of work, featuring some of the outstanding poems written by the programs students. Some stories were funny, some heartbreaking and some candidly honest about the struggles and difficulties that come with incarceration. The stories radiated hope, fear, and the uncertainty of the future that is often calmed by the written word.
One poem featured the satirical humor to be found in prison clothing, whereas another titled “Ode to Moonlight”discussed a desire to see the stars again one day. Many included stories of children, and loved ones, and the difficulty of being separated from the lives they once knew.
Overall, Poetic Justice exists to enable a sense of hope and inspiration for the women. The hope is that these women will be able to continue to meet, or use these skills after they are released from prison, and the hope is that they will transition into a full and functional life.
I found myself totally engrossed in these women’s stories. Together our coffee shop poetry group laughed, cried, and celebrated these women and their journeys, each as different and unique from one another as possible, but with the common glimmer of hope shining through their words. Equally inspirational, are those who have dedicated themselves to this organization and its mission.
“It [Poetic Justice] has changed who I am fundamentally as a person,” Stackable said. “ When I go to class I know in that moment that that is exactly where I am supposed to be. I don’t know that I have many other moments in my life where I can say that I am utterly sure of that. “
To purchase an anthology of poetry, or to gain more information, or to support Poetic Justice you can go to http://www.poeticjusticeok.org/about.