By Errol Castens
OXFORD – An Oxford nonprofit director’s experiment with teaching creative writing to inmates at Parchman Penitentiary has expanded to another prison and two new inmate populations.
Louis Bourgeois, executive director of VOX Press, is in his third year of teaching the Prison Writes Initiative course at Parchman, the state’s oldest and largest prison facility, which exclusively houses men.
“This fall we added classes at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl for female offenders and for youth offenders,” Bourgeois said. “All of them are creative writing/literature classes, where the reading of literature is as important as the writing part.
“At the beginning of each year, I give each student a dictionary,” he said. “It’s kind of like the class Bible, because you’re trying to convey your thoughts and feelings, but obviously words are what the class is about. I come from a poetry background, meaning that you only have a limited space to say what you want to say, so the impression of language, the precision of language are very important.”
Each two-hour session, whether men, women or teens, generally consists of an hour of literature – from Faulkner to Malcolm X and a host of other writers – and then discussing it, followed by the reading of students’ writings from the previous week’s assignment, along with peer critiques of it.
“I want to show them that books change their lives, particularly literature that has real substance,” Bourgeois said.
VOX Press’s mission is “to challenge diverse audiences to engage in the excitement and enrichment of the experimental literary arts. Through inventive programming and publications, VOX seeks to support artists by creating audiences.”
The writing classes help create those audiences through publishing efforts. The best work of the first class became the paperback, “In Our Own Words: Writing From Parchman Farm,” and a second volume, “Unit 30,” is due out in the near future.
The three current classes are also expected to yield a collective book.
“In May we’ll start gathering materials from those three different groups – the youth, the women and the men – and we’ll call that volume ‘Mississippi Prison Writing,’ because that’s a broader spectrum of writing,” Bourgeois said. If sufficient funding is available, he said, the book could also offer a venue for inmate-created visual art.
“All their lives most of these people – most are from impoverished backgrounds and very poor communities – have been told directly or implicitly that they’re worthless,” he said. “Here’s a chance for them to tell their stories, to be heard by their peers and by me and, because we publish a book, to be heard by the outside world. It’s sort of their chance to be considered a human being instead of trash. It gives them a sense of self-worth.”
While Bourgeois is continually seeking donations to cover ongoing costs for books, other class materials and travel, he’s also hoping for more ambitious grant opportunities that would allow the hiring of an adjunct instructor for the classes in Pearl so Bourgeois could focus on several North Mississippi sites.
“I want to keep the class at Parchman (Unit 30), and I want to open a class at the Tutwiler facility (Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility) just up the street from Parchman and to reopen the one at Holly Springs (Marshall County Correctional Facility).”
Another ambition is to open a class in Unit 29, Parchman’s maximum-security unit.
“The head of education, Emmitt Sparkman, there actually came to me and asked if we could teach a class there,” Bourgeois said. “He thought it would be therapeutic by giving them something to do and being a stress reliever. I could see us having upward to six or seven classes by next fall.”
Bourgeois said whatever one’s view of people in the criminal justice system, there’s reason for anyone to want to support educating prisoners.
“Ultimately, it makes society safer for you, because most prisoners will eventually be released, and if they’ve taken our classes they have something on their mind besides criminal activity,” he said.
“It not only makes the prison safer while they’re in there, as Emmett Sparkman said, but once they get out they possess some new skills that may be helpful in getting a job,” Bourgeois said. “In taking these classes, they’re connecting to society, to something bigger than themselves, and that can’t be anything but good.”
To donate to the Prison Writes Initiative or to learn more about VOX Press’ work, visit www.voxpress.org.