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Creative writing workshops at the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (ACF) helped residents "see a new world of positive behaviors and healthy choices available to them" and resulted in a powerful volume of poetry, “Poems From Inside.” Paperback copies are now available for check out at Hennepin County libraries.
Hennepin County Library provides library service to all Hennepin County correctional facilities. Library staff visits the ACF every Tuesday, where they assist residents in the facility’s library and respond to about 1,000 requests for information. The Library also offers educational rehabilitation programs that enhance reading skills and self-expression through writing.
Funding for “Poems From Inside” was provided by Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, Coffee House Press, and the Friends of the Ridgedale Library. Dan Marcou, Hennepin County Library Outreach’s Corrections librarian, coordinated the “Poems From Inside” programs and edited the volume of poetry.
“Writing programs in correctional settings have produced dramatic results for those who experience them,” said Marcou, who was part of a panel discussion on the topic at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Anaheim, Calif. on June 23.
In the introduction of “Poems From Inside,” creative writing instructor Steve Healey wrote, “Many of the men and women I’ve encountered in these facilities have never had access to the basic tools of self-expression and communication that many of us on the outside take for granted. As they begin to claim a new voice and self-awareness in their writing and speaking, they can begin to see a new world of positive behaviors and healthy choices available to them.”
ACF resident Adam F. wrote in his poem, “The Courage to Change”:
Due to my addiction,
I’m currently incarcerated in prison…
I swear that I possess plenty good wisdom to share.
If only I can find the courage to care
Enough about myself
to stop the repetition of addiction.
Volunteer writing instructor Elaine G.R. (who prefers not to give her last name), described the bleakness of the room where she teaches ongoing creative writing workshops to women at the facility, then added,   “I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it is to the brave women who put pencil to paper.  It’s where they come to the realization that they have a voice, they are intelligent, and they matter! And when that happens, it’s like watching a butterfly emerge from its dark cocoon, stretch its wings in the sun, and finally take flight.”
ACF resident Albert B. wrote in his poem, “The Enemy of Despair”:
Finding your purpose may seem to be an impossible task,
So I found myself asking God to reveal what I could be good at.
Failing seems to be inevitable, and I wanted to know why,
Then I realized that failure was only proof that you tried…”
Maximum stay at the ACF is one year; average stay is 48 days. The average daily population is 400 men and 80 women. Ninety-five residents signed up for Steve Healey’s three workshops. Most of the poems in the book were written in those one-hour workshops.
Each workshop included an exercise designed to help the participants write poetry, such as using narrative or storytelling to write a poem, or repetition to emphasize ideas or images, or writing a poem to a specific person.
Healey said many of the residents may have low literacy levels, but still have power as communicators.  “The most difficult part of writing poetry probably was letting go of preconceptions and assumptions about what poetry is supposed to be,” he said.
The easiest part?  “They tend to be really willing to be personal, to share the intimate details of their lives with each other. Many have lived very intense lives and have a great yearning to express their hardship, the trauma, whatever they’ve experienced…to share their emotions and process the trauma and hardship they’ve had in their lives.”
After the workshops, one participant wrote on a comment form, “This is a very motivational program. If you have a lot of emotions, this is the perfect program to release them.”  Another wrote, “I like this class and wish it was an everyday thing.”  
Previous creative writing workshops at the ACF have produced four books of poetry:  “Creative Minds: Our Right to Write” (2007), “Words From Within” (2008), “Set Me Free” (2009), and “free to dream” (2010) – all available for request and checkout at Hennepin County Library.
Hennepin County Library Outreach offers other programs at the ACF to enhance literacy and knowledge of library resources.  They include:
  • “Read to Me.” Facility residents are recorded reading a children’s book aloud, and the recording is given to their child. Residents are encouraged to read to their child during visitations and at home upon release.
  • “Freedom Ticket.” This program offers job resource workshops as well as a newsletter and a website with information about community reentry resources and library programs that can benefit people leaving correctional facilities.
  • “One Read.” Facility residents select one book to be read by all, receive a copy of the book and participate in a discussion group.
  • Author programs. Facility residents meet a successful writer and learn about and discuss the author’s book. Recent authors included poet and spoken word artist Bao Phi, and poet and publisher Sarah Fox.
Programming at the ACF is funded in part by the Friends of the Hennepin County Library.
Request a copy of “Poems From Inside” at any Hennepin County Library or online at www.hclib.org.  For more information about Hennepin County Library’s Outreach Services to correctional facilities, contact librarian Dan Marcou at 612-543-8852 or dmarcou@hclib.org.  For more information about Hennepin County Library Outreach Services:  612-543-8850.

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