Poetics and Protest in Prison


Retribution, Resistance, and the Incarceration of Kids

By Michael Philip Brown

I write poetry for Wednesdays. I have come to cherish Wednesdays despite the sadness they often bring me. Wednesdays, two other facilitators and I make the drive from Detroit to the Macomb Correctional Facility (MRF) on 26 mile in New Haven. We are volunteers at MRF. A year ago Jonathan Rajewski, Matthew Polzin and I luckily inherited the opportunity to facilitate the Writer’s Block, a poetry group with a long running history at MRF. Currently the group consists of 10 imprisoned poets. Long time Writer’s Block poet Daniel-Bey once described the volunteers as “Lightbringers.” I hope that’s true. Perhaps we’re like the spiders and birds in a James Fuson poem, able to pass through brick and razorwire fence with ease, never fully aware of what that means.

Incarcerated people know mobility, only it’s the state that determines their movement. The last Wednesday of April this year marked the loss of the third member of the Writer’s Block. Last year, Q aka “The Love Doctor” was the first forced to relocate. Luckily, we got to say goodbye. K.D.A. Daniel-Bey was the second, and regrettably luck afforded us no farewell. The most recent was Jamie, who after a quick hug was disappeared into the system aptly called the prison industrial complex. Now, all three are only accessible via the MDOC databases that contain their “biographical information,” i.e. name, number, racial identification and other reductive banalities found on a drivers license. But we remember them. We remember Jamie’s abusive “hilljack” family, and the brothers and sister he loves.

Forced movement is familiar, many have known various prisons throughout the state since childhood. David A. Jones writes about this aspect of incarceration in the poem I Own Ya, about the hilltop prison in central Michigan. “Ionia: An ancient region of/ W Asia Minor along the Aegean Sea/ colonized by Greeks/ before 1000 B.C./ I own ya/ They said/ not with words/ with brick and bars/ M.R., Pride of Ionia/ Pain to the walking numbers/ the unwilling subjects/ of castle reformatory.” Jones, known to the group as DJ, has done 26 of an unfathomably unjust 50-75 year sentence for an armed robbery he was convicted of as a 19 year old. As transfer documents shuffle through institutional channels, Jamie shuffles onto a bus and we shuffle across the yard. Beside some jeering comments about our appearances, the yard is calm for us, but that’s not the reality of prison for those forced to live in it. P, the youngest in the group knows this well. P writes in Being that, “…this is existing/tribal tattoos scribbled across decaying battlefields a land/where blood flows like milk and honey use to/where wisdom whispers warped wishes/this is existing/…/ this is existing/to the harps melodies fingered by angels/all dance with the devil/ replanting roots/broken bones, fed by tears/and shattered glass/that burn hot like coals/this is existing.” The intersecting macro and micropower dynamics make prison life comprehensible only to those who have experienced it first hand. And for them only just so.

There is no uniform perspective, no univocal poetic prison voice one can distill from the works of these writers. The desire to do so is part of a process of disindividuation they are all too familiar with. Sentenced as a juvenile to die in prison, James D. Fuson, whose adept use of poetic brevity can jar a reader, “geese flying/against the gray sky/above the razorwire” notes this depersonalizing phenomena in Disindividuated, “MCL 750.316/ County No. 12356/ 3rd Circuit/ MDOC No. 244473/ Level 4 to Level 2/ Housing Unit 3/ Cell No. 98/ Top Bunk/ Counted/ Assignment No. 602/ 5th for chow/ 036 now 436 Class II/ Lockdown.”

The Supreme Court recently ruled that mandatory life for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore unconstitutional. Currently, the state courts are debating retroactive review for cases where this punishment was imposed. The lives of half the Writer’s Block poets hang in the balance. Five of the 10 members were juveniles when the state of Michigan sentenced them to die in prison. James Thomas’ poem Freedom recounts part of this experience, “…As I stood before the judge and paraded around the court room, photo opts being taken as if I was in a fashion show. Never shed a tear because freedom wasn’t a reality for a fifteen year old. Because I never seen freedom in my neck of the woods.” Sentenced to die behind bars, Thomas, has spent the last 27 years incarcerated.

The men understand what hangs in the balance for the juvenile lifers, and although they’re hopeful about their future, they’re also familiar with the unbalanced scales of justice and the cold subtleties of retribution. Yusef Qualls-El’s DayDream explores the reality of retributive justice and the damage inflicted not just on the body of the condemned, but also on a mind never allowed respite. “…Layin on my back with my hands clasped behind my head./Thoughts moving at a snails pace./Relaxation finally realized./…/I’m finally calm enough to not focus./Not look at how much I hate where I am./Not to look at what I’m missing by being here./Not recognizing the hurt./The hurt that I caused my victims./The hurt that I caused my family./The hurt that I’ve caused myself./…/The jarring sound of the loud speaker cries out,/‘Any available Maintenance TX Control Center…’/…/Gone is my peace./

Back is the torturous state, imposed by the state./As a punitive measure./A sanction./A punishment, with no attempt at rehabilitation./This despair./This monotonous monster./This jackhammer to hope./Anchored to me like a ball and chain./No sleep./No peace./No Justice!!!” Q was 16 in 1995 when he was sentenced to life behind bars.

Today’s a critical moment for the juvenile lifers, they must amass enough public support such that the state decides to retroactively review their cases. If reviews happen, courts must be made to consider mitigating circumstances as relevant details when sentencing. They need to take seriously the conditions of children’s lives, and the socio-structural, personal, and emotional implications of those conditions, they need to hear the words of Maurice Sanders “…imagine him being almost choked to death at the age of 10 by the being that gave him life simply because he treated her like a stranger and never like a friend as he cringed from her touch and all he remembered from that day was the look in her eyes as she stated repeatedly die just go ahead and die imagine what that child felt afterwards lying on the cold wood floor looking up at someone he never knew wishing someone would hear his screams but no one ever did//imagine his strength as he picked his self up off the floor trying to regain his balance as he mustered up all the courage he possibly could and silently walked away imagine how much he hated himself for not being able to make her love him imagine how that made him feel// imagine him feeling love, strength and comfort in the streets imagine someone looking at him and telling him lil bro we love you, you’re our family now. You’ll never be alone again because you got us, imagine him believing that and doing everything in his power to make them proud…” Maurice was sentenced to death behind bars for a felony murder charge he was convicted of as a 16 year old. He’s been behind bars for the last 20 years.

The only way to accept the current state of incarceration is to turn away from the reality of these words, to silence these poetic voices. But, after hearing the words of Fred, the youngest of the juvenile lifers, who forces us to gaze upon the glaring contradictions in our society’s structure, turning away is unjust.

“Here I stand/ in the mainland/ above hell/ beneath heaven/ in the capital of capitalism/ where shadows of death glow in the dark/ at the university of wealthy/ Dear Professor/ does sharing religious beliefs/ with my oppressor/ make my brain capacity lesser/ Here I stand firmly perplexed/ in the mouth of the monster/ in the eye of the dollar/ I’m no scholar/ But is black hoodie worse than white collar?”

As Writer’s Block closes down for the night, and the poets are shuffled out the door, and we are shuffled through the razorwire the words of the newest member of the group, Umar, are ringing in my ear, “A desensitized society/A desensitized society/the media deciding a child’s future/obese adolescents told the best place to get a six pack is a liquor store/the only way to make it is a mixing board/kick a few rhymes/push a few dimes/commit a few crimes/get a little shine/then die!!/is everybody high?”

Our anesthetized society seems deaf to the voices of those suffering the injustices of amerikan justice. But, although we write poetry for Wednesdays, daily the voices of the oppressed transcend their confines and awaken slumbering ears to the music of the muse who inspires the struggles for freedom.

Michael Philip Brown, a PhD Candidate at MSU, lives in Detroit, facilitates Freeschool classes and volunteers at MRF.