Hamilton's Alabama Inmate Notes



Poesis Behind Bars

by Richard Hamilton



            In June 2007, I began teaching poetry to inmates through Auburn University's Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP). Over the course of 7 months, I taught at Bibb County Correctional Facility in Brent, AL and St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, AL.


            On the first day of classes at Bibb, myself and two colleagues pulled into the visitor's parking lot. It was a hot day—ninety-degree temperatures with unforgiving humidity. Carrying my see-through milk crate of teaching materials bulging out the sides, it was evident that I'd over-prepared for class. We were escorted by prison security guards through two check points, asked for our identification cards, and personal belongings like keys, jewelry, and currency. We were padded down, checked for weapons of destruction, our stuff sent through a metal detector. There were monitors. (As I write this, I'm bothered by the ease with which this story is coming to me. As if my experience was comparable to a TV documentary on prisons. You know, the kind that generate popular distrust and contempt for inmates, and by association, neutralize one's sense of alarm over the general malignancy of state punishment by inviting us to view its organization—a system of monitoring, uniformed and armed security officials, buffed and shined floors, check points, etc.). In Michel Foucault's book Discipline and Punish, the theorist describes this organized monitoring as the panoptic process–a machine that functions to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” We could have likely been at an airport or hospital with all the “security” measures. That's a scary thought.


            We finally ended up in a large, air-conditioned room. It was surrounded by windows that fanned out to the prison yard. Brown lawns were evidence of Alabama's drought. Thirty-foot tall fences crowned with barbed wire ran the length of the facility. A security tower. Many brick dormitories with barely opened, steel slats. Inside the meeting hall, a handful of inmates dressed in dingy-white, dickey-type uniforms sat waiting along a rear wall. Chairs hugged the walls in stacks. I claimed the corner farthest away from my colleagues hoping this would mitigate the acoustics in the room. Three classes of 20 inmates occupying the same space. With the help of my students, we set up our “classroom”: 15 chairs and two long tables facing south.


            If I was nervous, the feeling dissipated once class begun. There was a sense that I had work to do here with this group and myself, and that could only be done in this context. I'd had two brothers serve time in state penitentiaries in Georgia. Thus, my stint teaching at Bibb seemed near-intimate and personal.



            Bibb County Correctional Facility is home to some 1, 400 inmates most of whom are non-violent drug offenders. This is sharply contrasted with St. Clair Correctional Facility where in a prison with a capacity for 1,300 inmates, over 300 are serving life without parole. A recent 2008 study from the Pew Center on the States purports that the United States leads the world in its prison population with more than 23 million people behind bars as compared to China's 1.5 million and Russia's 890,000. Throw race in there and it becomes a ball of wax. It is no surprise that the history of slavery with its focus on the unlawful revocation of basic human rights for Americans, the large majority of which are African Americans, has its tie to the current system of incarceration which produces the ideology of racial subordination by imprisoning a disproportionate number of black and brown males at an alarming rate. One study suggests that 60 percent of black male high school drop-outs born in the late 1960s are imprisoned before the age of 40. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling and come from disadvantaged parts of society. 


            When I took the job with APAEP, I had no plans to write the poem under consideration. Together my students and I read essays by Sterling Brown on the mnemonics of sacred and secular music in African American verse traditions along with essays on the Reconstruction period in American History by W.E.B. Dubois. We examined song lyrics by Bob Dylan.  We read innovators like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as well as contemporary poets like Ilya Kaminsky and Honoree Fannone Jeffers. We talked about current events. Our discussions laid the groundwork for many of the poems we'd write in class.  Each inmate kept a daily dream diary or journal. I encouraged them to use the material from their journals as fodder for poems.


             In the same way that Langston Hughes's or Sterling Brown's work embodies the vernacular of African American culture, in this long poem Alabama Inmate Notes (for Moses), I set out to gather an impression of the vernacular of life behind bars.