- Ballads Behind BarsThe Music of Lyfe Jennings as Art, Critique, and Healing Remedy
“They will tell you that we beat them, that they are abused here. They will try to manipulate you and gain your sympathy. Do not believe them. This isn’t television, and those things are not happening.” The female jail guard paced authoritatively in rhythmic strides as she recited her grim forewarning to the room full of student facilitators. Her petite frame wore the black police uniform with assertive familiarity. In monotone, routine frigidity, she lectured us on the deceitful antics of the “inmates,” whole-heartedly believing that her words would serve us well as we entered into our sessions.
That morning, about twelve students had loaded into vans, cradling coffee in our palms and remarking on the honey mustard tone the sky had taken on in the wake of autumn. Equipped with fresh notebooks, eraser-free pencils, and at least three hours worth of education on the culture of the inside, we had arrived at Valhalla Correctional Facility prepared to humbly bestow the gift of creative writing upon the men and women in this confined space. When our van rolled suddenly onto the grounds of the jail, a few students remarked on its eerie resemblance to an elementary school: red brick buildings accented with purple trim, sprawling green lawns occupied by hundreds of geese. With the exception of the barbed wire spiraling around its fences, it could’ve passed for a relatively well-kempt school campus. And yet none of our thoughtful observations of the light in the sky, the appearance of the buildings, or any other external features mattered once we walked into jail.
During our campus orientation on the Right-to-Write program, we had attempted to prepare for resistance, disruption, harassment, disengagement, and misunderstandings between us and the folks on the inside, any possible consequence that might result from the meeting of the two separate worlds of college and jail. In pleasant contradiction to our precautionary lessons, when we walked into the stark grey box that housed young offenders ranging from about fifteen to twenty years old, the guys urgently arranged their chairs and tables to accommodate groups of six or so and anticipated our introduction. Without wasting any time on pleasantries, a young man named Izzy bluntly inquired, “So, what are you guys here to do?” This spurred a tizzy of questions, all emitted with an undertone that mixed curiosity and suspicion. “Do you get paid for this?” “Do you get a grade for this?” “Do you get some kind of school credit or something?” “Why would you choose to come to jail?” A tinge of nervous laughter reverberated briefly among us, but the guys, straight-faced and interested, waited to hear our explanation. And our answer [End Page 403] was hard to come by, as we had been cautioned to avoid sounding superior. “We just like to write, and we want to write with you guys.”
This project materializes from an allegiance that I now have to the young men on the inside of the Valhalla Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York. Having had the privilege to witness the emergence of their dynamic voices—colored with humor, vulnerability, confidence, questions, colloquialisms, and reflections—I feel a compulsion to exhibit the self-portraits they have unwittingly painted through their poetry and creative writing as a way of reimagining the narrative of the “inmate.” The young men I worked with, taught, learned from, and came to know, the majority of whom were still adolescents, had committed crimes, involved themselves with dangerous associates, and made mistakes with sobering consequences. But they also demonstrated a capacity not only to reflect upon these events from thoughtful perspectives but also to translate these reflections into creative pieces. I should also note the diversity among their voices. Perhaps they didn’t recognize or acknowledge their uses of formal literary techniques or poetic styles, but they did incorporate rhyme, rhythm, imagery, simile, metaphor, narrative structure, and other elements to express their personal stories. And even those whose struggles with language, spelling, or grammar often stifled their pencils developed a comfort with...