Saved by the Writ­ten Word

Po­etry and a book from the Holo­caust reach be­hind prison bars.

Forward Magazine - - Education - By Thea Glass­man Thea Glass­man is a Mul­ti­me­dia Fel­low at The For­ward. Con­tact her at glass­man@for­ward.com

‘L isten closely. Can you hear the heels of the ruby red shoes click­ing?” Dennis Fran­cis, a for­merly in­car­cer­ated in­mate turned poet, asked a packed, silent class­room in the Long Is­land City neigh­bor­hood of Queens. “There’s no place like home­less shel­ters, there’s no place like home­less shel­ters.”

It was a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon at the The For­tune So­ci­ety, a so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion for ex-of­fend­ers, and a group of men and women — all ei­ther for­merly in­car­cer­ated or part of an Al­ter­na­tive to In­car­cer­a­tion pro­gram — sat to­gether for their bi­weekly writ­ing work­shop, notepads and pens at the ready.

Words spit­balled quickly and easily through­out the class­room. Don­ald Gray de­liv­ered a spo­ken­word per­for­mance on his 18 years of so­bri­ety. Ju­lian Mccullers shared a love poem. “You should show that to her!” one stu­dent called out amid ap­plause. David Rothen­berg, The For­tune So­ci­ety’s founder, quickly stepped in. “Some­times it’s scary to ex­press your­self to some­one.” he said. “That’s why writ­ing it out is good.”

Later, Rothen­berg sat in the lobby, ad­ja­cent to a group of re­tired women per­form­ing mock in­ter­views with ex-of­fend­ers, and em­pha­sized just how im­por­tant self-ex­pres­sion can be for his clients.

“They were the kids who were over­looked. They came from dys­func­tional fam­i­lies, couldn’t adapt to large class­rooms, were dis­rup­tive,” he said. “School was where they didn’t be­long.” His chal­lenge, he re­al­ized, was to cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere in which they could learn.

Rothen­berg, a for­mer Broad­way press agent and pro­ducer, founded The For­tune So­ci­ety af­ter pro­duc­ing the 1967 play “For­tune and Men’s Eyes,” a drama on the hor­rors of prison life. He be­gan con­nect­ing with ex-of­fend­ers, invit­ing them to give talk­backs af­ter per­for­mances, and quickly re­al­ized they were what he called “an in­vis­i­ble, voice­less pop­u­la­tion.”

“They have to go through all these classes on anger man­age­ment and drugs and al­co­hol, and it’s a strain,” he ex­plained. “When we have act­ing classes or mu­sic classes or writ­ing classes, they learn to find ways to ex­press them­selves.”

Rothen­berg pointed to “Un­apolo­getic,” a poem on slav­ery and op­pres­sion, per­formed by a stu­dent ear­lier that day. He shook his head with ad­mi­ra­tion. “It was such an an­gry poem,” he said. “But isn’t it great that she got it out here in­stead of act­ing it out?”

Deep-seated emo­tions, it seems, of­ten un­der­lie a lot of the stu­dents’ de­sire to write. Mccullers re­calls tak­ing up po­etry while in­car­cer­ated as a means of com­bat­ting de­pres­sion. Kiara Sanchez, a 17-year-old client at The For­tune So­ci­ety, needed an out­let to re­lease her frus­tra­tion.

“I feel like through­out my years in life I don’t get heard. In fam­i­lies, in re­la­tion­ships,” she said. “I write, usu­ally out of anger. I need to get it out.”

Be­fore de­cid­ing to pur­sue her GED at The For­tune So­ci­ety, Sanchez said, her ed­u­ca­tion had been at a stand­still. She trans­ferred in and out of dif­fer­ent high schools, say­ing she al­ways ended up fall­ing in with the wrong crowd. That day, she wrote about dig­ging her­self out of a hole.

“Soon the hole is go­ing to be cov­ered, it’s go­ing to be gone,” she said. “I’ll be walk­ing. I won’t be in the hole any­more.”

Rothen­berg is quick to point out that the power of the writ­ten word can find its place be­hind bars, too. He ref­er­enced “Man’s Search for Mean­ing,” a memoir by Holo­caust sur­vivor Vik­tor Frankl, as one of the most pop­u­lar works read in prison. “Frankl wrote a book about how he sur­vived in a con­cen­tra­tion camp be­cause he was a ther­a­pist and he was able to work,” Rothen­berg said. “And he didn’t go mad the way that other peo­ple were go­ing mad.”

Rothen­berg stood up and be­gan to walk around, ask­ing his staff, com­posed mostly of ex-of­fend­ers, if they had read Frankl’s book while in jail. The an­swer was a re­sound­ing “Yes.” Osi Gerald, a for­mer For­tune So­ci­ety client and cur­rent staff mem­ber, sat down and re­called the much-needed com­fort Frankl pro­vided for him while be­hind bars.

“Ed­u­ca­tion in prison is noth­ing. There’s no de­grees, no noth­ing,” he ex­plained. “My coun­selor gave me Vik­tor Frankl. I read it and I thought, wow, he dealt with this and he came through.”

Michael Brun­didge, For­tune So­ci­ety’s man­ager of busi­ness ser­vices, agreed: “I had to find some­thing to keep me go­ing, to keep my spir­its up. Be­ing in soli­tary con­fine­ment 23 hours a day, no in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple, that’s re­ally hard on you.”

His dis­cov­ery of Frankl’s work, he said, gave him a new per­spec­tive.

“It taught me to seek peace,” he said. “It taught me that in a neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­ment, I need to find the pos­i­tive.”

‘Ed­u­ca­tion in prison is noth­ing. There’s no de­grees, no noth­ing.’

THEA GLASS­MAN

Cre­ative Writer: Dennis Fran­cis, a long­time par­tic­i­pant of The For­tune So­ci­ety’s writ­ing work­shop, works on a class ex­er­cise.

THEA GLASS­MAN

Self-Por­trait: Kiara Sanchez works on an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece dur­ing her first writ­ing work­shop with The For­tune So­ci­ety.

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