Poetry in Prison

Posted: March 31, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
Tags: , , , , ,

poetryWhen I first went to teach in prison, I was surprised by the guys’ interest in poetry. They wrote poems and they wanted me to comment. When they discovered that I had only a surface knowledge of poetry, they asked me to bring in real poets to help them, which I did.

Why? Why the interest in poetry? Only once or twice a year am I moved to poetry, when something hits me hard. I wanted them to write about prison reform and they wrote poetry.

Here’s a poem by a man who attended my class faithfully. He organized a weekly Poetry Night and put the notice on the bulletin board. Some in the public might think he’d be beat up or worse for such a notice. In fact he attracted a core of men who met with him every week in a dirty, little office, and they wrote poetry.


The External Gatekeeper


Until he got to minimum Joshua wore an external conscience;

loud and insistent, a full metal jacket

the Man would call the shots

If he knew what was good for him Joshua would take instruction.

The uniforms would decide when he ate, when he slept…

they’d tell him when to report to work and what ailed him…

in a cyclical way. The days kept coming like a revolving door…

Slave wages. Jump through hoops. Pray to your maker for more.

Then one day the walls were no more. There were trees, birds,

green grass, Escorted Absences lay in store.

Now out of himself he must fashion a clockwatcher bore

To keep track of the free movement hours, no lock on the door

A strange world to a caged bird, mythical lore

The cage just got bigger, would someday be no moreJail Writer

for Josh, no longer a sapling, had caged rage at his core.


Why? Why is poetry so popular in prison?


Images courtesy of:

  • asylum.com


  1. Joanne says:

    I’m no expert, but I believe poetry is about getting raw emotion on paper. For some, prose may put too many constraints on what needs to be said, what is crying to come out. Plus with poetry a lot can be expressed in fewer words.

    This poem does a good job of expressing the fear prisoners feel when getting close to freedom. This fear is manufactured by the system, which takes away all accountability and then expects people who have lived this way, sometimes for many years, to gain it all back in a relative instant.

  2. Every human being has beauty at his/her core. We all need love to bring that beauty to the fore. Thank you Ed for bringing that love wherever you go. When I read of men and women behind bars I know: there but for fortune go I. I have been blessed. I too am a survivor.

  3. marcella says:

    I was never big on poetry until I read the poetry that came from inside prison. Amazing.

  4. Ed, loved that line: The days kept coming like a revolving door. Good stuff. I really loved this post – also your bit: I wanted them to write about prison refrom and they wrote poetry.

  5. Thank you Ed for encouraging these unfortunate men to express themselves through poetry. You are a gift to the community and a gift to the world.When I read poetry written behind bars, I can only reflect “There but for the grace of God go I”. Poetry and music have been my salvation through many periods of trauma and hardship. Had I not been able to express my feelings in this way, I’d have gone mad many years ago. Ben Nuttall-Smith

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thanks, Ben. I appreciate your kind words. But the poetry that guys come up with, comes from someplace other than me. I don’t know it well enough to teach it . I mentioned in the post that I brought in poets to the prison. One poet noticed that in the prison you could only see the tops of the trees, never the trunks or roots. He wrote a great poem on that fact. I’ll include it someday

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