We take to the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana to ask folks about their connection to the criminal justice system. In the state of Louisiana, one in 86 adults are in prison and one in 55 adults are in jail, leading some to refer to Louisiana as the incarceration capital of the world. But today, Prison Poetry Workshop Radio won’t be attending any long-winded policy meetings or outraged protests, we’re here because, paradoxically, wherever you find the adversities of prison life, you find the transcendence of poetry. We’ll explore songs sung at Angola prison, past and present, and hear how, for one man, the tragic death of a sibling touched off events that landed him behind bars for over a decade… and how poetry helped save him.
Writer Nik De Dominic started a poetry workshop at Orleans Parish Prison in New orleans in 2009, and it’s still going strong. When we visited, inmate participants were knee deep in a conversation about famous American poet Walt Whitman. They came up with some unexpected insights.
WORKSHOP: Exploring our history can be the very thing that finally liberates us. New Orleans poet Patrick Young believes that’s the case, and that’s why he sees one story in the bible a little differently. It’s the one about Sodom Gomorrah, where Lot’s wife disobeys God. Though she’s usually seen as villainess, Young writes a poem defending her, and encourages listeners to write their own “in defense of” poem. Next, we absorb a 1954 recording of men working on a Southern chain gang, singing as they hammer in railroad spikes. The recording was captured by Alan Lomax, a folklorist who traveled around collecting prison songs for the Library of Congress.
When folklorists John and Alan Lomax traveled the country during the 1930s, they were participating in a series of innovative projects and programs implemented under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Tasked with traveling across the South to record American roots music, they came across a prisoner everyone called Leadbelly.The man author Alex Haley would one day describe as the Mount Everest of Blues rocked their world. Leadbelly’s music was so good, it eventually earned him a pardon from the governor. While poet Patrick Young’s story isn’t so tidy, and involves him opening fire on a crowded night club, we also dig into his life and the positive turn it took.