The Orleans Parish Prison — despite the name, it’s a county jail — took a beating during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many prisoners had to be moved to tents, where some still live, on the grounds of the prison. Others live in cells. A new facility is under construction, and nearing completion.
“Louisiana is the world's prison capital,” says the lead article in a 2012 series of investigative reports by the Times-Picayune newspaper. “The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world.”
With so many people behind bars, it’s no wonder that Louisiana has more than its share of prison poets. PPW met a few of them on a recent trip to the state.
One bright spot in the lives of a group of inmates is a weekly class to discuss the art of poetry and read their own. The course, which operates on a semester basis, is coordinated by local poet Nik De Dominik, and welcomes guest lecturers in to share their expertise.
One sunny afternoon in late April, the guest lecturer was Mark Yakich, a professor at Loyola University, who had had students read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in preparation for the class. They had given the book a close reading.
The five students in attendance that day, ranging in age from late teens to early 30s, had a lively discussion about the material. One student said that Whitman—as depicted with his shirt unbuttoned in the frontispiece to the original edition of the book—looked like a “pimp.” With a grin, Yakich had to agree. Another student saw in the line “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” a recognition that “we’re all made of the same stuff,” and was inspired by Whitman’s robust, free-flowing style.
In one respect, Whitman’s verse is different from the poetry those five men shared next; but in another, they shared some fundamental concerns about how individual human lives intertwine. PPW is looking forward to sharing some of their poetry with you in that broadcast. You’ll also hear from Bruce Reilly and Patrick Young, former prisoners who developed their own writing craft while behind bars; and from Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative, who gives an overview of incarceration in Louisiana.
For this episode, many thanks for assistance from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, especially Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Deputy William Pitts, Phil Stelly, Anne McKinley, and the staff of Orleans Parish Prison.