Rikers Island Poets

Rikers Island Inmates Use Poetry to Feel Free Behind Bars

The women who live at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island might be inmates, but they’re also accomplished authors. A small group of women gather together once a week for a writer’s workshop where they are encouraged to write what’s on their mind. The drop-in workshop sees about ten attendees on average, and each hour and a half session begins with a free write, followed by a prompt, and finally, the participants read their work out loud.

 

The room is small, with bars on the windows, and the women hold golf pencils, as anything larger could be considered a weapon. This past Tuesday, the group celebrated the publication of their third book of work, reading excerpts of their poetry and a few new pieces.

 

“It’s peace of mind. You basically get out of jail for a couple hours, you get to put your thoughts on paper,” said Leanna Franco, a twenty-six year old inmate who has participated in the workshop for six of the eight months she has been there. “You look out the window and you see gates, but the time that you’re in here it’s like you’re not behind the gates.”

 

Franco writes about her past and her future, just like many of her fellow inmates. She was shocked to see how much they have in common. “A lot of times we’re writing about the same stuff,” said Franco. “It’s nice.”

 

Marina Abramchuck, a twenty-eight year old Brooklyn-born woman who predominantly writes poetry, joined the workshop about a month ago. “I like writing, expressing myself,” she said. “It’s hard to talk to people around here. It’s the one time of the week I can get away from all the drama and the craziness.”

 

The workshop is run by the New York Writers Coalition. Deborah Clearman has been running workshops at the women’s prison since 2011, and has edited the book of collected prose, Can You Feel The Free In Me: Writing from Rikers Island

 

The seventy-page book features contributions from twenty-three different writers, both current and former inmates. They talk about addiction, abuse, fears and hopes for the future. 

 

“Jail life is very stressful and very chaotic. They always have a lot on their mind and the writing just flows out of them,” said Clearman. “What they get is a chance to express themselves, hear themselves. And they listen too.”

 

Aaron Zimmerman, the founder and executive director of the NY Writers Coalition, said the workshop allows the participants to have a supportive space. “Everyone has so much going on inside them. Naming things is very important. If you can name something, then you can examine it. Our focus is working with people who aren’t heard from often enough.”

 

Featured Image Via AM New York.