Lockdown continues, going on six months now, so I don’t have my writing classes to teach. Fortunately, Professor Tom Kerr, who teaches writing at Ithaca College in New York, contacted me to do the Brave Six project with a new batch of young students at his school. Tom and I first orchestrated this essay/letter correspondence with his Ithaca college students and my New Folsom writing students in 2008. We have done this project now three or four times. It has been an enlightening journey for both free world students and my incarcerated writing classes.
Just this week Tom wrote me with a new batch of questions from both his persuasive and argumentative writing classes. Because of the lockdown, I cannot contact my students, so I answered all the questions myself and sent them in.
The Brave Six projects started when my friend Margot, from Switzerland, sent me a printed-out copy of Tom Kerr’s web page and his address. She wondered why, though I had many projects going on with people in Europe (mentoring students as well as film, book and song writing projects) I had few in the USA and she suggested I write Professor Kerr. I read that Tom had worked with well-known writers on Death Row at San Quentin and that he saw them as human beings. I felt there must be some realness there inside Tom, some courage – an honest appreciation for the power of words, forgiveness, love, service, redemption, change, education and growth.
I pondered Tom’s information for about a year and then sent him my articles, “Speaking in Poems” and “Shining in Darkness.” I had no expectations and figured he might enjoy the articles, but that I would not hear anything back.
Weeks later I received a letter from Tom telling me how the two articles had inspired and primed him for teaching his next writing class. He also suggested I could have my prison writing classes come together with his college writing classes and perhaps build a bridge inside, outside. I was all for it.
Six of Tom’s students volunteered to lead Tom’s unit and they wrote an introductory letter to my New Folsom class. They proposed a dialogue and posed twenty-four questions to get started. Some of the questions included:
Do you feel that your time in prison has made you a “rehabilitated man”?
Is retributive justice responsible for keeping people in jail instead of helping them become a successful part of society?
Should minors always have the option of restorative justice?
What does the word justice mean to you?
Can people change? (Given the chance to atone for a crime and to alter their decision making, will people actually respond?)
How has prison changed you? From the day you were incarcerated to now, what is different about you?
I distributed the letter and questions to my classes and we all answered at least one of their questions; some of us answered all twenty-four. I sent our responses back to the Ithaca College students who wrote their essays with arguments either for or against restorative justice. When all the Ithaca student essays were done, Tom sent copies back for me to share with my students.
I was blown away by the depth and sincere concern of the questions asked and responses received back from the six students who were in charge of the project – Nethra, Brian, Nicole, Jordan, Loic, and Lou. I was so inspired by their realness that I named them “The Brave Six.”
All of my students took great interest in forming honest, deep and real responses. They were blown away with disbelief that the young folks read their essays and poems and asked penetrating questions about the justice system and now saw prisoners as human. Some free world students were shocked that people in prison wrote poetry or were into the arts. Here are quotes from a couple of Tom Kerr’s students’ papers:
“Recently, a group of six college students initiated a conversation through letters with several men in California’s New Folsom prison. Spoon Jackson, one of the incarcerated, gave those students the title “Brave Six.” As representatives of society, or more specifically, free members of society, the students are brave as they tread through a territory lined with forgotten souls. These forgotten souls are at the very epicenter of what has come to my attention as the new prison crisis. The crisis, however, is not entirely new, but for the majority of us, it falls under the “new to me” category. It’s new in the sense that, until now, the men at New Folsom have not been considered real, living, breathing and feeling human beings…”
Another of Tom’s students wrote:
“There’s a writing class in New Folsom prison (yes, that Folsom prison, the one Johnny Cash immortalized in song) taught by a teacher named Spoon Jackson. The writing class I’m in at Ithaca College, taught by Tom Kerr, began to correspond with this other writing class for a collaborative project. Some students wrote to them, asking their opinions on the justice in the United States. Their responses were heartwarming and uplifting and really reminded me that just because these people are criminals, deep down they are still human… The letters we received from New Folsom are incredibly moving. At first it was hard for me to imagine that actual prisoners wrote these letters, but they indeed did. It boggles my mind to grasp that someone who has committed murder can so easily stir me. However, that’s exactly what happened, and it’s what should be happening, not just for me, but for the rest of America’s population.”
The Brave Six Project has taught me that sometimes, when sharing unfamiliar territory, it’s just a matter of presenting information to people. We are all students and teachers in life. We must go to the source of a subject to find out the real. I have seen the lights click on in the Brave Six Project. The project has helped both the free world students and my prison writing class ask question and discern the facts for themselves.