By Karl Schneider
“Dare I dream to be
free to fly and see
God’s creation and beauty,
as only a honeybee can see”
-excerpt from LorCI inmate Richard W. Stilson’s, ‘Dare I Dream to Be…’
The limits of creativity are unbarred when education is diffused through the confines of razor wire and armed guards.
At 8:30 a.m. on a drizzly Saturday morning, inmates at the Lorain Correctional Institution (LorCI) are roused from their cells to attend a poetry class and workshop hosted by Dr. Daniel Cleary, professor at Lorain County Community College.
During the previous weeks, inmates interested in writing had scribed and revised their own poetry to be critiqued by their peers at Cleary’s class. The inmates hand over their well-weathered composition notebooks to guards to have their poems copied and then presented during the workshop.
Cleary’s impromptu classroom lies behind a structured gradation of locked doors and closely managed checkpoints. His podium stands cramped in a corner room just big enough to provide his eight pupils enough space to absorb his lessons for the day.
These classes are part of a broad program aimed at providing prisoners with a path towards education. Cleary is the founder and executive director of the Northeast Ohio Community Outreach Project (NEOCOP), a non-profit organization that offers writing workshops in northeast Ohio prisons. NEOCOP offers classes in drawing, playwriting, poetry, nonfiction writing and women’s health.
Cleary started NEOCOP after realizing more must be done to help inmates attain a positive life once released from prison. “They’re never given the tools they need to keep from falling back into the same old patterns that landed them in prison in the first place,” said Cleary. Providing inmates with an opportunity towards education is not a rare occurrence within the prison system. “What makes NEOCOP unique is this: for every free class we give to a prisoner, we also give one to a guard.”
Laura Solnick, unit management chief and Sergeant Steve Brown, both of LorCI, have given Cleary and his organization the opportunity to provide these services. Laura Solnick is proud to see these inmates making progress, and was very optimistic and attentive during the workshop with inmates.
Under the guidance of Cleary, NEOCOP has volunteers teaching classes at three prisons in the area; LorCI, Grafton Correctional and a women’s prison, Northeast Reintegration Center. CLeary enlisted the help of his friend James Walsh, who is a poet and grad student at Cleveland State University. Once the program started gaining ground, Cleary recruited more of his friends’ help.
At LorCI, the attending inmates welcome the poetry class. “This class opened new doors for me,” said Richard Stilson, a pupil of Cleary’s, “I can write about what I am going through.”
Braylon, another inmate and student, is also inspired in new ways during the classes. “I also create music, so working with a college professor really helps my writing,” said Braylon.
“Watch as my word takes its journey across the page
margin to margin
verbally marching to its destination
destiny patiently waiting to be profiled
as my mind explodes on the papyrus battlefield”
-excerpt from LorCI inmate Braylon Richardson’s, ’Words of War’
During the class, the inmates listened to their peers’ poetry and were able to give their own opinions of how the poem affected them. After one reading, Braylon was able to see the narrator’s personal history reflected in S.A. Grant’s poem, “Where were u?”
“You were able to go inside his life and track back to see where the person went wrong. Make a mistake and come here [prison] and look at life differently, be more humble,” said Braylon.
Cleary makes sure to let his students know that the writer of a poem is not necessarily the voice of the narrator in the poem. The critiques about the poem should focus not on who the writer is personally, but who the narrator of the poem is.
Behind his podium, Cleary emphasizes this distinction. “Constructive criticism means that we do not attack the poet,” said Cleary.
Since NEOCOP and the classes have expanded, organizations are lending their support. “I couldn’t be happier with the generosity of people so far. I’ve had two textbook donations from Cengage Publishing, and recently, Pearson Publishing has sent me enough writing textbooks to keep three workshop courses going at the same time,” said Cleary.
Cleary and NEOCOP are in the process of applying for 501c(3) status to help the program grow with intensive fundraising.
Cleary and NEOCOP have published two chapbooks, which are short books of poetry, containing inmate poets from LorCI. Poetry Notebook (2012) and Songs from Ohio Route 83 (2013) contain the works of these inmates. More information of NEOCOP can be found at their website: neocop.org