A Decade of Learning at Federal Prison Camp Yankton: Art Talk with Artist-in-Residence Jim Reese
“You can lock a person up and let him out after so long. Maybe during incarceration you teach him a trade—that’s great. What you also have to do is help him tap into the emotional instabilities that brought him to prison in the first place. Writing, art, and more importantly, education in corrections, helps open that door. If a person never comes to terms with himself, one more angry person will be released back into society.” — Jim Reese
Jim Reese is celebrating his 10th year teaching creative writing at Federal Prison Camp Yankton (FPC Yankton) in South Dakota—a job he considers the most rewarding teaching experience he’s ever had. In addition to being an associate professor of English at Mount Marty College in Yankton, Reese took on the role as an artist-in-residence at the correctional facility through a program supported by the NEA and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He also publishes the annual anthology 4.P.M. Count, which showcases prose, poetry, and artwork created by the inmates over the duration of the rigorous 10-month creative writing course. The course and exposure to creative writing have been described by inmates as a “positive outlet,” “healing process,” “therapy for the soul,” and a “step toward rehabilitation.” The program has allowed inmates to open up about their pasts, as well as communicate the emotions that may have informed the mistakes (and consequences) they are living with in the present. We recently had a conversation with Reese and asked him to reflect on these 10 years as an artist-in-residence at FPC Yankton and why it’s the most rewarding teaching experience he’s ever had.
NEA: Congratulations on your 10-year anniversary with this program! What drew you to being an artist-in-residence in a prison, and has the experience been what you expected it to be?
JIM REESE: I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was intimidated at first. I didn’t know much about criminals, that’s for sure. Or anything about prisons. I learned to open my eyes to this world. As a teacher, you have to. I did my research. For the past ten years I have read as much as I could on arts in corrections and have made trips to San Quentin, New Folsom, Allegheny County Jail, and other prisons in the country to see how art, education and writing programs work in maximum security prisons. Education is key to turning our justice system around. The United States is the worldwide leader in incarceration. We have to re-evaluate what we want to do here. When I learned that one in every three people of working age in the United States has some sort of criminal record, I realized how much this affects everyone.
NEA: What’s a typical class like at FPC Yankton? How does your approach to teaching inmates differ from teaching college students?
REESE: What I learned at FPC Yankton was to get off my PhD soapbox and really listen to what my students have to say. I over-prepared the first year. The first day a student asked, “What’s the difference between prose and a poem?” I knew I needed to throw out my lesson plans. My students have GEDs to PhDs, which makes the dynamics of the class that much richer.
They are eager to be in this room. They are busy writing as if someone were about to come in and take their computers away. If I told you I always have a captive audience, that would be true. But they aren’t always listening to me. By mid-year some of the more experienced students are frantically typing before class starts. Sometimes I have to interrupt them and say, “Listen, I need you to stop. I need you to hear this.” And they do. But most times I find myself looking at the tops of their heads as they compose at the computer, the sound of keyboard keys frantically clicking. Is there a better sound to hear as a school teacher?
The workshops are very open-minded and encouraging. I always tell guest speakers that come to the prison that it’s a lot like speaking to a group of grad students. And it is. These guys are just as intelligent as my cohorts were. But these guys really listen to each other and to me when I bring in new material to share and workshop with them. They give me constructive criticism and advice that not only improves my work—but catapults it into another dimension.
NEA: How do you think creative writing helps the inmates in their rehabilitation?
REESE: There’s enough buzz about the program and our journal now that men know what’s expected of them before they come to class. They know they will be writing real, oftentimes tough stories about their past. I tell them from day one, writing your story will help you heal. It will help your family. It will help your victims. It will help us understand that people need a second and sometimes third chance. If we don’t write and try and delve into our pasts, what’s the alternative?
I don’t sit them down and say write about prison. You can’t approach any topic that way. But I might say something like, tell me about the last time you saw your mother. I’ll ask them, why do we hurt the people we love? I make them write down an object from each year of their life, as far back as they can remember, and then I have them write about its significance. We write from other people’s perspectives so we can understand empathy; we write about fast cars and sleeping in strange beds. I ask them to finish this prompt: No one ever asked me…. We write letters to loved ones. We write about superstitions, the American dream, and disillusionment. I have hundreds of prompts I give these men, usually three very quickly, the first hour of class. Ideas and constructive criticism follow. After ten intense months of writing everyone has prose to publish. All of them find their honest voice. They explore the dark cave of memory that millions of men in America don’t have the courage to enter. And by doing so they become richer for the show; healing and hope for the future becomes reality.
NEA: In 4 P.M. Count, you mention that the inmates are writing for “transformative justice.” Can you tell us what that means?
REESE: Scholars define transformative justice as a general philosophical strategy for responding to conflicts. Writing for transformative justice includes accountability; knocking that crow off your shoulder and writing the truth. It’s an act of coming to terms with the emotional instabilities that a person carries with them. It’s a means of healing and a restorative response to conflict and crime.
Kyle Roberson, FPC Yankton Supervisor of Education, puts it this way: “It's a strategy to allow inmates to reflect inward about how their actions have affected others. It's a partnership between the student writers and the program facilitator. Students open up and accept instruction in reflective writing that allows each of them to make positive changes to their lives and perspectives.”
NEA: Do your students at Mount Marty College also benefit from your experience teaching at FPC Yankton?
REESE: Yes, my students at Mount Marty College directly benefit from my work in prisons. Students I don’t even know stop by my office and ask me when I’m offering “that class” so they can go to prison and work with inmates. They are very curious about what I do, which is a very interesting and very hopeful thing for our country’s future. My creative writing classes work together at both locations to workshop their writing. MMC students visit the prison once a semester to see what an education program looks like in corrections and to work with other creative writers. They get feedback and opinions on their work from inmate students who take their classes very seriously. Everyone benefits, and they are learning a lot more than just how to make their creative writing better. There’s a large empathy factor that comes into play for all the students participating. All of the students take this experience with them for their future endeavors.
NEA: What have the inmates of FPC Yankton taught you?
REESE: Empathy. Understanding. How to listen. How to be quiet. That everyone has a story that they need to tell. They teach me that we are all dysfunctional human beings who make mistakes. This has been the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve ever had. It’s made me a better professor. It’s made me a better person. I really feel I am making a difference in these guys’ lives—or helping make a difference. Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I’m glad this particular quote was brought to my attention because I really feel like what I’m doing at the prison is what I have been called to do. I’m human, I’ve made some mistakes in my life. I wish I could take them back, but I can’t. There are a lot of guys at the prison who are in that same boat. My students at the prison can do their time productively and walk out richer for the show.
NEA: What do the arts mean to you and your students at FPC Yankton?
REESE: In the introduction of the new issue of 4PM Count (which will be released in January) I asked the men what the purpose of this class was to them. Here’s what two of them had to say:
“In prison there is typically little to look forward to other than the day you are released. However, over the past two years I have found myself looking forward to Tuesday afternoons. That is when I report to Dr. Jim Reese’s Writing for Transformative Justice class at Federal Prison Camp Yankton. It is here that I am able to spend time searching myself and my life and expressing what I discover in both poetry and prose. Being in my early sixties, I feel that I have experienced a lot in life. It appears that I have found that voice that wants to tell my stories and I can’t seem to stop it from speaking to me… Being able to express myself through writing has been such a blessing for me and I am grateful for this opportunity.”—F.C.
“The creative writing class provides me with: a channel for my pent-up energy, a productive and proactive use of my time, an avenue for bringing my experiences out of the dark and into the light as printed text, an opportunity to develop my writing skills, and a way to cultivate my potential to communicate with people. This was not only a learning experience that made me feel like a better person, it was a step towards rehabilitation.”—M.M.