Public Source, "Jailhouse poets find voice in writing course"

Few inmate education programs in Pennsylvania

By Jeffrey Benzing, Public Source

Brother Umar wears ketchup-colored jail garb. He’s been locked up for 14 months, but his words earn him snaps as if he’s at a hipster coffee shop.

“For good Abel can’t help but to sacrifice his life to this ‘caine that’s so fatal,” he recites, part preacher, part emcee. Then, conversationally: “That’s Cain and Abel.”

Umar, whose real name is Chris Westbrooks Jr., is in the Allegheny County Jail awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault in connection with a 2013 shooting in Duquesne.

Today, though, is like a graduation. It’s the final meeting of inmates in the Words Without Walls program, a weekly course taught by Chatham University graduate students.

His fellow inmates hold pages of their own poems and stories written over the summer. They are reminiscences and laments. Some are humorous, others raw. Some dig into the mistakes and addictions that put them here in the first place.

Every school term, a handful of the jail’s male and female inmates attend a weekly three-hour class on creative writing, which concludes in a final reading that brings the groups together. 

Through the program, they learn to channel feelings like anger and loss into something constructive, one of the program’s main goals.

“Instead of going out on the housing pod and knocking heads, we’ve had guys that’ll go back to their pods or back to their unit and start to write,” said Jack Pischke, the jail’s inmate program administrator.

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