When the youth shuffled into Cleveland’s Juvenile Detention Center library in November 2016, we stood up to greet them. Everyone dapped, but awkwardly, and sat down together at a big table. We were all a little uncertain about what would happen next—even those of us who’d called this meeting. Zach Thomas, perhaps most of all, since this was his dream.
Zach, Anthony, Rachel, Michalena, and I had just passed through the security check and armored doors into the windowless interior, and it was hard to not be bowed down by the dull leaden weight of prison. In the detention center’s library, we tried to shake off the awkwardness, talking about advice we’d been given and advice we’d want to give. Zach, Anthony, and I had prepared a workshop built around the theme of advice, beginning by sharing Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” and Mos Def’s “Umi Says.” Hughes’ haunting opening sets the tone for the rest of its exhortation: “Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Echoing Hughes, Mos Def’s “Umi Says” wrestles with despair at the condition of the world, but hears his grandmother’s advice to shine his light “for the world to see.” We wanted poems that acknowledged the difficulties of life, but also its lightness, love, beauty.
But the room felt heavy, and the young men were quiet, guarded, and unsmiling. One seemed to be fighting off sleep. Another seemed distracted, bored. Then one of them—G—broke the icy silence.
“It’s like spice. I put a little spice in my letters to my girl back home.” Spice, it seemed, was like poetry—something you do with language to make someone interested in you. Then everyone started to talk about the letters they’d write to their girls. They puffed out their chests, as young men do, bragging about their girls on the outside.
Now outfitted with pencils and paper, everyone went off into the corners of the library, trying to find their own words. How beautiful it was, in that generative quiet, as everyone worked on their lines, miles from that suspicious icy silence that began the session.
When we gathered back together and people shared, I was shocked to hear their pieces. All the poems addressed mothers, grandmothers, and siblings. They dug down hard into their lives, talking about regrets and hopes and longings. They’d been fronting for each other, for us, but now the shield was lowered. I felt a little ashamed that I’d been intimidated by their silence. They were almost men, but they were also sons and brothers. By law, nearly all of them were still children. The distracted one performed a dazzling rap. Everyone asked why he’d been hiding this talent.
At the end of our hour and a half together, we passed out a survey. What the residents wrote on that survey restored my faith in the possibilities of poetry: “Helped me to express myself.” “Allowed me to get stuff off my chest.” “I learned something new about myself.” “Let me know that no matter what happened, there’s always another chance.”
Two other comments also caught my eye. One young man wrote: “Helped us bond like family.” And another wrote: “I felt like I had a family again.” You don’t have to be in prison to feel that fierce longing to belong, to be loved by others, so eloquently expressed by these young men. But living in detention can be painful, grueling, and traumatizing in ways that are difficult for those on the outside to imagine. People are torn from the only lives they know—no matter how difficult those lives have been—and have to begin another kind of existence behind bars.
That’s how Writers in Residence was born. Sometimes when they first hear the name, people laugh, thinking it’s ironic. Not at all. We want everyone to step into that name—to step into the fact that they are writers, in residence, wherever they are. The program began as Zach Thomas’s dream, born from the question, what would happen if we brought a creative writing workshop to work with youth in a carceral space? Three other John Carroll University students—Anthony Shoplik, Rachel Schratz, and Michalena Mezzopera—joined him, and I, as faculty, and happily provided some help.
The young men in detention had met only Anthony through Carroll Ballers, a weekly peer mentorship program that features basketball, pizza, and life skills, founded in 2012 by JCU students Michael Gong and Ned Barnes. Ballers had scores of volunteers and a powerful presence at the Juvenile Detention Center, but Zach wanted to get to know the residents in a more intensive way. For one thing, there were certain rules around what could be discussed in Ballers, for legal reasons. You could get called into court if you’d heard about the crimes that landed them in detention. Still, Zach reasoned, if he were the one behind bars, he would have wanted the chance to express in writing what he was going through. After all, he was a poet, and he saw himself in them. And as a young Black man, he felt he was only a simple twist of fate away from being where they were.
Using the name Writers in Residence (WIR), we aimed to make carceral space become less confining, and young men and women in detention become known and celebrated as writers. Spurred by a 2018 visit to WIR from Karen Long, Manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, Zach received a Cleveland Foundation Fellowship to develop the program and build a network of cohorts. Today, Writers in Residence is a nonprofit, and it continues to grow, with cohorts all over the state of Ohio, from Cleveland to Dayton.
WIR’s mission is “to teach creative writing to youth who are incarcerated to empower their voices and assist in their re-entry into society,” and, along the way, “to reduce the recidivism rates of our residents and participate in the transformation of the juvenile justice system.” The magic of WIR happens in a confluence of self-expression, self-reflection, and friendship. Studies have shown that increasing literacy is one of the best ways to reduce recidivism, but it’s also clear that steady presence and relationship is equally necessary. Early on, one of the Writers said he likes that Zach and WIR is “consistent.” So much in the lives of incarcerated youth is the opposite of consistent. Zach and the cohort show up when he says they will, every week, for ten weeks every semester. Trust requires consistent attention, weekly meetings.
Because WIR works through peer mentorship, it doesn’t have the same power dynamics of a classroom. Before the empty page, all are equal—whether you’re inside or outside prison. Everyone is trying to find a way to fasten their voice to that blankness. Having the cohort of volunteers share their work, along with the Writers in Residence, brings everyone together. In the process, they quench the thirst for belonging, an alternative to the toxic belonging that gangs offer.
One of the things that first attracted the residents to join WIR was the food. I used to think that the sharing of pizza at the end of sessions was about getting a taste of the outside. Now, I wonder if it was as much about being together, sharing. The core of the beautiful word “companionship” contains the Latin roots “com” (“with”) and “panis” (‘bread”). The deep root of bread is pa, meaning to feed. Companionship involves someone with whom you share bread. This accompaniment involves a mutuality that goes beyond service, into solidarity.
As D.S., one Writer in Residence, writes,
Only if you knew the things I go through.
Only if you knew the mazes of streets I’ve walked through.
When the pretty doesn’t always get stalked but the predator gets stalked too.
Only if you knew the demons I’ve talked to.
When they tell me yes to the things I shouldn’t do…
I just wish you could walk in my shoes.
Where you don’t depend on nobody but you.
To see everything that I’ve told you is not a lie but the truth.
Acts of solidarity require standing with, walking with, writing with, and eating with those on the margins. The criminal justice system in the United States now houses well over two million people, with an incarceration rate higher than anywhere else in the world. After hundreds of years of American slavery, Jim Crow laws, and a white supremacist culture that continues to prey on our most marginalized groups, scholar Michelle Alexander terms the criminal justice system “The New Jim Crow.” The Sentencing Project describes that early 70% of prisoners are non-white. According to Pew Research, one in three prisoners is Black, five times the rate of incarceration of white people. Undoing white privilege and making reparations to the descendants of the enslaved requires radical reform of the criminal justice system and attending to the needs of those caught in it.
But I’ve always thought of it as both social justice work and spiritual repair. In Matthew 25:36, Jesus exhorts his disciples to attend to the imprisoned and the oppressed: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” How to accompany someone on that journey inside the walls, and inside their hearts and minds?
As T.B. writes, echoing Frost, in his poem “Miracle”:
I just need a miracle
Im feeling so lost I dont know
Where to go
This path im on leads down
into a crossing road
Making a decision on
which way to go…
In many respects, WIR reflects the spirit of Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, who calls the purpose of his work “kinship”:
No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.
For Boyle, building kinship is not a gift to the poor or powerless or voiceless. It is a gift that everyone opens, even those whose privilege has disconnected them from the human family. Writers in Residence, at its best, puts people together to explore, reflect, laugh—and in the process, become community.
As Catherine, another Writer in Residence, writes in “Love Letter From a Piece of Paper to a Pen”:
I love the way you glide
upon the lines.
You make my surface shine
with your words
you leave me blind.
Boyle also says that his work at Homeboy Industries is not ultimately merely about job training: “It’s connection and kinship that ultimately heals people. Training will come as a kind of side-order, but the main meal is tenderness and healing.”
I asked Zach what he thought the Writers got out of WIR. “They want to be seen, heard, and understood,” he said. “They want their contribution to matter to someone else. And they need the opportunity to make mistakes, to learn from failure. They don’t have the luxury to play. WIR is where play happens.”
You can see it in the poems of JD. He’s unafraid to explore the dark side, like writing from the perspective of someone who wishes he were dead. Here’s one of the stanzas:
Goodbye world that hates me
I hate me too don’t you see
In the end it was always me
Alone in a world that doesn’t even see me as I should have been seen
There’s such catharsis in writing poems like this one, that dig into the darkness and bring it into light. But he’s also written sweet love poems:
I wake up to see you on my screen
Soundly asleep peacefully
Your beauty is something I’ve never seen
Always giving me a sense of tranquility
Your eyes, your smile, your voice
Giving off such a poise
I’m glad to call myself yours
I will scream my love with loud noise
What has struck me so forcefully, participating in Writers in Residence, is how people who have lived in a state of constant vigilance suddenly reveal themselves. To see them be vulnerable with each other has been a total wonder to witness. I loved seeing how one of the writers teased his college peer mentor about his nerdy polo shirt as they settled down to the prompt of the day. The joking went quiet, and then, after writing, they shared some of their greatest sorrows. Their words, spoken aloud, made the whole room different. Like birds returning to the trees, singing the dawn after a terrible, dark winter.
When those bars that imprison them—the bars that they carry inside—thaw and melt away, it’s as if the residents come home to themselves, perhaps in a way that they never have before. Through words and writing, fellowship and companionship, they come home. We all come home.
In May 2019, Zach invited the outside community to come into the detention center to share some buffalo wings and hear a group reading by the Writers in Residence. Afterwards, during the question and answer, the young men opened up further. When asked how it feels after they write a poem, they took turns being eloquent.
“It makes you discover things that you don’t know,” one said. “Poetry never ends.” P.B. said, “I gotta best be honest. I start to tear up. Most people don’t want to do that, but I feel the burden in my chest leaving.”
“Being here,” Tev said, “every day is the same, endless loop. When I write, it takes me out of that loop. When I write, I’m out of this place, walking the streets. Free.” As Tev writes, in “Mother Nature,” imagining being by the ocean:
the whistle next to my
ear makes my breath
the roll of the sea
as wet as can be
I almost feel free
Why else is Pegasus, the winged horse, associated with poetry? Poetry transports us. The Writers in Residence program, using poetry as a means of empowering youth in detention, has enabled young people to find a way out of the bars of prison. But it’s not just about escape. It’s about coming home even while incarcerated. Someone else asked the young men what they’d learned from writing.
“I met P.B.,” Tev said. “That’s my brother now. You build connections, and bonds you never see. It changes you for real.” Another young man said, “Holding feelings inside doesn’t help. It makes you a ticking time bomb that’s gonna explode.” A third person said, “It makes you realize that people out there care for us.” Finally, P.B. ranged around, trying to encapsulate it: “To love one another. To make me think about what I went through. To be yourself. We just one big family.”
Then COVID hit. In March 2020, WIR was running a dozen cohorts, and everything shut down. Most urgently, juvenile detention facilities needed personal protective equipment, and WIR sprang into action, gathering and bringing masks and sanitizer. But what concerned Zach most was how to communicate with residents why no one was coming. In the past, guards would sometimes misinform residents why the cohorts didn’t show up, blaming it on their behavior. Zach began a letter campaign, gathering letters and sending them directly with residents.
“We wanted them to know,” he said, “we were still supporting them during this isolation. They were already so isolated, even before COVID, and COVID made it much worse.”
“Did I get in trouble for it two months later? Sure,” he says, smiling, noting that it was against policy to write directly to the juveniles in detention. “But it was worth it.”
As the pandemic dragged on, with facilities postponing any in-person visits for the foreseeable future, Zach was able to get three cohorts to host by the fall of 2020—Heidelberg, Hiram, and JCU/Medina.
After logging hundreds of exhausting hours on the road in previous years to help oversee new cohorts starting up, Zach had a new challenge: how to replicate the best of WIR without being physically present. I recall visiting one remote workshop, in which all the WIR at the facility shared a single Zoom screen, seated a dozen feet from the camera. It seemed impossible to recreate the magic, that community.
“It’s hard,” Zach reflected. “The need to protect the integrity of what was takes a lot of trust to accept what will be.”
But Latisha Ellis, a visiting artist that Zach brought on to help lead a cohort, was unfazed by the challenge. She seemed to remember everyone’s name, mumbled behind a mask. I was impressed. She had been incarcerated and found in writing a way to be free. She became a key member of the team that includes a clutch of practicing writers like Carrie George, Isaiah Hunt (a Hopkins fellow at John Carroll), Sarah Lazzari, Mary Quade (faculty at Hiram College), and Kelli Price.
“You want to hold onto how things got started,” Zach shared. “Latisha has challenged me. She has lived experience. I don’t fully understand what it’s like to be incarcerated. But she comes into a room, writes her prison I.D. number on the board and says: ‘that’s who I was.’” She was confident, even brash, and she taught not just about poetry, but about gender, sexuality, systemic racism and homophobia—as if her life depended on it.
In 2020, WIR became a nonprofit organization, drawing the founding four students into new roles on the Board, and bringing in some allies and advocates like Paul Gehrig (also in the original JCU cohort), Marina Giannirakis, Russell Hauser, Skip Hill, Pamela Levy, myself, and Bobbi Saltzman. Out of the honeymoon phase, WIR has become an expected feature at Ohio juvenile facilities looking for high quality arts programming. Working with the prison system can be exhausting—and with juvenile systems, even more so. The rules and regulations to protect minors, paradoxically, also restrict opportunities. Despite the challenges, Zach sees that it’s still people who can make a difference. “It’s still shocking to me—even with how structured and hierarchical the incarceration system is, it’s ultimately about people making decisions. That is what alters an individual situation.”
I wondered how Zach stayed inspired. Going to the workshops, he said. “Even though I’m feeding the machine of the program, I’m also feeding myself.” Now he has a board and a staff that includes Spencer Dolezal—the Re-entry representative, Community Outreach, and Advocacy Director, and Margaret Reardon, Development Director.
The Reentry Mentorship Initiative was born out of an understanding that, once the Writers got out, they faced enormous obstacles upon reentry into society. In some sense, Zach shared, “once you’re incarcerated, you’re incarcerated for the rest of your life.”
One writer, JG, wrote in a poem called “Life Problems,” something about this absurdity:
The knife cuts my throat
I lost my breath cause the gash
I cause my own death
I can save my last breath
With a better past
Unable to change the past, Writers, upon release, have to figure out how to live. “Incarceration is like a ‘pause’ [button],” Zach said, “yet everyone around you continues. But you’re stuck at this point. And when you get out, everyone else is way ahead of you.”
Recently, after months of working with Spencer and borrowing his car to practice driving, WIR alum JD—author of the aforementioned death and love poems—finally passed his driver’s license test. In a recent WIR newsletter, you can see a photo of him next to the car, holding up the driver’s test with two hands. His smile is so wide, he’s beaming.
When WIR began a new partnership with the University of Dayton, it felt like a homecoming to Zach, who grew up in Dayton. One writer in the group stood out: Masonique—or Maso, as she was known by everyone. In a photo that accompanies a story about her incarceration in The New Republic, Maso smiles so wide her eyes are closed. Her head is cocked to the side, her hands are in the pockets of her shorts. She seems so full of life. You can feel it in her list poem:
- I come from the struggle where young babys
grow up with no mothers.
- thugs on the block are tryna make another
dollar by the hustle.
- crackheads are steady begging for cash
- Oh look down the street it’s another car crash but I’m going to choose to do better
- and when they speak on me they gone to
- say yeah she came from the bottom but she’s on a higher level.
“Even if she was having a bad day, then she still tried to warm the room up with hope and laughter,” Zach shared. “At the end of every session, she would say: ‘Okay, let’s get deep / let’s get real.’ She wanted everyone to jump right into a serious, meaningful topic about life. She always wanted us to share about our own lives too because she was curious to learn about us.”
Three weeks after being released, Maso was barbecuing with friends in a Columbus park. Someone fired shots, killing Maso and injuring a friend. She’d been getting death threats, perhaps because the family had disputed the police’s version of the robbery and murder that led to her incarceration.
When presenting her poems at a public reading in April 2023, Zach’s voice broke as he read. Later, he told me that he’d lost not only Maso, but another writer as well. Colton, whose letters to Zach during COVID were vivid and beautiful, died suddenly after a seizure. “That’s part of the work that I did not agree to,” Zach said, his voice breaking.
Working in prisons, you face a system that seems designed to punish, not rehabilitate, people who have been defined by the worst moments of their lives. The recidivism rates in the United States are stark. According to one 2022 study, about 44% of those formerly incarcerated will return to prison within a year of being out. The reasons are numerous. Writers in Residence has made much of the fact that one obvious difference-maker for incarceration is literacy; as many as 85% of incarcerated juveniles have trouble reading, but those who learn to read have a much lower recidivism rate.
On its own, Writers in Residence can’t change mass incarceration. But if you ask JD, flashing that driver’s test and that big grin, it may well have been the thing that helped him find his footing, to drive into a formerly-unimaginable future.
Maybe this is not unlike Zach, years before, test-driving his own future, figuring out what freedom might look like for him. He recalls having a conversation with Anthony Shoplik back in a college dorm, as they were dreaming about what they would do after college. What they wanted to make of their lives. “Anthony said, ‘I want to leave something of value behind,’” he recalled. “At the time, I didn’t get that stuff about legacy. I do now.”
For more information about Writers in Residence and to get involved, visit: https://www.writersnresidence.org/