Prison Poetry Project brings art from behind bars to the community
Members of the community gathered Sunday evening in the Avenue Cafe in Lansing to hear poetry recitations. The event was made possible because the poems read out loud by community leaders were written by incarcerated men and women.
It was the ninth annual reading of the Prison Poetry Project. The project was put on by NorthWest Initiative, an organization which aims to create healthy communities in northwest Lansing.
"We started the Prison Poetry reading over nine years ago now," said Peggy Vaughn-Payne, Northwest Initiative's executive director.
Vaughn-Payne said the annual event is held to reduce stereotypes that may surround individuals who have been in and out of the U.S. prison system.
"This particular event has always been an eye opener for a lot of people in the community to understand and hear from people in prison and to also bring community leaders together and try and reduce the stereotype people have of prisoners," Vaughn-Payne said.
The Avenue Cafe was filled with people eating, drinking and hearing the thoughts of people in prisons come to life on a stage. Poem readers included East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows, Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon and Lansing city councilmembers Adam Hussain and Jeremy Garza.
The subjects of the pieces ranged from regret to the dark struggles of a life behind bars and the hope of reuniting with family and friends.
Between the readings were brief intermissions to showcase other people’s work. The first was a reading by Timothy Riddle. He was convicted at age 15 and spent the rest of his childhood and a portion of his adult years behind bars. He, released in April 2018, told his story about life after experiencing 30 years in prison.
"Everyday is both wonderful and taxing, but it is better than any day I have ever had," Riddle wrote. "I have friends and choices now. And bills. But I welcome all that because now I am once again where I was meant to be, free."
Martin Vargas, an ex-offender turned artist, was also present. His artwork was on display and he spoke on stage about his journey from juvenile lifer to artist.
"I always carry the label of artist," Vargas said. "It is what I’ve chosen to give myself."
Vargas went on to talk about how creating art helped him cope during his time in prison. Since his release, art has continued to provide him with an escape. It also makes him feel like a productive citizen and member of a community again.
His speech echoed the mission of NorthWest Initiative and the Prison Poetry Project itself.
"Our goal is to help people on parole successfully reintegrate into communities in a positive way ... and help them to see what doing good things in the community looks like," Vaughn-Payne said.
Vaughn-Payne talked about the organization's history and its involvement with the Lansing community and other previously-incarcerated people.
"NorthWest Initiative is a non-profit community development organization. We’ve been working for 18 years now, helping low-income families with a variety of social services, emergency services, basic needs," Vaughn-Payne said.
According to Vaughn-Payne, attention was brought to incarcerated people in the community in 2007. Housing for ex-offenders was being built in a certain neighborhood. A need for conversation rose in order to settle questions and fears from members of the community.
NorthWest Initiative brought together members of the community and the housing project to have a conversation.
"What brought it to our attention was that there was this huge population that we were unaware of in the community, so we started viewing them as another marginalized population and see what kind of needs they had," Vaughn-Payne said.
Vaughn-Payne said the initiative was about making that leap to talk.
"That’s what we’re all about, 'Let’s talk about this,'" she said.