It’s graduation time for some students, as classes wrap up for the holiday season. One such ceremony was held behind the razor wire and locked doors of Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead.
The graduation for the writing classes offered through Exchange for Change was held in the prison’s large recreation room, where murals of Disney characters look down on you. The gathering was a way to share and celebrate what the inmates accomplished over the past semester.
Men in their prison-issued blue uniforms read or performed poems, prose and mock-debate in English and Spanish to a group of their peers and community members from outside the prison walls.
“[The class] really showed me a different way to use words, a different way to paint pictures, a different way to show visions, to express my emotions,” said Zerrick Dixon, who took a spoken word class. He has been at Dade Correctional (DCI) for a little more than nine years after being convicted of robbery. He says he’ll be taking more classes during the 10 months remaining on his sentence.
One of the classes offered was a debate course where students debated things like “should prisoners be allowed to raise chickens?” or “does U.S. culture have a negative or positive influence in the world?”
“In here, we have people who disagree and they debate and it ends up in violent situations where people end up hurt and stabbed up,” said Waldo Hewitt, who took the debate class. “So [in this class] we learned how to agree to disagree and use civilized organized strategies to make a point.”
When it came time to walk up to the microphone, many of the students couldn’t stop their hands from shaking. If they stalled too much before starting, their peers would encouragingly and forcefully say, “read,” a tradition from the classes.
Each one of the presenters would then launch into beautiful, heartfelt, raw words about life inside and outside of prison. Some described what it feels like to have left loved ones behind; others vented frustration about the system that landed them in prison. Others talked about being misunderstood or feeling invisible because they’re in prison.
Listen to a few of the poems here:
“Part of our objective with Exchange for Change is to get the voices outside of the razor wire,” said Kathy Klarreich founder and director of Exchange for Change.
Klarreich says many of those in prison will have an opportunity to get out at some point. “We as a community have to be willing and ready to receive them and we do this by breaking down barriers.”
At the end of the program, visitors from the outside were invited to share some words. Most thanked the students for their words. Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas got up and said how important it is to have more judges see this kind of event.
“I never get to see you after you leave my courtroom… My only regret is that I’m the only judge here today,” said Thomas. “If there were more of us who showed up and got a chance to see that you were more than just the charges that you were facing, you are more than just the act that you are being accused of or that you’ve been convicted of and that you are more than just the limited opportunities that so many people in society think you are.”
He pledged to bring more judges at the end of next semester.
Allington “Dante” Dottin seized on the opportunity to say a few things to the judge about how programs like Exchange for Change give them a leg up.
“I don’t know what circuit you’re in and who handles when people go back to court,” said Dottin, “but I hope that when you open up that packet [on an inmate], when you see those Exchange for Change certificates in there, that that would be some weight.”
There are about 1,500 inmates at Dade Correctional. The Exchange for Change program right now holds about a little more than 80 people and is hoping to expand in the future.