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Prison Poet Laureate Speaks For Florida's Incarcerated

 Christopher Malec
Christopher Malec

Kathie Klarreich of Miami started Exchange for Change in 2014.

The mission of the organization, she says, is to teach writing and bring the voices of the incarcerated out to the public. The hope is to inform people about who is inside the state’s correctional facilities.

Poetry is…redefining, redesigning expressly realizing and verbally dispensing

Anything which captures or raptures one or more of the five senses. Or the sixth. If it exists.

Klarreich took notice of Christopher Malec, a Hollywood, Florida, native heard here, when he was in the inaugural Exchange for Change class at Dade Correctional Institution. He was just 24 years old and had been in prison for about three years..

"It was really clear from day one that he was bright. He could write really well," said Klarreich. "But he was writing in a more technical style, because that's what he was doing as a law clerk. And then once he was exposed to creative writing, and poetry, he started to work on spoken word poetry, and took off."

Which poetry tends to assist a belief in and desist in

Keeping the crinkles in the brain from expanding and demanding oxygen

Rich red fuel to that cranial motor injecting the creative process with purpose.

In January of this year, Malec was named the Florida Prison Poet Laureate. That’s an honorary position awarded by Klarreich’s Exchange for Change writing program in conjunction with the O, Miami Poetry Festival, and he’s just the second poet to hold the title.

Malec spoke with me from Okaloosa Correctional Institution, in the Florida panhandle.

"Writing has always been sort of an interest to me," Malec said. "But really it was when Exchange for Change  got offered at Dade Correctional institution that I became interested in it. I felt a really positive energy from actually taking the courses, and I started getting really good feedback. And it just became a passion from there. That was like 2014, I think."

Malec will hold his title for the next two years. And the assignment will keep him pretty busy.

"So, the main duty is to be the voice for the incarcerated population for the Florida system," he said. "But mainly whenever a holiday hits, I should have a work of poetry ready to represent both our voice and usually the subject matter. So if it's Mother's Day, then something to represent mothers. If it’s Women's History Month, something to celebrate women. MLK Day, you want to celebrate the civil rights there. It's our way to link to the free world. So it's my job to represent us. But it's also my job to celebrate things that everybody celebrates."

Representing the voice of Florida’s prison population is a big job. The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 795 people out of 100,000 in Florida are imprisoned. That's 130 more people per 100,000 than the national average.

Malec says he knows that because people in jail are out of sight, they are often not on the minds of the general public. Malec himself was sentenced to life without parole at age 21 for an armed robbery. There’s little chance of his release.

"As an incarcerated individual, you’re forgotten. You know what I mean, you become, you become a part of the population that isn't remembered anymore," Malec said. "We're not represented, people don't do large protests for us. We don't have we don't have real representation. We don't have anybody supporting us that the only people that support us, is us."

This summer, Exchange for Change published a book of writing from prisoners about being inside during COVID, called Hear Us. Malec has a poem in there. And as Florida Prison Poet Laureate, he is going to keep writing so that even behind impenetrable prison walls, his voice may be heard.

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