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Sundial Now: Incarcerated writers don’t hold back in a new journal presented at the Miami Book Fair

inmate_mothers_day_06_ekm.jpg
Emily Michot
/
Miami Herald
An audience of inmates and outsiders listen as Exchange for Change students recite their poems in 2017.

When someone is serving you a helping of your favorite dish — and you want a big, full serving, whether it’s sweet potato casserole or congri — tell them, “don’t shake the spoon.”

It’s a phrase used by people who are incarcerated when they’re in the cafeteria for meal time.

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That expression is also the title of a literary journal published by Kathie Klarreich’s organization that’s being presented at the Miami Book Fair this Saturday morning.

“Meaning don't level it off. Give me everything. You know, all the toppings, dump it onto my plate … The idea is that we're not holding back. We are telling you everything exactly as it is. And then some,” said Klarreich, the Founder and Executive Director of Exchange for Change, an organization that offers college-level writing courses to incarcerated students in Florida.

After over two decades of working as a journalist, Klarreich decided to dedicate her time to teaching others how to tell their own stories.

While she was working full-time as a journalist, she attended a women’s dance performance at a prison that didn’t leave her memory for years and made her think she might want to work with the incarcerated population one day.

“It was my first exposure inside that stayed with me for such a long time because I realized at that point that there's this whole world happening that we are excluded from, and there's something wrong with that system,” she said.

The educational program began in 2014, and since then, they have reached thousands of students and trained over a hundred teaching instructors.

“It's not an easy sell to work with people who are incarcerated because they're incarcerated for a reason in our current system, and they have left victims on the outside. But we shouldn't be defined by the worst thing that we ever did,” said Klarreich. “Education is a human right, and just because you are locked away — that is your punishment. But other rights, such as education and health, should not be taken away.”

inmate_mothers_day_01_ekm.jpg
Emily Michot
/
Miami Herald
David Hackett recites his poem dedicated to his late mother at an event in 2017.

They have published three volumes of “Don’t Shake the Spoon: A Journal of Prison Writing.” The latest anthology was penned by students in the program’s Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters. It includes everything from poetry to personal essays and even science fiction.

While incarcerated, inmates are referred to as a Department of Corrections number, but when they are in the classroom learning about creative writing, for those two hours, they are reminded of their individuality.

“[It’s] the opportunity to remember that they are an individual with a voice and they have something to offer. I see that time, and time again and I am a better person for being exposed to that and recognizing it and parking my judgment at the door. Not just in the prisons, but in life,” said Klarreich.

On Sundial now, she shared some of the writings from her students. This one is from a traditional poetry class and it’s called a reverse poem.

“The idea is that you read the poem in one direction and it has a negative effect. And then you take those same lines, you reverse them, and it has a positive effect,” she said.

Run It Back

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Prison is meant for us

So don’t tell us

You know how we feel

When you have only visited

Although

The world is safe

The bad guys are locked up

Don’t ever say

Let them out

Give them a second chance

Instead let’s

Mass incarcerate

Make harsher laws

It should be wrong to

Remember that criminals were once people like you

The world only belongs to you

Don’t be stupid to think that

There could be another view

- - -
There could be another view

Don’t be stupid to think that

The world only belongs to you

Remember that criminals were once people like you

It should be wrong to

Make harsher laws

Mass incarcerate

Instead let’s

Give them a second chance

Let them out

Don’t ever say

The bad guys are locked up

The world is safe

Although

When you have only visited

You know how we feel

So don’t tell us

Prison is meant for us

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Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the lead producer behind WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.
Elisa Baena is a fall 2021 intern at WLRN News.