Outside of his dreams, Juan Esquival hadn’t held his children since 1999. “Freedom,” said Elliot Ross, doing time for a string of robberies before his 22nd birthday, “is for my kids not to make the same mistake I did in life.” After 18 years in prisons across Florida, as he tuned up, guitarist Ronald “Bam” Threet said he knew exactly how much time he had left on the inside: eight months, four hours and 35 minutes.
Just before Christmas, an audience of college students, neighbors and fellow inmates filed into a cinder-block visitation room at Dade Correctional Institution, outside Homestead, and took their seats beneath murals of Mount Rushmore and Mickey Mouse. For two hours, they alternated between tears and laughter, spellbound by a performance that ran the gamut from spoken-word poetry to songwriting and standup comedy. Unquestionably, they were moved.
A wave of laughter filled the room when Darryl Harden interrupted himself and crooned “I’m so nervous I’ll have to start over,” in the middle of an R&B ballad. “I liked the singer who forgot his words,” said Jim Weiner, who passed through a metal detector and three sets of locking doors to hear the performance. “The depth of feeling,” he whispered, holding back tears, “touched me.”
The talent showcase featured more than two dozen incarcerated men celebrating their graduation from Exchange for Change, an educational arts program that pairs students behind bars with classes at high schools and universities around South Florida. In three years, Exchange for Change’s program at Dade Correctional Institution has grown from a workshop of 17 to 15 classes with a total of 117 students, who hone their craft in everything from memoir and graphic novels to essays and poetry grappling with the moral weight of their past crimes.
Mario Mancebo shared a heartfelt remembrance of his wife, who died of breast cancer while he was behind bars, as their 8-year-old daughter cared for her in his absence. “These wasted years have been my biggest regret,” recited Mancebo, now 19 years into a life sentence. “Reminiscing about the things I’ve done—the crying, the laughing, the hurt, the fun. Now it’s just me with my hard-driven guilt, inside these steel jungles I’ve allowed to be built.”
Breaking with common practice in Florida’s 143 prisons—where so-called lifers are typically barred from participating in “betterment” classes—half the performers were serving life sentences.
As the deadliest prison in Florida, Dade Correctional Institution has been in the news primarily for horrific accounts of abuse of mentally-ill inmates like Darren Rainey, who was scalded to death in a shower there in 2012.
Running the program is not without challenges. Last year, dozens of visitors to the graduation ceremony were caught up in an hours-long lockdown because an inmate had escaped from a work crew; in November, an Exchange for Change student nearly died when he was stabbed in the neck over a stolen cell phone.
Stories like these are one reason Dade hosts no other community-run enrichment programs alongside core offerings like literacy and GED classes run by Department of Corrections staff.
As Kathie Klarreich, a former journalist who founded Exchange for Change, put it, the prison’s reputation is such that “nobody wants to be there.” But Klarreich believes Exchange for Change can help change that. “For us, having the lifers is huge because it influences everyone coming into the compound,” she said, pointing out that those serving life sentences are often seen as leaders inside the prison walls. “What we’re trying to prove is that programs like ours decrease the need to use solitary confinement.”
Assistant Warden for Programs Javier Jones said that’s a goal he shares. At 12 p.m. sharp, a mandatory headcount tallied 68 inmates taking part in the graduation ceremony. “The compound, this facility, has 1,500 inmates,” Jones said. “What we are trying to do, with you and your teachers, and everybody, is hopefully the ones in here learn something, so we can try and calm down our facility.”