In the family visitor’s lounge, under paintings of Disney cartoon characters, two-dozen incarcerated men at Dade Correctional Institution take turns walking up to a microphone to recite poems they wrote while in prison.
They’re all dressed in the same blue prison-issued uniforms. Many of the men appeared nervous, their hands visibly shaking as they recited their personal prose from rattling pieces of papers — odes to victims of gun violence, frustrations about the criminal justice system and apologies to their mothers.
“…This woman has put up with
all my crap and misguided angst,
crying for my understanding
with every outburst of hate…” recited Israel Martinez from his poem “Mothers Day.”
Several inmates wiped away tears as Martinez recited his poem.
Exchange For Change, a nonprofit that runs writing classes at Dade Correctional, published Martinez’s poem along with other writings and illustrations by inmates in a booklet titled “Inmates Have Mothers Too.”
“This is a voice that surprised me, if it surprised me — I already work in the prisons — that voice is something that should also be known on the outside,” said Kathie Klarreich, director of Exchange for Change.
She said the inmates were initially writing for a trauma class she teaches and she noticed much of their work centered around their mothers — “appreciation and love and regret and sorrow and guilt.”
She wanted to give them an option to share their work with their moms and people on the outside so she created the printed booklet.
Exchange for Change recently held a graduation for the participants in the writing classes.
“You don’t really understand the true perspective of prison until someone that you know or someone that you love is in here. And that especially goes for a mother,” said Allington "Dante" Dottin, one of the inmates.
David Hackett, another inmate, said his mom died last year while he was behind bars.
“Moms will always love you and it seems like sometimes that that’s your last line of support is your mom, so you know, moms are really important to us. And I miss her,” said Hackett.
He sent the poem he wrote in memory of his mom to his sister:
“…Years go by before we can
look back on
life and see
through older eyes and wiser hearts
her love and loyalty
and yet it's these
and other special things
we'll hold so dear
for memories of her steadfast love
will keep her ever near…”
He said writing was therapeutic.
“[The class] challenged me to express myself because I hold things in,” said Hackett.
Klarreich, the writing instructor, said some of the inmates wrote about having difficult relationships with their mothers too -- moms who couldn’t be home a lot because they were holding down multiple jobs or moms who were in and out of jail.
“Many of them understand now why their mothers couldn’t have been there for them when they were younger,” she said. “And then a lot of them had very good mothers and [the inmate] made very bad decisions and they want their mothers to know that they own their decisions.”
Martinez, who wrote “Mother’s Day,” said before landing in prison he rarely went to see his mom, but when he was arrested, she was one of his regular visitors.
“She’s always been there for me and I never really recognized it enough,” said Martinez. “ You don’t want them to suffer, but our mothers always suffer every day we’re in here, every hour that we’re sitting behind bars.”
He said the writing class was a safe environment for him to show his appreciation to his mom for sticking by him and to apologize for what he’s put her through.
He’s says now when they speak, he touches on some the topics he writes about.
“It has allowed me to be able to converse with my mother more freely and to not avoid touchy subjects even to the point where we’ve cried plenty of times,” said Martinez.
His mom Hermi Dionisio could not attend the graduation, -- family members are not allowed -- but when reached by phone she said she’s proud of her son’s progress.
“I’m very grateful that I’ve been an influence in his life and that he recognizes me as such,” said Martinez’s mother.
She called the poem he dedicated to her, “beautiful.”