How Sad the Exodus: Teaching Men’s Creative Writing in a County Jail

Class 1

The men arrive an hour late because of a fire drill on Floor 6. The correctional officer on duty says it’s not a real fire drill, but “something fishy.” I visited that floor during my training. A sergeant told me it was not the place to go husband shopping.

As the students trickle in, I put my hand up to say hello. I stay seated. I’m not comfortable standing. I feel so tall in the building, in my civilian clothes, in my bones. I don’t like the feeling.

I’m thankful that my co-teacher takes the reigns. It gives me a chance to look at each of our new students and acclimate to our circle of chairs. As they introduce themselves, I write down notes for memory. I make a seating chart for later. For now, I know them only by the way they look back at me and from which direction.

They write for different reasons.

“It’s easier than talking.”

“It makes no sense at all but it makes perfect sense.”

“It’s a spiritual release.”

“It’s an avenue to express myself.”

“It’s therapeutic.”

I say writing helps me understand the things that happen to me and around me. I have to think about my answer, because most days it seems like every other reason. Money, recognition, opportunity, relevance. That pending MFA.

We open our textbooks to a poem, “Allegheny Ford Trucks,” by ex-inmate Stephon Hayes. The speaker describes the view from his cell window—a river, the business district, and the constant Allegheny Ford Trucks sign, a single, cold totem on the outside. It makes him crazy. He sees it everywhere. He writes, Help me. I am lonely. I am lonely.

I ask two different men to read the poem aloud for us. Someone says Damn and there are nodding heads. A few guys lock their eyes on me. I say, “Reactions?”

They feel the poem. I feel the poem, too, but not in the same way. How can that be? Empathy, maybe. We write to say: I am here and I am lonely and I am going through this thing you either can’t imagine, or maybe you can. But I need you to know. I need you to feel me.

After a beat, a young man says, “I didn’t think I would, but I’m gonna like this class.” It feels good and I am caught off guard. This is a volunteer social-justice-type instructor’s wet dream. Right now, it only means I have said something true. I try to forget it.

For the last hour, everyone writes at a computer. I am called from my desk again and again.

“Miss Shannon, read my poem.”
“Miss Shannon, I am stuck on this ending.”
“Miss Shannon, does this sound right?”

I cringe at my new title. 

A quiet student calls me over to read his poem, “The Door.” The speaker meditates on his cell door, which is both an entrance and an exit. It ends with, “What door do you look at?”

While they work, we are YouTube DJs. We play a list of songs compiled by the group. When a guard walks by, we turn the volume down.

“The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel plays, and I try to find the man in the room who requested it. There he is, sitting alone in our circle of chairs. His eyes are closed.


Class 2

The group shuffles in promptly today. They pass around a song list and chat about the jail trays served at lunch.

“Dog food,” Michael says.

Joe is an unfamiliar face, so I greet him with a handshake, a folder, and a fresh notebook.

We have four new students on the roster, and several pods of men have been cut from our class for mysterious reasons. I am learning that flexibility is king in a county jail. Things change quickly, here—some get out, some go upstate, some get lost in a file.

The thrill of the first class has dissipated. I try to remember my pedagogy training. All that feigned poise. But in here, I feel tentative.

I don’t want to be another authority. I don’t want to talk about the industry. I don’t want to interrupt or rephrase these men. I try to make a lot of eye contact. I feel paralyzed sometimes. I do a lot of nodding. Then, I wonder if I am nodding too much.

I am the same age as some of them. But in John’s and Tim’s and Jay’s face, I see my father. That boyish sadness. I picture him on the other end of the telephone. I picture him inside. “You have to push 5,” Tim tells me. “To make a call.”

Tonight, I’ve brought in “Cloudy Day,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca. He writes:
“The third day of spring,
and four years later, I can tell you,
how a man can endure, how a man
can become so cruel, how he can die
or become so cold. I can tell you this,
I have seen it every day, every day,
and still I am strong enough to love you,
love myself and feel good;
even as the earth shakes and trembles,
and I have not a thing to my name,
I feel as if I have everything, everything.”

More than what to say or how to say it, I worry about my body—where to put it and how to move it. It seems important not to pace or hover. It seems important to keep my posture open. I don’t approach a computer unless I am summoned over. And one by one, I am. Each man calls me to his new poem. Again, I read it, and I find one thing to praise. But there are dozens of things to praise. Even the act of writing is a kind of miracle in captivity.

“Is this hard for you to write?” I ask Carl. He has a tattoo of a teardrop on his cheekbone. His gait is slow and labored. Beside him, I feel more tired. He’s written a prose poem. The speaker wishes he had drowned in a creek as a child. He regrets the rescue.

“Not really,” he says. He smiles with a chipped tooth. “It feels good to say. It’s all true.”

I think about all of the things I don’t write. I think about all of the people I protect in my poems. Sometimes myself, sometimes everyone else.

“Miss Shannon, where are your poems?” Michael asks, holding up the Baca poem. “I want to read yours.”

“I will bring something in,” I say, suddenly aware of the distorted equilibrium in the room. They share and I nod at them. I walk around, free to leave the room and keep my secrets. Why not? My world is big and loud and I can avoid the things in my head most days.

Sam asks me to read his poem about how to make Jailhouse Java. You mix commissary chicory with cocoa powder. Then, you smash a fireball candy off the ground and add the cinnamon pieces to the drink.

“Not so hard that it busts,” he writes.

He stands up so I can read it closer. He searches my face for a reaction.

“I’m going to try this,” I say.

“You’ll think you’re drinking Starbucks.”

When I leave the jail, the rain has passed and the air is clean. It is like crossing a border. It surprises me—how sad the exodus, every time.

Class 3

Yesterday, a black man named Alton Sterling was shot straight in the chest by an officer who had him pinned to the ground in Baton Rouge. This is news and it is not news. His name trended briefly on Facebook amid the wash of Independence Day posts. He was an ex-felon. His rap sheet is not dissimilar to the young black men in my classroom.

Tomorrow I will go back inside the jail. I will offer the same and sincere wow and yes as I read poems at computer after computer. I will fold my body again and again, leveling myself to the screen to look harder. I will try to find traction in the technical, but I will be mostly inarticulate. A month in, I am still floored that every man comes back to class, that he writes and shares and returns to his truths, despite everything.

“Keep your eyes open,” my first writing professor said. “Look into things. Writers pay attention.”

In college, I began mining my childhood for poem-material. I tried to witness myself. I wrote about my father’s alcohol problem. My mother’s chronic illnesses. The bills and biker gangs. The times my body became not my body. The things that get left behind. I turned over every glowing coal in my hands. I found every small tear in my soft parts. I tried to connect dots, tie up ends, make some sense.

One night, I parked outside of my evening class and unraveled in my car with a bag of fast food in my lap. I heaved liked an animal. I rocked in pain. I shouted, you should have protected me repeatedly, a swarm of moths gone wild in my headlights. I shouted I needed you to no one. Then, I dried up and drove away.

There are safe places to unravel. There are places you can drive to and away from, whenever you need to. And then, there is Paul’s cell, which shares a wall with Jim’s cell. And in that wall, there is a hole through which Paul and Jim share their poems.

 “We sit by the wall and read to each other,” Jim tells me during our third class.

In college, I would get high before poetry readings so that I could focus on the words. I can sit in the presence of a poem any time I wish. In the city, there are dozens of events and workshops and classes each week. I dodge a lot of them.

“What’s it like?” I ask Michael. “Walking out of here.”

“Like nothing you can imagine,” he says. “I’ve spent my twenties in and out of jail. I’m sick of wasting my time. I’m getting out in thirty days and I’m staying out.”

Michael is a young black man with 83 pages of a story in his bunk, and counting.

“People are going to be shitty to you,” I tell him. But I feel stupid. He knows this.

“People are going to help me, too,” he says.


*Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of inmates.

About Shannon Sankey

Shannon Sankey (@shansankey) is a writer and the co-editor of Stranded Oak Press in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Atticus Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere. Find her online at
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