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Prison initiative educates inmates

Upon entering the Marshall County Correctional Facility, visitors were scanned, patted down and led through several locked doors to the gym.

Inside, inmates wearing white and black striped pants with “MDOC Corrections” written on the back in block letters waited inside the building that featured icons of sports teams on the walls, from the Chicago Bulls to the Miami Heat.

Two barber chairs were positioned on the floor of the basketball court. A sign on the wall read: “It’s simple. Learn from yesterday. Live in today. Hope for tomorrow.”

Fans blew in the warm room as inmates, wearing headset microphones, performed pieces they had written in a fictional barber shop setting. With passion, authenticity and conviction, each delivered a performance that could rival professional actors.

Many recited lengthy monologues and spoken word poetry they had written about a variety of topics, including gang violence and racism, wearing no costumes, only state issued Mississippi Department of Corrections clothing.

Imprisoned philosophers shared their creativity and thoughts about the world from their individual perspectives.

“How could he run if he’s got shackles on his feet? Why would anyone want to run a race like that,” said one.

“Personally, I’m my own worst enemy. To myself, I had to learn to be friendly,” said another.

“No matter where I am, I am the determining factor of my success,” another spoke.

The performances were part of Oxford resident Louis Bourgeois’s Prison Writes Institute. Last week, participants became the first class in the Mississippi prison system to graduate in the theatrical arts, and today Bourgeois is working to expand the program.

Bourgeois, 46, is the director and an instructor for the program described as the only liberal arts program offered to Mississippi inmates. They currently have classes at Parchman Farm in Sunflower County, the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, and the Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs.

Michael Ewing, a professional actor, led Thursday’s program.

“Revolutions in small rooms make big things possible,” he said following the performances. “It’s an adaption of a quote. This has been a revolution. I know I’ve given those guys something. They have transformed me.

“Words and conversations are how we build bridges … Stories build bridges … Somehow, someway, I will carry those me with me each day. Somehow each day, I will carry their stories with me and tell their stories until they can tell their stories every day.”

In a classroom after the event, a quote on the wall read: “Exceptional people are dedicated to empowering those in their path with wisdom, knowledge, ability and zeal to excel above and beyond all expectations of others.”

State Representative Jay Hughes attended the event.

“I wanted to look at education and the importance of it in every aspect of our society,” he said. “It doesn’t just happen in schools.”

Hughes said he was interested in learning if more education and programs such as the Prison Writes Initiative could result in less recidivism in the prison system.

Ras Pickens, the prison’s warden of education, said there are approximately 1,200 inmates in the Marshall County prison. He said they are offered a GED program that graduates approximately 10 people each year.

The inmates names could not be published, but one who participated in the Prison Writes Initiative said he was currently working on his GED.

“I told my story,” he said. “I didn’t have a father. My grandmother raised me. I’ve been here since I was 16. I’m almost 30.”

Those who completed the Prison Writes class were given certificates after the program.

“Essentially, they had to write their own scripts during the semester and perform them in the end,” Bourgeois said. “They also studied a great deal about the history of theater throughout the term.”     

Bourgeois said they’ll start the program again at the three prisons in the fall. They are also trying to secure funding to implement classes in the Leakesville prison.

“We are mostly funding this ourselves and could use help from the community,” he said.

Bourgeois said the program is a non-profit, and all donations are tax deductible. To learn more, visit www.voxpress.org.

About LaReeca Rucker

LaReeca Rucker is a writer, reporter and adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

A veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she spent a decade at the Gannett-owned Clarion-Ledger - Mississippi's largest daily newspaper - covering stories about crime, city government, civil rights, social justice, religion, art, culture and entertainment for the paper's print and web editions. She was also a USA Today contributor.

This year, she received a first place award from the Mississippi Press Association for “Best In-Depth Investigative Reporting.” The story written in 2014 for The Oxford Eagle chronicles the life of a young mother with two sons who have epilepsy, and details how she is patiently hoping legalized cannabis oil experimentation will lead to a cure for their disorder.

Her website is www.lareecarucker.com.

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