A few years ago Dale Davis became acutely aware of the effects of incarceration on the children of inmates. Some have trouble in school, acting out, bullying or being bullied, or wind up in prison themselves.
For the last 12 years, through her nonprofit, New York State Literary Center, Davis has helped inmates at the Monroe Correctional Facility in Brighton become more engaged with their community, and with their families, through reading and writing. At first she taught adolescents, collaborating with the Rochester City School District. Through music and art, including hip hop CDs and a mural project called “Picturing Our Dreams,” students found a voice:
Are jails and prisons
the only places
you can see us?
can’t you see us?
Is this the reason we kill each other?
look at this mural.
is who we are.
“This mural is the lives, loves, histories, hopes and fears of those of us who are incarcerated. I hope when you look at this mural you will look at those of us who made mistakes differently.”—Byron
In 2017, 13.7 of every 10,000 residents in our region was incarcerated in local jails, similar to the state (excluding New York City) rate of 13.6. The regional incarceration rate decreased 4 percent from 2008 to 2017, while the state (excluding New York City) rate decreased by 7 percent, an ACT Rochester report states.
In recent years, as Davis’ efforts expanded to include adults, she became more curious about how to help incarcerated parents and their children. She read voraciously on the subject and brought it to her students at MCF. Ten to 15 students participate in NYSLC’s weekly Community Engagement Seminar. They read studies, books and magazine articles that focus on the issue, among others, and in their writing they reflect on what it means to be separated from their families.
“What really drew me to this was the children and how difficult it is for them. It breaks your heart because they haven’t done anything,” Davis says. “You come to the facility and you see the little children coming with their mothers to visit their fathers. … The more I read, the more I think we should be doing something.”
Students talk about the challenges of communicating with their kids. While the seminars are not counseling sessions, the exercise stirs emotions. Participants are eager to understand and often relieved to find they’re not alone.
“Sometimes, recently, when you bring up the children, people will cry right in class. We talk about it. What I look for is how are the other participants responding. … They’re helped by that. When you’re in prison you don’t really share yourself. But in this you have to share yourself. It’s a collaborative project.”
In the visitors’ room at the correctional facility are children’s books that parents can read with their kids when they visit. And inmates can send books to their children using a collection set up for that purpose.
A few years ago, program participants created a video. They share their reflections and talk together about being parents—and how they hope to build bonds upon release.
Seminars explore other issues of local and national importance, such as the 1964 uprising in Rochester and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. The group reads current authors such as Rochester native Cornelius Eady. And they dive into history with works by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin and many others.
“History has to be embedded in everything. They very much like to learn history. We talk about where Douglass lived, what happened to his house,” Davis says.
In his speeches and writings, Douglass hammered home the importance of education, she says. “That’s what he knew and that’s what we talk about. To me, that’s his biggest legacy. Their voices, their pen, and their vote.”
For students eyeing college after their release, Davis adapts ideas from Princeton Review to help them write frankly about their prison experience in college applications. And they read books by those who’ve successfully made that transition, such as Dwayne Betts and Nathan McCall, for inspiration.
NYSLC recently received a grant to develop an annotated guide of three of Rochester’s cultural resources, with tools for understanding and use, for inmates to use upon release with their children. The guide will be put on NYSLC’s website as a reference. Seminar students will be in charge of building this section of the site.
The goal is to raise confidence in the children through working with their parents to tap into cultural resources that enhance their education.
Davis says the question it answers is: “What is available in our community for parents who are limited financially coming out of incarceration, many times without a job? What is there for you to do with your children?”
The project also is a way to hone research skills.
“We’re talking about the children, but we’re also talking about how do you find information? If we want to find out about something, how do you actually look something up and know the information is reliable?”
Inmates and ex-offenders already contribute their own stories and poetry to the site.
“The Community Engagement Seminar is a place to address community needs,” Harry Wilson writes, “to connect with what is being done in Rochester’s Anti-Poverty initiative, special education in the Rochester City School District which so many of us in here were labeled and part of, Frederick Douglass, Kelsey’s Landing, as well as the effects of incarceration on children, our children.”
In another post-incarceration effort, NYSLC partners with Rochester Broadway Theatre League to bring ex-offenders and families to shows. Funded by grants and donations, Rebuilding Families is a 3-year-old program that gives them a chance to do something fun and celebrate being together. For many of these families, it is the first time they’ve seen a play. Among the shows they have attended are “Annie,” “Pippin,” “Cinderella,” “Matilda,” “Wizard of Oz” and “Motown: the Musical.”
“When you’re re-entering, how do you bring your family together again? If you have a nice experience, if you can do something together, it can help,” Davis says.
A lot of work goes into making it happen: The sheriff’s office mails invitations. RBTL donates the tickets and transportation; the latter a crucial component for people without cars. Even the seating is carefully thought out, with families placed throughout the theater to promote a feeling of inclusion.
“John Parkhurst (RBTL chief operating officer) is right there to greet them when they come in. We stand by the box office. They’re welcomed, and they even get goody bags,” Davis says.
A similar program is offered through the Strong National Museum of Play and the butterfly garden.
Davis’ work in corrections grew gradually from her roots in theater and poetry. She is a founding poet of New York State Poets In The Schools. She established the Sigma Foundation, a limited edition, private press, with James Sibley Watson Jr., an avant-garde filmmaker and publisher and editor of The Dial magazine.
Davis founded NYSLC in 1979 with the late Al Poulin, founder of BOA Editions Ltd., as a way to put writers as teaching artists in Rochester-area public schools. Before her current work in the correctional facility, Davis brought reading and writing to St. Joseph’s Villa, Industry Residential Center and the Monroe County Jail.
NYSLC has published over 600 books of writing by young people and 30 children’s books by incarcerated youth, and has produced 30 CDs.
Fifteen 15 hip-hop theater pieces Davis adapted from the writings of participants in NYSLC’s programs have been performed in high schools across the state and nationally in juvenile justice and correctional facilities.
Davis hears from her former students on Facebook.
“It’s always very nice to hear that they’re successful. They’re working; they’re trying to make it,” she says. “There’s a lot of programs to help them, but it’s still difficult. Where are you going to live and how are you going to support your family?”
Davis hopes that using the tools to research issues, discuss, collaborate and share their own thoughts while in prison will help them be resourceful upon release.
“There’s not a lot we can do when they go back to the neighborhoods,” Davis says. “They’ve got a felony conviction and all the rest of it. But we’re just trying to open up the community a bit more.”
To donate soft-cover children’s books for incarcerated parents to share with their children, contact Twig Hickam, director of education at Monroe Correctional Facility, at (585) 753-3042. Financial contributions may also be made to the New York State Literary Center.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Martin. I hope you have a chance to watch the video NYSLC put together. We included a link in the story. In it you can meet the seminar participants, a diverse group. NYSLC’s course material covers community issues that affect all of us regardless of race – including, as mentioned, the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative and the events of 1964. Frederick Douglass’ inspiring story is read by people of all backgrounds, both here and abroad. Dale Davis finds his message about education particularly on point for seminar participants.
I have to point out that this article makes it look as though all inmates are African American because of the subjects you point out that they learn about (Douglass, 1964, etc.). This is simply not the case.