Across Florida, there are currently more people living in prisons than on college campuses.
Shay Chery, a 30-year-old Pompano Beach-based poet and activist who performs under the name Eccentrich, believes that most of them are fundamentally good people who have made bad decisions. That belief — combined with the experience of one of her cousins, who is incarcerated for life — inspired her to create a mobile poetry workshop that travels to prisons around Florida.
“I personally feel like the reason people do insane things is that they don’t know how to positively communicate,” she says. “Once people can express themselves, that frustration and anxiety will go away. That’s what made me start to think, let’s take this inside, and maybe when they get out it will be different.”
“Free on the Inside,” the workshop series she founded earlier this year, features performances from local spoken word artists and an open mike for inmates to showcase their own poetry. In addition to giving prisoners a way to express themselves, the workshops also include practical lessons on grammar, punctuation, and writing skills. She likes to call it the "poetry-to-prison pipeline" — a take on the infamous school-to-prison pipeline.
When poets and other creative writers team up with prisons, Chery has seen that those efforts generally don’t last. Funding is a particular challenge. That’s why her goal is to teach lifers and other long-term inmates to facilitate the workshops and programs themselves, within the walls of their prison cells, so that the program can become self-sustaining.
“That’s my end goal: to take people who won’t ever come home and give them something constructive to do,” she says.
Though currently focused on South Florida prisons, she hopes to eventually reach the whole state. The workshops draw a big audience — 165 inmates showed up to a recent workshop held at the chapel at Everglades Correctional Institution. A full prison band, with inmates on the drums and saxophone, provides musical accompaniment for their poems.
“Last time, we broke into this worship session; that was the most exhilarating session I’ve ever had,” Chery says. “The talent is unbelievable.”
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The hardest part, she finds, is realizing how inmates’ lives might have been different if they’d discovered those talents before they wound up in prison.
“It gets frustrating, but those are the people that you teach to run the program and entrust to keep it running in longevity,” she says.
Inmates aren't rowdy or dangerous, Chery says. They're the most respectful audience she's ever had. Undoubtedly, it helps that she and her collaborators never forget how easily the circumstances could be reversed.
“We all understand that we’ve done wrong before," Chery says. "In a split second, we could be where you are. We’re no better than you. And that’s why the reception’s so warm, because we don’t go in there on our soapbox.”