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Inside Douglas County Jail, Kansas Professor Helps Inmates Rewrite Their Lives Through Poetry

Brian Daldorph outside the Douglas County Jail where he's volunteered to teach poetry for 20 years.
Brian Daldorph
Brian Daldorph outside the Douglas County Jail where he's volunteered to teach poetry for 20 years.

For 20 years, English professor Brian Daldorph has taught Douglas County Jail inmates poetry. He's compiled some of their works in his new book, "Words Is A Powerful Thing."

Brian Daldorph is a poet and English professor at the University of Kansas. But for 20 years, he’s also spent one afternoon a week teaching poetry to the inmates of the Douglas County Jail.

“I’ve always thought that writing has been such an important part of my life, and it’s gotten me through things I can’t imagine I would have gotten through otherwise,” Daldorph says.

After volunteering with adolescents at a treatment facility in Olathe in the early 2000s, he decided he wanted to share his tools for getting through life’s difficult spots.

The pandemic has kept him from that work, but it freed him up to finish a book he started in 2017. Titled "Words Is A Powerful Thing," the book is about Daldorph's experiences teaching men in jail.

Daldorph’s is just one of about 60 weekly programs offered at the jail in a typical year to the approximately 5,500 people booked annually.

“Douglas County Jail is known as being a progressive jail that uses the time, tries to bring in programs, tries to make use of the time to make significant improvements in lives,” Daldorph says.

He’s seen those improvements first hand and uses his book to showcase the writing of nearly 50 inmate poets.

The book’s title comes from a poem one of those men — and he does work exclusively with male prisoners because of the way the system separates men and women — wrote in 2017. The phrase “words is a powerful thing” inspired him to look for words of his own that might describe his experiences and the people he’s met.

Sometimes Daldorph would only see a man for one class period because of the temporary nature of a jail versus a prison. Or he might see a person a few times and then not again until years later, when his former student was booked on another offense.

But regardless of whether the students are consistent from week to week, their themes are. In the thousands of poems Daldorph has saved, many are centered around ideas like unending pain, boredom, loneliness and abandonment.

He writes that, in spite of their feelings, particularly of abandonment, these men are still a part of society. It's dangerous, Daldorph believes, to imagine that they’re not, because it’s to everyone’s advantage that their eventual re-entry into life on the outside is a success.

Daldorph writes that the book is, therefore, meant to act as a bridge between those who are incarcerated and those who are not, “reminding all of us through their poetry that inmates are in so many ways just like us and not ‘the other,’ to be shut out from our world, ‘warehoused’ away from society.”

University Press of Kansas

The book lays out the situation: The Douglas County Jail is just one of more than 3,000 jails and nearly 2,000 state and federal prisons in the nation. In 2016, about 655 of every 100,000 Americans spent some time behind bars, costing taxpayers about $81 billion per year.

Some chapters of the book are devoted to those he’s worked with at the jail, like the current program director Sherry Gill, who he writes operates with a real sense of urgency in the face of these numbers.

Gill is a veteran, mother, and a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t judge the inmates and focuses on what she is able to do for them rather than what she is not.

“I think what we see most often in the jail population that I’ve worked with is the dehumanization of the process, and I think that the one thing that we could do was to give the inmates a chance to be more than that, a chance to be the human beings they really wanted to be and often didn’t felt like they were in the system that they were in,” Daldorph explains.

He says the urgency he sees in Gill's work, and the urgency he feels in his own endeavors, comes from wanting to show the men that there’s a way out of whatever situation they’re in.

Daldorph includes a poem in the book written by a former inmate turned poet named Antonio Sanchez-Day:

Some have

discovered (myself included) talents, solutions,

even peace of mind through writing.

Most of all I am thankful for Sherry

not only believing in the work I do

but for believing in me as a person and

giving me an opportunity to contribute

back within the very walls where I

discovered my passion for writing.

Daldorph says the writing the men do offers them hope when they see that they can communicate their experiences with other prisoners as well as family members and strangers on the outside.

“My sense of it is that inmates do the kind of work that a lot of us are doing in terms of coming to terms with ourselves, in dealing with the traumas of our lives, trying to figure out our families, trying to figure out the direction that we go in our lives,” Daldorph says.

Because of this, much of their poetry is relatable even to those who’ve never been incarcerated. The difference, Daldorph says, is the intensity the men write with in their time alone with their thoughts and in their time leading up to their release — the isolation and the anticipation is more than most people regularly process.

"That’s something that I’m always interested in," Daldorph says, "... when people try to deal with the issues of their lives and try to come to some sort of understand through poetry."

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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