Saturday, 1 August 2015

Let Them Write Poems

In his daily life, John Wareham coaches some of the most successful and wealthy people. With his neatly combed, thick white hair, his bespoke suit and professorial glasses, you’d never expect him to spend his free time at a prison. And yet for the past 18 years, the psychologist and author of several novels and self-help books has been going to the heavily guarded prisons of New York, like Rikers Island, every week.

But he doesn’t go to prison out of any requirement; he’s there as a volunteer, teaching literature to inmates. And what he accomplishes
with those classes needs to be told. Almost none of the detainees who take Wareham’s classes commit crimes again after being released.
His 13-week course consists of reading literature and fragments of books by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus; psychologists like Freud, Adler and Berne; and religious texts from the Bible and a Buddhist holy book. He has his students give a presentation each week on how those books might fit into their own lives. And this year he added a new ingredient to his classes: he asked the inmates to express their feelings through poetry.

“What caught me by surprise was the quality of the poems,” Wareham says. “And the fact that they unleashed and revealed their feelings. They poured their hearts out. As I was listening to them, I thought, We can make a beautiful little book out of this.” And that’s
what happened. Wareham, author of several books including How to Break Out of Prison, recently published How to Survive a Bullet through the Heart, a compilation of poems from 15 inmates he worked with during the previous year. Sheldon Arnold is one of
them. A 29-year-old music producer, Arnold was sentenced to 16 years because of a violent robbery, and he still has 15 years to serve.
He wrote the opening poem in How to Survive a Bullet through the Heart, titled “Questions.”

Arnold and his fellow inmates write about crime, the moment of arrest, the legal proceedings that follow, the days in prison and the
visitors they’ve had, but also about freedom, longing, regret, sadness and faith. Wareham tells of the surprise reactions from readers
who’ve experienced the book. How can people who commit such crimes write with such insight? Compose poems that reflect such
understanding of the situation in which they find themselves?

Wareham is not at all surprised. His methods work, and he knows it. He knows how intelligent most of his students are. “They just never had the chance to go to university, to develop their skills and to find a regular job.” The inmates who participate in Wareham’s classes do so voluntarily. They even come on their days off, when they don’t have prison jobs to do. “The people who come to the class are more serious than the general population,” Wareham concludes. And, he adds, the recidivism among inmates who’ve taken his classes is almost zero.

What is Wareham’s secret? He has some ideas. He says he hates it when people insist on reaffirming to inmates that they did something very bad and that they made the wrong choices in the past. In contrast, Wareham tells them the opposite: that they are innocent, that
their eyes haven’t yet been opened to the possibilities the
world has to offer them.

He tells them: “In the moment of your crime, you made the only choice available to you. You could see no other options, and so, effectively, you were a victim of your own unconscious. You might think you made a choice, but that was an illusion.” At that point, he moves the discussion to lines from Shakespeare; as he paraphrases,“If Hamlet when he’s not himself does wrong, then Hamlet does it not. Who does it then? His madness. If it be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged; his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.” Wareham calls madness mindlessness—the absence of authentic contemplation and truly rational choice.

What Wareham does is remarkable. When asked whether he is often consulted by other prisons wanting to know how he achieved such successes with inmates, he replies, “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think the only goal of a prison is punishment. Right now, we don’t have a correctional system—we have a warehousing system. It’s a pretty effective warehouse, but it’s not very good as a school. I think you should be able to rehabilitate people, but unfortunately people don’t see it that way.”

Wareham refers to the methods used by the renowned Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung, who once said that a patient can begin to get better only when he understands his predicament and can see a way out of it. Wareham tries to take that advice to heart: “I try to give the inmates an understanding of the predicament through literature and reading, and then help the prisoner to see the way

“If you go through the readings each week,” he tell the prisoners, “and if you’re serious about it, you cannot get to the final class without having your thinking seriously altered, or your eyes seriously opened.” And when the course ends, Wareham gives them this piece of wisdom: “Going forward, you won’t be innocent anymore. Since your eyes are opened now, you will know that you do have a choice.”

Elleke Bal, The Intelligent Optimist

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