By KYLEE BAGLEY
Riker’s Island is most known for being New York’s main jail complex and one of the world’s largest correctional institutions. Motherjones.com, a nonprofit news outlet, reports it as being one of America’s top ten worst prisons, but now, Riker’s Island is getting attention set in a whole new light. According to an interview with The New York Times, Miles Hodges, a spoken word poet and ambassador for the New York Public Library, has been developing a spoken word program at Riker’s over the past few months.
Hodges is currently working on two programs. The first being a spoken-word writing workshop for young women in their late teens and early twenties located in the Rose M. Singer Center, one of Riker’s nine functioning jails. The latter being performing his own hard hitting poems to inmates of the Eric M. Taylor Center, a male only jail.
You might be wondering what Hodges was thinking when implicating these workshops into the Riker’s Island culture, and it’s safe to say the inmates were too. After the initial indifference and lack of desire to attend, the male inmates were left with a new appreciation for the artistic medium.
Before beginning Hodges told inmates, “I’m a firm believer in the power of storytelling. I believe in its ability to change people’s minds. And I believe in being honest and speaking from a true and honest place.” Hodges’ goal in partnering with the New York Public Library is to create programs that entice the millennial generation to find and cultivate their voice in the form of creative outlet.
In an interview afterwards with The New York Times, Anthony Hernandez, an inmate serving several months for drug possession, said he had been reluctant to attend the program; he had expected it to be boring and stodgy. But he concluded, ‘It hit more like where you are from, a more different poetry.’”
At this specific visit that Hernandez attended, Hodges performed “Harlem,” arguably his best and most well known poem. In this poem, he describes the streets of Harlem as having, “Roached blunts and roached joints…scattered around the purple, pink, and black chalked R.I.P. signs as if whispering from the Concrete Jungle, ‘I’m resting in peace and high.’” These words resonate immensely with the inmates, most of whom spent their lives in the projects of New York before being incarcerated, and are used to the poverty, gang violence, and self-reliance that line the streets of so many urban cities across America.
Where some people make the mistake of dismissing poetry as being frilly and not relatable, Hodges reveals to inmates that poetry, specifically slam poetry, can be very raw and very real. In his collaborative poem, “Strive,” that he co-wrote and performs with Carvens Lissaint, Hodges makes his message to the Riker’s Island inmates clear: “Strive- Like you know prisons are man-made but minds are God-made.”