Federal Inmates Find Voice and Healing Transformation Through National Endowment for the Arts Program

February 6, 2018

NEA Program at Federal Prison Camp Yankton Celebrates 10Years, Publishes 10th Anniversary Issue of Creative Writing Anthology 4PM Count

Mount Marty College (MMC) in Yankton, South Dakota, and Federal Prison Camp Yankton recently celebrated 10 years of a collaborative creative writing program that aims to change lives through writing for transformative justice. A National Endowment for the Arts program — the only one of its kind in South Dakota and one of only six similar programs in the nation — Writing and Publishing offers inmates the opportunity to take part in a 10-month writing-intensive course, where they open up and explore their personal journeys through prose, poetry and other artwork.

For the more than 200 inmates who have taken and benefited from the program, it’s a unique opportunity to not only find their creative voice while honing their craft but also to see their work transform from draft to publication. 4PM Count, the annual anthology showcasing the students’ work, is celebrating a milestone this year as well, with the recent release of the prison journal’s 10th anniversary issue.

Jim Reese, MMC Associate Professor of English

“I tell them [my students] from day one, writing your story will help you heal,” says Jim Reese, MMC associate professor of English, who’s served as National Endowment for the Arts Writer-in-Residence at Federal Prison Camp Yankton since the program’s inception. “It will help your family. It will help your victims. It will help us understand that people need a second and sometimes third chance. If we don’t write and try and delve into our pasts, what’s the alternative?”

For Reese, the room where he teaches Writing and Publishing, in Forbes Hall of Science on the former campus of Yankton College, is much like any other college classroom. An old blackboard hangs on one wall, 20 flat-screen computer monitors line the room, and a wall of iron windows open up to a large bur oak tree standing tall on the building’s east side. But this isn’t any other college classroom — a fact that makes the experience there both challenging and rewarding. Students have GEDs to Ph.D.s, which only adds to the richness of the class dynamics, and no topic is too small or big to explore.

“To me, the purpose of this class was expression,” says Marquise Bowie, whose prose and poetry appear in the recent issue of 4PM Count. “By having us share our personal stories on a level that allows us to be vulnerable, open and honest in hope of inspiring others to share of themselves is a big risk in a prison setting; but sometimes it is necessary for change. Hopefully this class makes a major difference in someone else’s life by letting us take off our masks to show others that we also have ugly scars that we carry around.”

For Mike Murphy, another of Reese’s Writing and Publishing students, the class offers a place to channel “my pent-up energy, a productive and proactive use of my time, an avenue for bringing my experiences out of the dark and into the light as printed text, an opportunity to develop my writing skills and a way to cultivate my potential to communicate with people.”  

“After 10 intense months of writing, everyone has prose to publish,” Reese adds. “All of them find their honest voice — they explore the dark cave of memory that millions of men in America don’t have the courage to enter. And by doing so, they become richer for the show — healing and hope for the future becomes reality.”

Sr. Marielle Frigge, a retired professor of religious studies at MMC, has worked with Reese as copy editor for 4PM Count since its inception, and over the past decade, her involvement has grown alongside the course. Although she retired from her position at MMC in 2012, she’s continued her involvement at the prison not only because she believes in the transformative value it offers the inmates but also because she sees the potential for greater growth and empathy in the community at large.

Cover of 4 PM Count 10th anniversary anthology“I think one big takeaway for readers of 4PM Count would be this: to realize that a prisoner is also a human being with many of the experiences, thoughts, feelings, challenges, hopes and dreams and regrets of any person and that they can, with help, improve their lives,” Frigge says.

Stephanie Schultz, a 2011 MMC graduate and the current development and communications coordinator for Cycles for Change, a nonprofit community bicycling organization based in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, has served as the designer for 4PM Count since 2010, when Reese, then Schultz’s academic advisor, offered her the opportunity to design the latest issue. For much of her undergraduate experience, Schultz says the nearby prison was very much a mystery. Once she became involved in the project, however, she learned a great deal about the men behind the fences.

“I learned there were artists in there — both established and emerging,” Schultz says. “I learned that there were people who could draw a portrait that looked more real than a photo. There were people who could carve lifelike sculptures out of wood, or create things out of leather, or arrange beautiful floral landscapes in the side of a campus hill. But most importantly, I learned that these people had stories to tell. And that they were so incredibly willing to tell them.”

That honesty and transparency, along with the notable quality of work, are big reasons why the Writing and Publishing program and 4 PM Count are both thriving 10 years later. And the work the program is doing, Reese says, is nowhere near complete.

“Writing helps transform lives on both sides of the fence,” he says. “It’s not just a criminal and a victim who are affected by crime. It goes much deeper than that.”

“I know that what we are doing is changing lives for the better,” he adds, “that writing for transformative justice works.”

To read the 10th anniversary issue of 4PM Count, visit https://issuu.com/4pmcount.