Tyrant’s Foe: Kelsey Erin Shipman’s Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration With Poetry

Kelsey Erin Shipman

If somebody told you that the key to stopping thousands of Texas inmates from reentering prison was teaching them how to write poetry, you might laugh out loud.

Unless you’re Kelsey Erin Shipman.

Shipman is the founder of The Freehand Arts Project, an organization that runs weekly poetry classes for women in the Travis County Jail in Del Valle. In 2013 she helped revive the project—originally founded by lawyer Benet Magnuson as the PRISMS program in 2009—after completing her master’s degree in poetry at Texas State University in San Marcos. At the time, Shipman had spent three years studying poetry in libraries and lecture halls, and was feeling jaded about the elitism of her fellow scholars. 

“I was so tired of it,” she says. “I had a professor who told me in the middle of her class in front of all her students that she doesn’t write poetry for people at Wal-Mart. I always came from the opposite perspective, where poetry was for the people. Poetry was for people who were suffering and needed to heal.”

So when Shipman heard that Magnuson, who had organized writing workshops in prisons across Texas, was about to leave his project behind, she knew she wanted to get involved. Shipman taught her first poetry class to a group of 25 women on a cold night last October. She kicked off with poems by Asha Bandele and Nikki Giovanni—“They really liked Bandele,” she recalls—and she’s been with the project ever since.

In the past 10 months, she’s expanded the project’s volunteer base to 10 teachers (up from one). In May, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund an anthology of poems by 15 of her students; it was funded in just two weeks. The book is titled Jail Fat after a poem one of the inmates wrote about getting fat on the prison’s cafeteria foods. It hits Austin bookstores BookWoman and Resistencia Books next month. 

Shipman says her project aims to provide temporary relief to women stuck for months at a time in dreary prison cells without much family contact or sense of control. But mostly it’s about finding a way to break the cycle of incarceration.

“Most of the people we deal with are in and out of the incarceration system all the time,” she says. “Teaching women to write about their feelings and their lives gives them not only an outlet for those feelings, but begins to develop self-awareness. Instead of feeling the feeling and acting out on it, they can feel the feeling and think about it, and then turn that pain and suffering into something beautiful.”

Shipman’s students write about a lot of things: family, abuse, freedom, regret. But their experiences are distinctly feminine.

In a poem called “Me, Myself & My Hair,” a woman named Gina reflects on the senselessness of caring about her appearance while she’s inside prison walls: “Taking a sip / early in the morning / I can’t help but notice / my hair all disarranged / Why? I ask, does this bother me? / No one here to impress.”

In another poem, a woman named Cynthia talks about wanting to escape the pain of her current life and become a stronger woman: “I am staring at the woman in the mirror / Who is this woman, this woman I have never met? / Her eyes have life in them, no longer red from tears / Her mouth smiles, no more upside down frowns.” The poems reveal a picture of women in transition and women in pain.

“So many people are ignorant about what it means to be in jail, and it breeds stereotypes. They assume that everyone who is there should be there because they committed a crime,” Shipman says. “It’s important to know that many of the women I teach have committed very serious crimes, but there are many people who are in jail because of a symptom of poverty. These poems deeply humanize inmates.”

Shipman is expanding The Freehand Arts Project next year to offer art classes. She hopes to continue publishing an anthology every year. But her biggest goal for now is just to help a few women who might have gone off track find the confidence to move their lives forward.

“Equipping inmates with tools and skills to function productively … doesn’t happen on a widespread institutional level in prisons,” she says. “This is a way to provide [women] with tools before they get lost in the system.”

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