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April 48, 2008

CONTACT: Peter Van Delft
(617) 961-6682


To some, jail is a destination that signifies an end of sorts – the end of freedom, the end of possibility and, oftentimes, the end of hope. Jail is perceived as a place where the meting–out of punishment takes precedence over rehabilitation and attempts at self–improvement.

But, in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, rehabilitative programming is utilized as the necessary tool that can bring change into the lives of the incarcerated and restore the hope of positive new beginnings.

A new poetry group for male detainees known as “Voices,” offered by the Department and developed by Nashua Street Jail caseworker Lindsay Talbot, represents among the best of these efforts.

“About a year ago, Carole Cafferty, Assistant Deputy Superintendent of Program Services, wanted us to create some new groups for the detainees and she gave us the freedom to determine what kinds of groups they would be,” said Talbot. “It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to put something like this together and I wanted to introduce a poetry group.”

At first blush, one might find the thought of a group of male jail detainees willingly sitting down with each other to write and discuss poetry to be counter to the prevailing macho stereotypes of the day, and there might be a grain of truth to that theory.

Talbot, however, entered into the program armed with a solid plan and a few can’t–miss techniques designed to ease the process.

“A lot of the men here listen to Rap music and some of them write their own raps,” Talbot said. “The lyrics that you write for Rap can be poetry as well. Poetry is really the foundation of Rap. I knew that it might be tough to just start with traditional poetry because some of the group might not really be into it, so I had to get their attention.”

“I chose the rapper Tupac and the book of poetry that he wrote, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, to start,” continued Talbot. “Everyone knew who Tupac was, but not a lot of people knew that he wrote poetry. With his poetry, he talked about a lot of the same issues that the men in the group have gone through and had to deal with, so they could really relate. Later on, I added some Langston Hughes and they ended up wanting more and more of it.”

Though the members of the group embraced the topic and showed a genuine interest in the medium, it would take a different approach before they could begin taking the leap of expressing themselves on paper and in front of each other with some of the closely guarded depth and raw emotion that eventually came out.

“The majority of the group is Black and Latino,” Talbot said. “I could tell coming into the group at the beginning that some of the men were thinking, ‘who is this White girl from the suburbs trying to talk to us about Rap?’ But, in our first assignment where everyone had to read their poetry to the group, I wrote my own and presented it because I didn’t want them to feel like they were the only ones putting themselves out there.”

“There were some really intense issues addressed by the members of the group,” Talbot went on. “People wrote about family life, drug use, abuse – really heavy things. And they were comfortable enough to open up and share these things with the other members of the group. They trusted each other and, for some of them, it was the first time they expressed these things to anyone.”

As with all of the programs running within the Department, the rehabilitative value at the core of the group is key. Where some might see the group only as a distraction intended to occupy detainees and keep them from engaging in less productive endeavors, Talbot sees the willingness on the part of detainees to step out of familiar and comfortable behaviors and embrace new experiences as a potential first step towards accepting real change in their lives.

“It definitely says a lot about them that they have taken this opportunity to try this,” said Talbot about the detainees in the group. “They’re not inmates and they won’t be here at the Jail for long in between the time that they’re headed to court to be either sentenced or released, so there is a real desire to be here. The fact that they’ve taken this step out of their comfort zone now could have a positive impact on what they do with their lives in the future.”

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