The Prison Poets Revolutionizing Incarceration

At New York’s Rikers Island, poetry workshops organized by the Youth Justice Network are transforming rehabilitation and changing the lives of inmates.

Three women stand arm in arm in front of red curtains
Jasmine Rosario (center) with poetry workshop participants. Youth Justice Network

On the floor in a common area of a housing facility on New York’s Rikers Island, Kianna B. found a poem that altered her experience at New York’s largest and most brutal jail. It was a love poem titled Muse that declared, “Baby, I’m here to tell you, you’re a gift. A blessing within chaos… I never expected you to exist. A muse falling from the very heavens, I praised the moment we met.” Unsure of its author, yet certain of its profound personal impact, Kianna kept a copy with her and sent one home to her ex-partner.

Weeks later, when she was transferred to another housing facility on the Island, Kianna met the author of the text she had been holding sacred: Jasmine Rosario, a spoken word poet and instructor of a poetry workshop offered by the Youth Justice Network (YJN), a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 that provides programming and mentorship to youth at the alternative school run by the Department of Education on Rikers Island. For those seeking a General Education degree while incarcerated, classes are offered in academics, trade and even some creative disciplines.

Following Eric Adams’ $17 million budget cut to Rikers in May of 2023, several programs, including emotional regulation courses and financial literacy programs, have been cut. The YJN has sustained its programming and mentorship services thanks to private funding separate from that of the Department of Corrections.

A group of people stands outdoors in winter in front of a community center
Members of the Youth Justice Network, which runs the Rikers poetry workshops. Youth Justice Network

What poetry offers inmates

“You could tell, just within a month or two, the difference in behavior,” said Kianna, who served seven months at Rikers this year. “The more bored people are, the more violence happens.” For her, the poetry workshop led by Rosario (affectionately, JRose) was the beginning of a new dawn during her time in jail. “We need opportunities to share; we need the opportunity to show we are still people who have feelings and talent. We’re still people who have the right to be heard; humanity comes with those programs.”

Kianna started her time at Rikers angry, unhappy and unproductive, but the poetry class gave her the tools to process her experience. It empowered her to change her choices and redesign her future. She began journaling daily and earned an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) certification. “You have to be lucky to be introduced to the program,” Kianna explained. “It was the highlight of being in that space; it gave you the opportunity to forget where you are.”.

Rosario works in the Rosie’s Building, the only women’s facility on the island, meeting with inmates ages 18 and above once a week for three weeks before a culminating open mic during the last week of the month. After the passage of The Raise The Age law in 2018 banning 16- and 17-year-olds from being detained at Rikers, the age range that YJN serves has increased. The jail is notorious for being understaffed and corrupt. “Rikers brings out the worst in human behavior,” said writer John J. Lennon, a former inmate at Rikers.

Messiah Ramkissoon, poet and Associate Executive Director at the YJN, explains that mentorship with the jail’s youngest population is essential. “The principal of the school saw that the 16-,17- and 18-year-olds were leaving jail and coming back facing more time or going home to die,” he said. People of color make up 95 percent of the Rikers population, and Black and LatinX communities are vastly overrepresented.

The programming offers a radical perspective shift for many of the incarcerated black youth. “When you think of yourself every day as a slave, you think you don’t have much to live up to; but when you know that you come from a culture of innovators, creators, and masterminds, you see yourself in a much better light.”

In the workshops, topics range from trauma to what they plan to do with freedom to how to empower themselves to take control of their lives. Sometimes, they write, and other times, they talk. “They just want someone to validate that their story matters,” said Rosario.

“In a situation that was so inhumane, people like JRose came into those spaces and made you feel like a person,” said Kianna. Rosario provides prompts that promote positive self-awareness. “I ask them to describe their superpower, or what their cause is, what they are fighting for. A lot of them write about a superhero that protects women from being abused,” she said.

A woman in a sleeveless green top and a patterned skirt stands in front of a microphone speaking
Jasmine Rosario at a poetry event. The Rose Garden Events

Transforming life in Rikers and beyond

For women at Rikers, incarceration is particularly lonely. At the graduation ceremony for the GED program, the male graduation is packed and celebratory, yet the women’s ceremony feels desolate. “It was hurtful to see that no one showed up for any of those women,” said Ramkissoon, “Each person was allowed to have three to four people come in to support them, friends, family or whoever, and no one showed up for them.”

Many of the incarcerated women have suffered domestic abuse or have been sex trafficked. “As women, we are naturally inclined to support men no matter what,” explained Rosario, “but when a woman does something wrong, that’s it; she’s disowned.”

The workshops are an opportunity to discuss sexual abuse or struggles with drug addiction in a sympathetic environment. “I think you get to see and learn and respect these young women outside the framework of just a uniform; you get to hear their minds,” said Ramkissoon.

By dedicating themselves to internal excavation and the written word, inmates heal, grow closer as a community and harness skills that will set them up for success—not just professional success, Rosario explained, but success in any endeavor. “When you are an effective writer, that also means you are an effective communicator, and if you are an effective communicator, you can understand enough to make better decisions.”

Ramkissoon describes the process of writing a poem as a “mediation” they can rely on in increasingly chaotic environments. It opened people up, Kianna said, because it was “something that speaks to everyone and everyone can speak to.” Consequently, the value of these creative programs cannot be underestimated—particularly in how they change life on the jail floor. “You need free-flow programs, you need arts and crafts, you need therapy, we need programs where you are able to be fluid in who you are,” she explained. “Like how music ‘soothes the beast,’ art itself soothes people in a way; it touches people, they’re a lot softer and calmer, and that’s important, not just school.”

While programs like this can vastly transform the experience of the Rikers population, they’re also invaluable to former inmates who leave the jail and return to perilous environments. “They tell them, ‘Go home, get a good job, stay in school, and make sure you don’t get caught up again,’ but they may be going back to a neighborhood where people want to kill them. They don’t want to carry a gun, but there is no one protecting them,” said Ramkissoon.

In fact, the cycle of incarceration can be nearly impossible to escape when an individual’s life is in jeopardy. “It gets very dark,” according to Ramkissoon. “The challenge is when you put all you could into a young person, and then you find out that either they were killed or re-incarcerated because of variables outside of your immediate control.”

People love to hear success stories, but there are so many challenges. Rosario has days she drives home in silence. “It’s not just the stories they tell me when I’m working with them; it’s the energy on that island alone.”

The Youth Justice Network recently launched the Shifting Gears Program, an advocacy bus that enters the New York neighborhoods with the most violence and police presence to actively intervene in conflict with trained advocates—some of whom were once incarcerated themselves. It “brings services to your doorstep,” entering a different borough every day of the week, Ramkissoon said.

While the YJN can sustain its programming through its unique funding model, the lack of financial support from the city government threatens several similar programs that contribute positively to the mental well-being of the incarcerated population at Rikers and make necessary progress in the correctional system. Rikers Island is set to close in 2027, and a new jail will be erected in its place, but the city has yet to announce it will extend funding for these types of programs in the new facility.

The transformative impact of the programming offered by the YJN is a testament to the transformative power of poetry and the continued need to restore voice and humanity to the incarcerated.

“Sometimes we have to give people grace,” said Kianna. “It’s all of our first tries at life.”

The Prison Poets Revolutionizing Incarceration