Words Is a Powerful Thing

Twenty Years of Teaching Creative Writing at Douglas County Jail

Brian Daldorph

Brian Daldorph first entered the Douglas County Jail classroom in Lawrence, Kansas, to teach a writing class on Christmas Eve 2001. His last class at the jail for the foreseeable future was mid-March 2020, right before the COVID-19 lockdown; the virus is taking a heavy toll in confined communities like nursing homes and prisons. Words Is a Powerful Thing is Daldorph’s record of teaching at the jail for the two decades between 2001 and 2020, showing how the lives of everyone involved in the class—but especially the inmates who came to class week after week—benefited from what happened every Thursday afternoon in that jail classroom, where for two hours inmates and instructor became a circle of ink and blood, writing together, reciting their poems, telling stories, and having a few good laughs.

Words Is a Powerful Thing brings into the light the works of fifty talented inmate writers whose work deserves attention. Their poetry speaks of “what really matters” to all of us and gives the reader sustained insight into the role that creativity plays in aiding survival and bringing positive change for inmates, and, in turn, for all of us. Daldorph’s account of his teaching experience not only takes the reader inside the daily life at a county jail but also sets the work done in the writing class within the larger context of inmate education in the US corrections system, where education is often one of the few lifelines available to inmates. Words Is a Powerful Thing provides a teaching guide for instructors working with incarcerated writers, offering an extensive examination of both the challenges and benefits.

“I get a lot of prisoner anthologies from all over the world and at times they seem to blend together—some are okay, others worthy of serious reflection, and a few reach higher to demand reading and studious thoughtfulness. And then there are those few warrior-spirit poets and fiction writers that cancel my boredom and fatigue and awaken my senses to a higher attention as the pages seem to leap up and grasp me by my shirt collar. This is one of those anthologies; this is one of those books that diminishes all noise baffling us from academics and professors and justice officials writing about prison. These are the voices who know; these are the voices who have been there and have come back with the news that prison will never work, that keeping human beings in cages will never, ever be the solution.”

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, author of A Place to Stand and Laughing in the Light

“‘Writing was water that cleansed the wound and fed the parched root of my heart,’ Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote in his prison memoir Working in the Dark. Brian Daldorph shows that words are the water that cleans and revitalizes the lives of inmates he has worked with for over twenty years as a writing class instructor at Douglas County Jail in Lawrence, Kansas.”

—Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking, The Death of Innocents, and River of Fire

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When Brian Daldorph decided the story of his classroom experiences and the great writing produced by the inmates deserved to be told to wider audiences, he struggled with how to bring it all together. Not long after, an inmate wrote a poem titled “Words Is a Powerful Thing,” offering Daldorph a title, concept, and purpose: to show that the poetry of inmates speaks not just to other inmates but to all of us.

About the Author

Brian Daldorph is a creative writing instructor at the Douglas County Jail in Lawrence, Kansas, and a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Kansas. He is the author of six books of poetry including Kansas Poems and Blue Notes, and the editor of the literary journal Coal City Review.