Words Is a Powerful Thing
Twenty Years of Teaching Creative Writing at Douglas County Jail
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
“Brian Daldorph and his fellow writers have given us a gift. It is not just a collection of creative work, or one teacher’s personal reflection. Like poetry itself, this book is words transformed into energy and power. Its pages hum with an electricity that can only come from the synergy between the many truths of incarcerated writers and the complex worlds that they inhabit.”
—Christopher P. Dum, cofounder of the ID13 Prison Literacy Project and author of Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel
“Daldorph empowers his incarcerated students; his powerful book lets us hear their humanity in their own words and in Daldorph’s portrayals of them. As the incarcerated writers investigate their lives, readers do their own investigations and make discoveries about their own humanity. Indeed, the book shows us that those on the ‘outside’ benefit by spending time with those on the ‘inside,’ either in person or on the page.”
—Jayne Thompson, assistant teaching professor of English, Widener University, and coeditor of Letters to My Younger Self: An Anthology of Writings by Incarcerated Men at S.C.I. Graterford and a Writing Workbook
“Brian Daldorph’s Words Is a Powerful Thing takes readers into a foreboding place—through the electronic doors and cement hallways of the county jail in Lawrence, Kansas—and reveals something unexpected: the intense possibility of beauty and art and poetry behind bars. Daldorph examines how poetry can push students clad in matching anonymous jail-cell jumpsuits toward a greater understanding of truth and hope and selfhood. Words Is a Powerful Thing is a tremendous memoir of Daldorph’s fifteen-plus years teaching at the jail but also an intimate look at his students, their poetry, and the human cost of America’s carceral system.”
—Daniel A. Hoyt, author of This Book Is Not for YouSee fewer reviews...
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.