SARATOGA SPRINGS — Time in the box is a second-by-second attack on your soul, said formerly incarcerated Johnny Perez about solitary confinement.
“Prison is not a place where you share your innermost thoughts. … Inside a prison, we can’t communicate the way we do on the outside, it would put you in danger,” said Perez, during a poetry lab at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College on Thursday night. “In prison you have no one to talk to, you can’t tell your fears or your worries and you always feel dehumanized.”
Nonetheless, Perez, who served 13 years in several New York prisons and three years in solitary — more commonly called “the box” — for robbery, found freedom through poetry while incarcerated at Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Wilton.
“I could trust my pen and my pad,” he said. “It would never turn on me and I started to do my time differently.”
The poetry reading and discussion was part of a multi-state traveling exhibition, “States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories,” that wound its way back to its Skidmore College roots and the Tang Teaching Museum in early September and closed on Tuesday.
As part of this national exhibit, the stories of the people of Mount McGregor have been shared visually in many states over the past year. It was a dialogue that began when students in Professor Eric Morser’s public history course resurrected the departed stories of those displaced when the state prison closed in 2014.
Mount McGregor, a medium-security prison, was one of 13 state prisons to close. At the time, there were 320 employees and 422 inmates.
And because “States of Incarceration” was created to spark community dialogue about mass incarceration, the museum scheduled several panel discussions and programs tied to issues of incarceration.
Thursday’s poetry lab was part of that programming because the poetry created by the men at Mount McGregor is an important part of the institution’s story, as is the story of poet Cara Benson. Benson had volunteered for eight years at the Saratoga County prison, guiding these men toward unearthing a free voice while imprisoned.
“We talked about finding freedom within constraint,” Benson said. “Mental freedom, creative freedom. It’s like a sonnet confined to 14 lines.”
And just as she had hoped, the poetry set some of the men free.
“Cara brought hope and peace,” said poet Sean Dalpiaz, who was incarcerated for eight years. “She gave me hope for the outside, before I was outside.”
A man who goes only by the name Celestial, who was in the audience of about 60 and had been in the Mount McGregor poetry workshops, agreed with Dalpiaz.
“I sat there and thought I’ll just challenge her. Prison isn’t based on freedom, it’s based on incarceration and I spent so much time. … I lived in prison longer than I lived in the world,” said Celestial about his early thoughts about the poetry workshops. “But I go to a poetry class and I am freed to express myself openly. … I mellowed in that class, the edge came off.”
Benson never intended to stay for eight years. She thought she would be in and out in two months as part of a graduate school assignment. But she loved it so much, she just kept going back every week.
The three — Benson, Perez and Dalpiaz — laugh when Benson talks about how she would trek up the mountain with her huge dictionary and pages of copied poems.
One time, in 2010, Benson watched U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, talk for eight hours on the Senate floor in a sort of filibuster opposing tax cuts.
“The text of his speech was online and I printed 20 pages at a time and we made poems from the words,” she said, adding that it was a challenge. “As someone who lives by language, it was fascinating to see ways we can use language to break thought patterns.”
The poems created from Sanders’ speech were published last year in a poetry chapbook, “Let Me Be Clear.”
As part of Thursday’s program, Perez and Dalpiaz read their poetry and Benson shared what it was like for her.
“Much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher, I don’t know if I’m not also ‘the man’ in some subtle way. That the best that I can hope for is modeling some sort of reverent irreverence for syntax and form and the lineage of any particular trope (‘You gotta know when you say rose in a poem that it comes with all sorts of baggage, right?’),” she read from a piece she had written about the experience.
“I tell them I found out that publishing didn’t save me or anyone, but that writing might. And that there is something bigger than me. Than them. That we take part in. And that is language. And that is the writing,” she continued. “That we are changing something. And much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher, maybe that writing never leaves the room. Maybe it changes nothing outside that room. Maybe the only thing the class changes outside that room is me. I can’t speak for them.”
But things did change for the men in the poetry workshops that expanded from the small weekly group to also include a “Speak Out” night at Mount McGregor.
“Speak Out” opened the stage to anyone in the prison, including correction officers, who wanted to share a poem they had written with the audience.
Dalpiaz and Perez said, at first, other inmates and correction officers acted like men didn’t read poetry. But soon the crowds at “Speak Out” grew to nearly half of the prison population.
“It got so big, we had 200 people listening to poetry,” said Dalpiaz. “We even got a police sergeant to get up.”
On Thursday night, the poems spurred lots of discussion among students, those who had once been at Mount McGregor, and faculty. One man, who had volunteered at the facility for several years, pointed out that the former superintendent of the prison, Harold McKinney, was present. McKinney, who was quietly sitting in the back of the room, smiled.
Today Perez, the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project safe re-entry advocate, was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And Dalpiaz works in New York City with homeless runaway youth.
Benson continues to publish as well as recall the times shared at the now abandoned prison. Reading from an essay written about her experiences, Benson reveals some of what their days were like within the confines of Mt. McGregor:
“Here’s how it goes down. It’s much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher. These students know I have a high tolerance for chaos so poems on papers might literally fly around the room in the wind of an opened window or often enough overtalk among them takes over. Other times I stride in the room focused on Modernism and automation or Black Arts and the military-industrial-banking complex and don’t stop talking for 10, okay, 25 minutes when it’s time to hear their thoughts and poems from during the week. Then we are all all ears. Take notes on each other and feed them back.”