The Words Behind the Bars

By Jørn Otte

Last October, I had the unique and wonderful opportunity to hear Mumia Abu-Jamal deliver a prerecorded commencement speech to the fall 2014 graduates of my school, Goddard College. Abu-Jamal is a former journalist and activist, as well as a distinguished writer and Goddard College alum. He is also a member of America’s enormous incarcerated community, serving a life sentence in a prison in Pennsylvania. Feel free to learn more about him by reading his incredible book, Live From Death Row.

The United States of America has a population that accounts for 5% of the total number of people on planet Earth, however, the "Land of the Free" houses 25% of the world’s prison population. This means, that one out of every four incarcerated people, in the world, is housed in a United States jail cell.

While I will not mythologize the role of convict, nor defend any atrocities committed by anyone, it is a certainty that innocent people are incarcerated at an alarming rate in America. Though it can be argued that the vast majority of people who end up in prison do so because they were guilty of committing a crime, that does not mean that the law they broke was a just law, nor does it mean the sentence they received was a fair punishment to fit the crime. The reality is, persons of color are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in this country. Statistically speaking, if you are a young black male, you have a greater chance of being put in jail than a white person, even if you both commit the same crime.

Real and documented social inequalities are one reason why those in prison deserve a platform to be heard. These people are fathers, mothers, children, friends and loved ones. No matter what put them in the cell they now occupy, they are still human beings. They have lives worth learning about and stories worth hearing.

There are many organizations that exist to help give voice to the millions of people behind bars in America. Perhaps the best known is the PEN Prison Writing Program. “Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

Another wonderful organization that uses the power of words to work with at-risk youth is called Pongo. “The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a volunteer, nonprofit effort with Seattle teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. We help these young people express themselves through poetry and other forms of writing.”

There are many other programs across the country and around the world that are striving to allow the written word to be a vehicle through which people behind bars can express themselves, share their stories and heal. We at Duende wish to add our voice to helping the voiceless. We want to share the words behind the bars.

Our online literary journal is committed to giving voice to those stories by presenting a platform where previously or currently incarcerated writers, poets and artists can share their work with the general public. Duende is dedicated to showcasing quality writing from communities underrepresented in the U.S. literary landscape. The journal seeks to be a vehicle through which writers who are or have been incarcerated can share their writing and visual art with a wider audience. Duende seeks poetry, prose, hybrid work, and visual art coming from the minds and hearts of prisoners—current or former, in the U.S. or in other countries.

You are not forgotten and you deserve to be heard. We gladly accept your submissions via postal mail until March 25, 2015. Please send to:

BFA in Writing Program
Goddard College
123 Pitkin Road
Plainfield, VT  05667

This is our first effort at this endeavor, however it most certainly won’t be our last. Mumia Abu-Jamal was once quoted as saying, “Very few people in prison have voices that go beyond the wall. It's my job to do the work for them because they have no one.” That is Duende’s mission as well. Please feel free to share this call with your local prison writing organization. Thank you.