INTRODUCTION TO PRISONER EXPRESS
Prisoner Express was inspired by a man locked in isolation requesting a book to provide “a window to the world.” Founded at Cornell University in 2004, the program has served over 39,000 men and women in 49 states. Their mission is to create opportunities for incarcerated people to access information, education, and creative self-expression. Their goal is to foster hope and a sense of community for those who have been isolated.
I learned about Prisoner Express from my daughter, then a Cornell junior. Busy in my own lane, I didn’t think much about it. Two things changed that. The pandemic, which touched the lives of most people, was especially brutal in the prison system. In most states, visitation, education, and recreation were halted or radically curtailed. Then, in August 2020, the much-loved founder of Amherst Writers & Artists died. Pat Schneider and her book Writing Alone and With Others taught writing as a means of healing and empowering marginalized voices. Remembering Pat primed my feelings of compassion.
My daughter asked me to consider donating copies of my Did You Know? chapbook (Rattle, 2019) to Prisoner Express for a poetry project. I didn’t think there would be much interest, frankly. It was a very personal story, a memoir of growing up female in the ’60s and ’70s, and it took many years to tell. But as I comfortably sheltered at home, I thought about the people incarcerated in isolation, all over the country. We sent out a feeler in a newsletter and received over 300 replies from people eager to participate. In December 2020, Prisoner Express distributed 324 copies of the book, along with a chapbook writing assignment, including prompts encouraging inmates to tell their own stories.
Responses came in almost immediately. I was impressed at the quality of the writing but more so in the breadth and bravery of their work. There were a lot of love poems, to partners as well as mothers, grandmothers, and children who were sorely missed. There were coming-out stories, fantasies about flying and duct-taped magical shopping carts, spiritual journeys, mental health sagas, portraits of cellmates over time. Those who responded to the prompts all had something to say; something urgent and authentic.
Through most of 2021, batches of 10–15 handwritten chapbooks arrived at my house. I read every page. I tagged poems in each collection and sent individual comments back to the poet. I started reading the poems at virtual open mics around New England. I asked Rattle if they would be interested in featuring the Prisoner Express Chapbook Project on the Rattlecast. Instead, the editors asked for a sample of the poems received. In the end I submitted all of the tagged poems. The following Tribute to Prisoner Express includes selected work from the incarcerated people who participated in this project.
—from Rattle #76, Summer 2022
Tribute to Prisoner Express
Elizabeth S. Wolf is the author of two chapbooks: What I Learned: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and Did You Know? (Rattle, 2019). Elizabeth’s poems have appeared in multiple anthologies and journals, including Persian Sugar in English Tea (in English & Farsi), Mosaics, Ibbetson Street, Peregrine Journal, Tuck Magazine, and others. She is a regular at the Merrimac Mic open mic and the Full Moon Story Slam. Elizabeth lives in Massachusetts and works as a metadata librarian.