Prison Poetry

Multiple poems and a story, by state of Illinois prisoners.

     Loneliness – by Ryan Kirkpatrick
     Jailhouse New – by Donald McDonald
     The Ballad of a Dead Beat Dad – by Jonathan Bartlett
     The World We Make – by Angel Torres
     A Poem – by a state of Illinois prisoner
     Concrete and Iron City – by David A. Smith
     “Safe?!” – by a prisoner at Tamms
     T.A.M.M.S. – by a prisoner at Tamms
     America’s Supermaximums – by a prisoner at Tamms
     If Only [story] – by Joe Dole




     Ryan Kirkpatrick

I sit in a cold dark room
listing intently
for something that’s not here

It’s just another empty space
another empty day
another empty moment

There’s nothing to do
but listen to my thoughts
and they are empty as I feel

I am lonely but no one can help me
for I am lost with myself
in an empty space trying to get out
but here is no way out


Jailhouse New

     Donald McDonald

They die here,
Discarded like empty dried out logs,
Blank as paintingless walls,
Cracked empty egg shells in human forms,

They die here,
Light and dark blue zombies,
Lost in glass tubes,
Cardless games,
Chess without pieces,

They die here,
Feeding on tasteless victuals,
Devouring rumors and innuendos of freedom,
Longing to be led astray,

They die here,
With soda pop aspirations,
And candy bar expectations,
Betting on the dreams of others,

They die here,
Searching for long lost conversations,
Forgotten by imagined friends and family,
Expecting a letter never sent,

They die here alone,
They die here forgotten,
They die here before they come.


The Ballad of a Dead Beat Dad

     Jonathan Bartlett

Visiting rooms and state blues
Vending machine food and tattoos
My reality as a father
Some may say why even bother
Label me a dead beat dad
Admitting it is sad
But they say the truth will set you free
Will my child ever forgive me?

I’ve become what I hated most
My own father’s ghost
I’ve been gone since she was a year old
From behind bars I’ve watched her young life unfold
It’s hard to express my pain
I feel like my whole life has been in vain
When I start to think that life is futile
All I have to do is think of my little girl’s smile
I have so many fears
Knowing I’ll be gone the next 40 years
I won’t be there when she starts to date
Will her mother make sure she doesn’t stay out late?
Who will walk her down the aisle?
The way this all turned out makes me feel so vile
Is it possible to be a positive force in her life?


The World We Make

     Angel Torres

We make the world in which we live
By what we gather and what we give,
By our daily deeds and the things we say,
By what we keep or we cast away.
We make our world by the beauty we see
In a dark cell with songs or words we preach,
In a butterfly’s wing, in the pale moon’s rise,
and the wonder that lingers in midnight skies.

We make our world by the life we lead,
By the friends we pick, by the books we read,
By the pity we show in the hour of care,
By the loads we lift and the love we share.

We make our world by the goals we pursue,
By the heights we seek and the higher view,
By hopes and dreams that reach the sun
And a will to fight till justice is won.

What is the place in which we dwell,
A cell or a palace, a heaven or hell
We gather and scatter, we take and we give,
We make our world – and there we live.


A Poem

     by a state of Illinois prisoner

I said I didn’t do it, Mom
But still they say I did.
I’d never try to hurt him, Mom
Not my little kid.

He’s such a special baby, Mom
I know you understand.
You get that warm, good feeling, Mom
When you touch that tiny hand.

There’s bars all around me, Mom
And I haven’t slept in weeks.
The food is hard and salty, Mom
And the piping has a leak.

I miss my little boys, Mom
They’re all I’ve ever had
I’d always go and hold them, Mom
When times would get bad.

I’m all alone and scared, Mom
I’m losing all my hope
Without my kids I’m dying, Mom
I will never learn to cope.

I love my little boys, Mom
No matter what they say
I’m coming home real soon, Mom
This I know and pray.



Concrete and Iron City

     David A. Smith

Concrete and iron city
  what an awesome sight,
From outside it looks peaceful
  inside there’s nothing but fright.

Men housed in cages
 stacked row upon row,
The Despair, hopelessness and fear
  from outside, who would know.

It’s a battle from within
  waged from dawn to dawn,
To overcome the feelings
  of a life gone wrong.

Segregated, denigrated,
  deprecated and worse,
Times more than your sentence
  It’s been your life your lifelong curse.

Always struggling within yourself
  to make it day to day,
To maintain a shred of sanity
  to help you along the way.

But the way is fraught with dangers
  of the most fearsome kind,
Self-destructive behavior
  products of a diseased mind.

The world outside moves on
  without giving any thought,
The diseases most suffer
  are ones society has wrought.

It’s easier just not to care
  than to take responsibility,
It’s easier to simply say:
  “Lock ‘em up, throw away the key.”

But that is not the answer
  to this problem that we face,
A problem with no boundaries
  of religion, class, or race.

Instead we need solutions
  to heal the sickness in our land,
To help restore the dignity
  of this fallen man.

 Help him understand the man
  God intended him to be,
Lift him up, make him realize
  his noble destiny.

Now the time is growing short
  and something must be done,
A faithful voice must be heard.
  Question is: “Will yours be one?”




     by a prisoner at Tamms

A guard told me upon arrival that there are 
   benefits to this isolation,
That we are now all “safe” from gang 
I asked, “But what about the retaliation of the 
   Tamms administration?”
He smiled, as he enjoyed this in ecstatic 

Oh!  I see!  I’m “safe” from my family’s 
   loving embrace.
“Safe” from education taking ignorance’s
“Safe” from recreation keeping my heart’s 
   healthy pace.
“Safe” from being considered as part of 
   the human race.

Oh, how I wish I could articulate this 
   quasi-existence I’ve grown to hate,
Or get an answer to why so many strangers 
   sadistically enjoy my monotonous fate.
They say societal enlightenment takes 
But what if it takes longer than your 
   life, and you’re the one forced to wait?




     by a prisoner at Tamms

Tamms. Taking a multitude of men’s souls and killing our mentality
Having hopeless thoughts, always slipping out of reality

Being distracted by staff in all positive endeavors
Without no outside support, feeling like you’ve been slaughtered like Medgar Evers

Having negative thoughts daily
  And trying to strengthen your thinking skills
They play many unnecessary games with our legal services
  Documents and other legal materials

Filing a grievance EMERGENCY will start building the bitterness
No satisfaction fo’ real!

The mental health staff are said to be here to assist us
  And to help us overcome any anxiety
But instead they are orchestrated to assist us
  In becoming eradicated from our very own society

Speaking of help, I was told by one counselor
  …that she has my best interest at heart
Not knowing for several months that she was designated to alter
  My way of thinking from the start

Smiling in my face with her Betty-Boop-like voice
  Knowing that I will fall victim to her deception
All the while mastering her scheme
  To assist me in my own self-destruction

What have I left to use of my best while here at Tamms?
  Not so much of anything constructive
Because I am looked at as less than human . . .
  Is it my soul the staff here wants? or is it my courage to stay alive?

Until someone has the courage to step up and acknowledge to me
What it is they want
I will continue to live, strive, survive . . .
“You know, there are three phases in life:
You either in a storm, you just got out a storm, or you’re on your way into a storm.”

Multitude of



America’s Supermaximums

     by a prisoner at Tamms

As I walk through the tunnels of this hellhole and see
different faces of young and old brothers caught up in this
place, I often stop along the walk and wonder what story
can be told about this particular spot. Is it a bloodstain that leaves a
mark of a gang of brothers in battle over some phones or some cell
that ain’t even theirs, or was it about a drug deal gone bad, and one
inmate stabs the other for his cash, not realizing that they are playing
along with the makeup of this Master Plan.
                                                                             If only these walls,
bars, cells could tell, they would reveal stories of murder, rape,
drug ODs, bogus medical practice, suicide, beatings, a multitude
of pain that will never be told because they are the secrets
of a prison system that failed the rehabilitation
of a population led astray…
                                                Then we look around the world, see
pictures of the way people treat us in American supermax prisons,
and realize they have taken the same ill behavior across the seas
to someone else’s country called Iraq. Pure hate started
when the first seed was planted from a wicked deed
by those in authority who realized there was profit
in locking us up and throwing away the keys.
                                                                                So while
we are focusing on prisons outside our country like Abu Ghraib, we
need to look at our supermax warehouse system of live human stock,
and wonder why there are so many unexplained murders, suicides
and so-called accidental deaths. Where so many people fall down
the stairs or hang themselves while the doctors and coroners
help to cover up the crimes. Pretending like they are here to
correct you… We have no other choice but to enforce the rules… 
                                                We need to cease this madness
and open the eyes of the world before more bodies be bagged
like yesterday’s trash.



If Only

     Joe Dole


Part 1

I grew up in dozens of hovels in numerous ghettos throughout the city of Chicago. My mother was single but doesn’t deserve the title single parent because it takes more to be a parent than giving birth. I never knew my father. I’m not sure my mother did either.

My earliest memories are of trying to stay clear of the multitude of men in my mother’s life and of trying to get enough food to quiet my stomach enough to fall asleep. I went to school until halfway through the 3rd grade when after one of our many moves I did not get re-enrolled.

So my formal education ended there and my street education began. I began to stay away from home and abuse as much as possible. Returning late one night I heard my mother’s boyfriend selling something at the door for $100. I couldn’t tell what he had sold but that was more money than I had ever seen so it piqued my curiosity. After a few weeks of snooping around, I figured it all out and started my career in the cocaine trade.

I began by stealing small amounts that I hoped he wouldn’t detect were missing and catching some of his customers on the street before he got to the house. I’d be sure to sell it for a lot less so they’d keep their mouths shut. I spent most of the money at fast food joints. Not much time passed before I started to catch the eyes of the older kids who hung out at the corner. Once they discovered I was selling they got mad. When they confronted me I was terrified. After the first hit I was on the ground crying. They said if I ever sold on their block again the beating would be worse. When I whined that all I wanted was to get some food, the leader took pity on me. After that I started selling for him and spent most of my time with the gang. For once I felt welcomed and each time they asked me to do something, it was always something I was able to do, not requiring any book smarts. For the first time I knew what pride was. I was proud of my accomplishments, never reasoning whether they were right or wrong. They always felt right and garnered me acceptance. The first time I contemplated right or wrong was after my arrest for murder and a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Part 2

My time spent in prison was the most positive experience of my life. It was a life-altering moment that led me to leave a life of crime behind. I met with a counselor to discuss my goals and interests and to make a blueprint for rehabilitation. The next week I was enrolled in G.E.D. classes and received my diploma 2 years later. In the following years I was assisted in picking my courses to work toward a college degree in my field of interest. I received my bachelor’s degree in six years. A Pell grant paid for it all.

Once I was enrolled in school and had an eye on the future I turned my attention towards the necessities of the present. I got a job working in the factory making minimum wage. This allowed me to send money home to support my child as well as buy necessities at the commissary and start a small savings account.

I was shown respect and compassion at all times, and this in turn taught me to be compassionate and respectful to others. For the first time in my life I watched the news and followed current affairs. I developed my own opinions on matters of religion, morals and my future. I looked forward to accomplishing something positive with my life.

When I left prison I was alone again but I was prepared and with my savings could support myself until I found a job. I now take an active part in society and cannot imagine ever breaking the law again. I’m saving for my own house, share custody of my son and help out with numerous charity groups. Life is good.

Part 3

Per instructions, this entire story is a work of fiction. Part 1 is fiction because I made it up. It was not my life but some version of it is reality for thousands of kids across this country. More unfortunate though is that Part 2 is also fiction and in today’s “correctional” environment cannot be a reality for anyone. In a time when education is nonexistent in maximum security prisons and continually stripped away in others, when Pell grants are no longer available to prisoners, when jobs are almost nonexistent and pay only pennies per hour, when inmates are not allowed to save any significant amount of money or keep an inheritance because the state will seize it to pay for the “costs of incarceration,” when first-time felony offenders can be sentenced to life imprisonment or death, when there are no second chances, when upon conviction someone is stripped of his claim to humanity and made an outcast and labeled a monster, Part 2 is not a possibility.

My question is this: How can society expect people to change after living through a version of Part 1 without being given the tools of Part 2? They can’t, and without a serious shift in policy the recidivism rate will continue to be as unconscionably high as the current rate of 55%. Millions more will be lost and considered animals.




3 Responses to “Prison Poetry”

  1. Rina Says:

    I read your piece Part 1 and 2. You ask how can one truly accomplish different levels of growth in life without being taught the necessary skills to deal with the past and the illusion of society that the prison system is a place of rehabilitation. It’s all a lie, correctional systems are utilized to warehouse people like livestock. The criminal justice system lacks empathetic views of individual cases. They have failed and are failing a multitude of people that deserve a chance. In theory recidivism rates would decrease if people were properly assisted to be equipped and exit society with the tools to succeed the system wasn’t created for success. I was once told by a criminal justice professor if I obtained a degree in criminal justice I would have job security. See someone has to be the bad guy so society can be alleviated from the responsibility of how they fail people. They fail to realize that all men/women can change. I wrote a piece on that once……. I empathize with you and the situation your are in but being a humanitarian one thing I do know is they can’t kill your hope and dreams they try but your fiction can become reality. Obstacles may be present but obstacles are meant to be overcome! Recidivism will reduce when society realizes we are all directly and indirectly impacted by the massive number of people behind bars. Strangely enough people don’t become aware of the injustices until it hit homes. I don’t think your an animal. I believe you are a winner thru and thru. Unfortunately prison won’t be the place where you can spread your wings. Just wanted to let you know I feel ya.

  2. Crystal Says:

    The poems are very touching and are things tha happen in real life and shows me the all of you prisoners have changed for makeing wrong choises in life to making right choises in life keep your head up and joy will come soon things happen in life for a reason. Show all the people that that you was not going to maked that they are wrong.

  3. J.Galliano Says:

    I sent ‘The World We Make’ by Angel Torres to my Lover, who is incarcerated in Pennsylvania. Thank you all for your poetry and stories. Keep writing…

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