Poetic Inspiration Behind Bars

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With the help of John Wareham's successful prison program, "Taking Wings," inmates have found poetic inspiration while incarcerated.
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“How to Survive a Bullet,” by John Wareham, offers a glimpse into inmates’ hearts and souls.

Sometimes important works spring from the most unlikely places.How to Survive a Bullet to the Heart (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2014), by John Wareham, which published in April 2014 during National Poetry Month, proves that even prison can be a muse for those incarcerated spirits who yearn to soar to greater heights of awareness and understanding through poetry.The following excerpt sheds light on the poetic inspiration that can be found behind bars.

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Resulting from a successful prison education program called, “Taking Wings,” John Wareham’s new book is the product of a 13-week course now in its eighteenth year in maximum security prisons where inmates are prompted to write about their emotional and intellectual journeys from the moment of their crime, to their arrest, their trial, their ride to jail, their first night behind bars, to doing time, to their parole hearing and even to their release.

Inspired to work with prisoners when visiting a son who did time at Riker’s Island, bestselling fiction and non-fiction author John Wareham, who specialized in helping CEOs and executives to improve their game in his human resource practice, turned his attention to a population which also needs to understand their predicament and see a way out of it before setting themselves on the road to transformation. Wareham was actually in the unique position of having worked for many years with these populations (CEOs and prison inmates) and discovered some interesting similarities between them.

Wareham, who was ranked as the “hands-down winner” among business communicators by Financial Times, aims to keep inmates from returning to prison and to help them learn, through various creative exercises, what factors had caused their incarceration in the first place. Some 60 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested within 3 years of release from prison.

Wareham helps inmates see issues that have made them prisoners and kept them captive such as emotional damage and childhood trauma, imprisoning beliefs including a lack of trust and the belief that one needs to cheat to survive, and the illusion of autonomy — the mirage that they are in charge.


By Sheldon Arnold

Who am I?
What have I done?
I can’t believe I did that.
What have I become?
Why are those guys oozing red?
That one looks just like he’s dead.
They’re staring at me, everyone.
Wherever did I get this gun?

Shades of Gray

By Andre Rivera

Racism in the ghetto
was just another day.
When it came to black and white
there were no shades of gray.
I wised up to that jungle
and tried to get away.
Hey, not so fast, the devil said,
and I was shred and lay
bleeding in a gutter
with a bullet in my tray.
First I saw black
then I saw white
but never shades of gray.


By Herburtho Benjamin

Farewell and fair well,
sounds the liberty bell.

Hearts assail
the justice scale,
but souls, my friend,
are not for sale.

This ark is made to sail;
if you think you’re gonna fail
come follow me, and we’ll prevail.

Farewell and fair well,
sounds the liberty bell.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Survive a Bullet to the Heart: Secret Lives & Uncensored Confessions of Maximum Security Prison Inmatesby John Wareham and published by Welcome Rain Publishers, 2014.

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