Poetry program at Lansing prison helps inmates find their voices, keeps recidivism rates low

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Arts in Prison has been an institution at the Lansing Correctional Facility for more than two decades, and officials behind its poetry program believe it’s helping keep reformed inmates out of jail.

“The general recidivism rate in Kansas is around 50 percent. Half the inmates are back within three years,” said Arlin Buyert, the poetry instructor. “But, for whatever reason, inmates who participate in my poetry program have almost no recidivism.”

According to Buyert, out of the 15 inmates who have gone through the program and have since been released, only one has returned to prison and that was because of a parole violation.

JoAnna Ramsey was incarcerated at the Lansing Correctional Facility in 2009. Today, she's not only a free woman but also a published author because of the program.

JoAnna Ramsey

“A lot of times when you are incarcerated, you become voiceless,” Ramsey said. "Your voice is taken away, and poetry is a way to get your voice back.”

Ramsey turned to the prison’s poetry program to escape the stress of prison. She said she quickly found her voice and artistic outlet to share her personal story.

“I’m transgender, so I was a woman stuck in a man’s prison,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said she's also the first transgender woman in Kansas to receive hormone replacement therapy while incarcerated. She spent years petitioning then Gov. Sam Brownbeck and state lawmakers to approve funding to cover the cost of her medical needs.

“It was quite a battle. It took about five and a half years,” Ramsey said.

She found that poetry had a way of breaking down the political barriers in prison and unloading the heavy burdens of a dark past.

“Prison is very segregated, and in poetry you have a mix of different people,” Ramsey said. "Getting past prison life is a process and it’s slow, but being able to write helped me speed that along."

Today, she's grateful to have found acceptance and a fresh outlook on life.

“Poetry gives people an opportunity to know they are still people,” Ramsey said. “The great part about America is that we’re a land of second chances, and poetry and art is something that connects us all.”

Buyert echoed Ramsey’s sentiments, adding that it’s easy for people outside of prison to forget that those inside are still people.

“They’re human. They have worth. They’re poets,” Buyert said.