© 2024 Interlochen
CLASSICAL IPR | 88.7 FM Interlochen | 94.7 FM Traverse City | 88.5 FM Mackinaw City IPR NEWS | 91.5 FM Traverse City | 90.1 FM Harbor Springs/Petoskey | 89.7 FM Manistee/Ludington
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Behind bars, transformation through poetry: this week on The Green Room

Morgan Springer
James Fuson describes his poetry cataloguing system at Macomb Correctional Facility.

Incarcerated poets get together weekly at Writer’s Block, a poetry writing workshop at Macomb Correctional Facility outside Detroit. Eight inmates file into a conference room. Dressed in navy and orange jumpsuits, they greet everyone with affectionate handshakes.


Processing through poetry

Credit Morgan Springer
Morgan Springer
Raymond Hall, known as Umar, (right) cracks a smile after reading his poem.

Individually they craft something lyrical out of experiences that are often dark. Together they grapple with loss, their childhoods and incarceration through poetry.  

They go around the room, each poet stands and faces the group to read. Raymond Hall, who goes by Umar, goes first. His poem is called “Suicide Chronicles Volume IV: What could I say to stop a man from crying?” 

I saw a man cry today / because reality set in 

Seeping gradually through his conscience / and the contents had him boxed in 

Said he ain’t feel free since nine maybe ten / and every thought is an angering experience 

I saw a man cry today

In this excerpt, he’s describing the moment he realized a young man he liked from another prison block was having a hard time.

Cultivating trust

The majority of the men in the workshop have been convicted of homicide. Six of them are serving life sentences and four of those were convicted as juveniles. Michael Brown is one of three volunteer facilitators who comes to the prison for Writer’s Block.

“I would let any one of the guys in our group watch my child,” Michael says. “I would let them babysit. And I know what has transpired in the past, and that’s the power of poetry.”


Credit Morgan Springer
Members of Writer's Block discuss their poetry at Macomb Correctional Facility.

Another facilitator, Jonathan Rajewski, says whatever these men did shouldn’t restrain their voices.

“I mean, the fact of the matter remains that they’re people,” he says, “and they shouldn’t necessarily be stripped of their ... ability to write, think, read, speak. They shouldn’t be deprived of that based on a mistake they made. In some of these cases, they didn’t make a mistake at all. A couple of these guys maintain their innocence.”

One poet who does not claim innocence is James Fuson, who goes by Jay. He’s one of the most prolific writers in the group. Jay writes in tiny font, cramming dozens of poems onto a single page. He’s got spreadsheets and color coding to help him find the one among literally thousands of poems he’s looking for in his folder. 


Credit Morgan Springer
James Fuson types his poetry in small font so he can fit more writing in his footlocker.

He writes small out of necessity.

“Because if I did everything in a regular font, regular size, it would probably take up the bottom of my footlocker,” he says. The footlocker is the main space inmates have for personal property. 

Jay is 21 years into a life sentence. He killed his grandparents when he was 17. They were raising him because his mom died of a heroin overdose. His dad was abusive and later died in prison. As it stands now, Jay will die in prison, too. But he thinks he’s ready for a shot at parole.

“I see the person I am now, clear thinking, reasonable, rational,” says Jay, “and I don’t think that’s something new. I think that was always there within me. I just only had to discover it.”

He says he discovered it through exposure to new ideas when he was transferred to a facility with arts and education programming.

"It actually made me realize that there was a whole new world opened up to me, and that prison was not a barrier, it was just something to work around," says Jay. "Prison doesn’t stop anything.”

Now Jay is a published poet with a book of haiku and more than forty print publications.


Credit Morgan Springer
James Fuson listens to a fellow Writer's Block member's poetry.

Get to know the poets better

Check out Incarcerated Archive, a collection of Writer’s Block member’s poetry.

Hear Writer’s Block members read their poems in full below.


"Suicide Chronicles Volume IV: What could I say to stop a man from crying" by Raymond Hall (aka Umar).
"If I was a poem" by Donald Malone-el.
"Onesie '78" by David Armstrong Jones.
"Psychological Warfare" by Tony Tard.
"Nothing Left" by Maurice Sanders.
"The Contemplation of a Fallen Leaf" by James Fuson.
"Journal entry: September 2015" by Fred Williams.
"Life" by Yusef Qualls-el.






Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.