STILLWATER, Minn. (FOX 9) - A project underway at a prison in Stillwater is giving inmates a chance to learn about themselves, to explore their potential, and share their story far beyond the walls of the facility, while reflecting on the mistakes that got them there.
The "Seen" prison portrait and poetry project, which encourages inmates to express themselves using photography, video, and the written word, is about providing a new perspective about what it means to be incarcerated and not just looked at but really seen.
Wednesday, at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, we got to sit down with some of those incarcerated men taking part in the project and see how the writing process has transformed and their shaped their lives.
"Cry sis, cry sis... the whole world is in a crisis," recited Maurice Martin Lennell. "Don’t hold back love, let the tears flood your eyelids."
"This takes place in a prison island during the genocide," explained Sarith Peou. "'Having survived tortures, interrogations, and buried corpses, one day I was ordered to dig my own grave.'"
It’s all parts of their own stories, weaved into the written word.
"Don’t ask days, don’t fall prey, don’t pray to unwreck the past," said Brian Batchelor. "Don’t count past, don’t count, don’t count, time don’t talk about life before this place."
"Hmong, Hmong, what have we become," recited Fong Lee. "Did we forget to wash our eyes this morning? Should we let our brothers and sisters rot in American prison?"
And most of these incarcerated men in Stillwater will tell you, putting those words to paper is changing them.
"Especially poetry for me, it helps me to learn a lot about who I am as an individual but it also teaches me things about humanity in general and the sort of things I have in common with everyone else," said Batchelor.
"I think my calling is more than writing, it’s speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves," added Peou.
Now, their photographs, poetry and written words are part of the project "Seen" -- a chance for the public to really see those behind bars.
"Most importantly, the Seen Project gives us a chance to chisel away with a pencil element of mass incarceration. It’s very important to us and whoever outside of here who will hear it," said Ronald Greer.
It’s organized by the nonprofit "We Are All Criminals" and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
"It creates a kind of compelling and I think really unusual picture of the men and women people don’t normally get to see," said Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop Artistic Director Jennifer Bowen-Hicks.
The work and rehabilitation happening behind these walls because of the writing is something those incarcerated and in charge say we all should care about.
"What the community needs to realize is we are coming back home and you want us to come out better men and better women and you want us to come out as mature individuals that offer something to the community," explains Batchelor.
"Ultimately, that change they make in themselves is what allows them to return to the community, return to the community and not re-offend and ultimately makes Minnesota safer," says Stillwater's Associate Warden of Administration Victor Wanchena.
"This opportunity through Seen gets people to see the human, the child for some of us; we were very young when we did the things we did, so this lets people see the other side," says LaVon Johnson. "The real people we could’ve and should’ve become besides that one mistake or action."