Retired pediatrician Gary Hoffman has known three people who have been in jail or prison. That’s all it took for him to pursue a project that he hopes will benefit inmates by giving them an opportunity to discuss poetry and by doing so increase self-expression and enhance personal growth.
“It’s really easy to forget about people behind bars,” Hoffman said.
The project is simple: one half-hour class a month for each of the four cellblocks at the Blaine County Detention Center. During the half hour, Hoffman reads a poem and discusses its meaning and implications with a group of three to five inmates.
Hoffman said the idea isn’t a new one, referencing programs from Indiana to Argentina that use writing workshops, poetry discussions and literature in general to engage inmates in a way that they don’t often have available to them while incarcerated.
He began the project last fall, hoping to provide an avenue for inmates to engage on a higher level by providing prompts and questions that lead to dialogues on feelings, self-awareness and more.
“My goal is to help inmates develop positive means of self-expression and learn to communicate in a more appropriate manner instead of reverting to old established patterns of antisocial behavior when stressed,” he said. “The classes are not designed to teach poetry per se, but to help encourage introspective thinking and self-expression.”
Hoffman said he doesn’t mind posing questions to get participants to think, but noted that he generally doesn’t need to.
“Most peoples’ exposure to poetry has been in elementary and high school, where lyrical classics were studied,” he said. “In my classes I teach from Billy Collins, Charles Bukowski and a host of contemporary poets.”
Because the classes are so short, Hoffman said, it’s difficult to delve into things too deeply, but that generally, everyone who comes to the class participates.
“I think they see it as more than entertainment,” he said. “If we’re really going to rehabilitate people, we have to take a more modern approach.”
Beyond discussing poems, Hoffman encourages his students to write themselves and to share their works with the class. So far, he said, the response has been positive, with inmates returning and engaging. He said he hopes to be able to expand the project, both at the Blaine County jail and beyond to other detention centers and prisons throughout the state, but in order to do that, he needs volunteers.
Hoffman is looking for two to six volunteers to help with the Blaine County program. First, the volunteer would shadow Hoffman in one of his classes to get a feel for how to break the ice, start a dialogue and engage with inmates. Then, Hoffman hopes volunteers will be able to facilitate their own classes so more inmates can attend.
Interested volunteers can contact Hoffman directly at 208-725-5522. Hoffman said the process for a background check to be able to enter the jail and interact with inmates takes about a month, so those interested should contact him immediately to begin the process.
“A poetry or literary background is desirable, although not essential,” he said. “What is sought are individuals who have some counseling skills who believe in the potential for turning around peoples’ lives through meaningful experiences.”