Speaking Change: Healing and Hope in the Spoken Word

Byline: By Bethany Davis

Yvette Snowden believes in the power of words. As the librarian at Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility in Nashville, Tenn., she shares good literature with the offenders she serves.

"Books and poetry they can relate to. I try to find writers that will inspire them."

But for Snowden and the men of the Spoken Word program, it's not just about reading good literature - it's about writing it and sharing it with others. The results speak for themselves. Program participants have a near-zero disciplinary level, creating an environment where important reentry programs can thrive. Many are also realizing new dreams.

Under Snowden's guidance, the Spoken Word class meets in the library every Monday afternoon to write, collaborate and share their work with each other. Some choose to rap, some sing songs, others write letters to their former selves. Whatever form it takes, the goal is clear – use the written word to overcome the past and build a new future.

"They get to put it on paper, instead of it being suppressed like it has been for so long," said Snowden. "It allows them to come to terms with the trauma and move on."

The men of the Spoken Word program are given journals and encouraged to use writing as an outlet for whatever they are feeling. They write about life, their dreams, and sometimes, painful memories.

"I had one write about being a little boy and watching his mother get arrested before he and his siblings were put into state custody. He shed tears," said Snowden. "It is unbelievable what many of these guys have been through."

While it is a form of therapy, Snowden says the Spoken Word Program generates results that reach even further.

"I see the changes every day," said Snowden. "Some have decided to pursue their GEDs, one is writing a book, and two others are planning to develop a writing workshop for youth when they are released."

It's positive changes like these that drive CoreCivic's reentry mission at Metro and facilities across the country. Through education, treatment for substance use disorders, faith-based programs, and therapy programs like Spoken Word, inmates are able to identify and address potential barriers to their successful reentry.

In class, Snowden gives her students writing prompts to generate ideas. But she encourages them to turn to their journals anytime they feel conflicted, upset or overwhelmed. It's this freedom of expression that students say has given them a sense of direction.

"When I first arrived, I had issues and I was very angry," said Keno R., an inmate writer who participates in the Spoken Word Program. "But now I have hope and I smile when I think about all the program has done for me."

Looking ahead, Snowden believes the program will continue to help each individual in her care find his voice and the path to a better life.

"I feel like I'm giving them their self-worth back," said Snowden. "I tell them, there is no limit to what you can do, so set your goals high."

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