Mass Incarceration, Washington D.C.

A story of a prison writing workshop when D.C. was “the Murder Capital.”



(Lorton Reformatory, 1970s — Creative Commons License)

“Our system of mass incarceration is better understood as a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention or control.” — Michelle Alexander

Poets in Prison

Back in 1995–1997, I taught writing in a prison. I did not know at the time that I was teaching in a mass incarceration writing program.

The writing workshop I became involved in within prison occurred in the now famous and closed Lorton Prison just outside Washington D.C. in Occoquan, Virginia.

Four of us made the trek every Wednesday evening back then to teach the incarcerated writing: Ta’nehisi Coates, the celebrated and award-winning international author; Darrell Stover, poet, and writer, who is Program Director for the North Carolina Humanities Council now; and poet, and guerilla intellectual, Joel Dias Porter, aka, D.J. Renegade, who has been published all over the place, and been all over reading his poetry.

Author’s photo

We were there for two hours each night. We had far too many students but we took as many as we could handle. We got them to read and write, watch film and video, talk, comment, think but most of all, not feel like their lives are meaningless.

We produced an anthology of their writings. It was called “Medium (see above) mainly because the facility was the Medium facility in the prison. Whenever I look back at the four of us, I am amazed that it happened. I am not surprised that my comrades continued to write and to succeed in the arts and in political art as well. I do wonder what happened to the men we met those evenings.


Each Wednesday we headed down Interstate 95, entered the prison, passed through the security system, walked onto the prison yard, into the prison high school, and met with the brothers, the black men. Hundreds upon hundreds of lives are…




barrister for the damned. born in a city made of chocolate