A University of Kansas professor has taken some lessons from students in the writing classes he’s taught at the Douglas County jail.
Among them: “This was something that was good in their lives in a pretty bad situation for them,” Brian Daldorph said. “… We saw lives being changed.”
Daldorph, senior lecturer in KU’s English department, told the Times that teaching writing classes for inmates over the past 20 years has been a perfect intersection of his interests in literature, writing and creativity with his passion for social justice and social engagement.
In a memoir to be released later this month, “Words is a Powerful Thing,” Daldorph reflects on the past two decades of teaching the class. He also shares the works of more than 50 men he’s worked with over the years.
The title was inspired by one student’s poem by the same name.
“As soon as I heard that, I knew that would be the title for the book because it’s exactly what I was trying to say, and it’s said in a way that I wanted it said,” Daldorph said.
Some of the men gave Daldorph permission to use their names connected with their work; others wanted to be anonymous. He said he had to be meticulous with that; some people didn’t want the attention of being associated with a jail program.
The jail is a “pretty bleak place,” Daldorph said. And for some of the men he’s taught, Daldorph’s classes were “just a good thing that happened on a Thursday afternoon”; but for others, the classes were more significant than that.
“They turned to writing and creativity and self-expression as something that was really important, that could get them to a better place,” he said.
Daldorph noted that studies have shown that education has a positive effect on recidivism — education gives people an opportunity to think about their lives and do something better, he said.
Daldorph said he’s seen how his students have changed throughout the writing classes, and it’s been rewarding for him.
“You really get into it, and you think you’re doing something important,” he said. “And I just felt totally committed to doing that, and also I was seeing the good effects of the program on the inmates that I worked with.”
Asked whether there are any changes he’d like to see at the local level, Daldorph said Douglas County is very progressive, and many of his students would agree: various programs that are available make them feel less like they’re warehoused; less cut off from society.
“If they have to be in this horrible place, then they want a system like this,” he said, “because Douglas County is very good at doing different programs and encouraging guys to use their time well, and make a difference in their lives, make changes in their lives – and that’s the sort of thing that they want.”
Daldorph’s classes have been suspended since everything shut down around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He hopes to return to teaching, but he said there’s no clear sign of when the classes will come back.
Asked what else he wanted people to know about this subject, Daldorph said, “Opportunities given to inmates to improve their situations are a good idea. They’re a good investment, if you look at it like that. And if you’re thinking that people should just be locked away for their crimes and not given opportunities, which is sometimes what we hear, it seems to me that’s not the way to do it.
“What I did is just a very small part of what people have tried to do with inmate education, and it’s definitely worth doing,” he continued. “There are any number of ways in which it’s beneficial — not just for the inmate, but for society at large.”
“Words is a Powerful Thing” will soon be available through the University Press of Kansas. Place an order here.
Don’t miss a beat — get the latest news from the Times delivered to your inbox:
— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-422-6363.