‘Something sacred happened.’ Incarcerated women find freedom in Poetic Justice art exhibit

With a photo of Emmisha S. featured nearby, Imani Townsell looks at a photo of her best friend at the

A furnished dollhouse with an accompanying poem called “Mind Palace” and a photo of a smiling woman with a huge afro were displayed, along with a painting of a boxer whose gloves glowed with the words “strong,” “worthy” and “fierce.”

The gallery was full of striking artwork and poetry, but Lexi Weber, of Oklahoma City, was particularly captivated by a photo of a blonde woman with her palms outstretched toward the camera.

Weber, 22, stared at the image of her mother, Brooke S., before reading her mom’s poem titled “Evolution” during the friends and family tour of “Poetic Justice: Voices on the Inside” exhibit.

On display through Nov. 30 at Oklahoma City University’s Norick Art Center, the exhibit features self portraits, artwork, poetry and photos of 21 women incarcerated at Oklahoma prisons. A panel discussion is set for Nov. 9 at the art center.

“My mom has always been a writer, but this is the first time I actually got to read anything she wrote, other than one other time,” Weber said.

Ellen Stackable, Poetic Justice founder and executive director, heard similar remarks from other visitors during the friends and family sneak peak of the new exhibit. The way attendees seemed to gain inspiration and insight from the mixed media displays was just one bonus from the Poetic Justice nonprofit program she founded in 2014.

The Tulsa resident said she started the program after tagging along with a friend in charge of a spoken word project for women incarcerated at the Tulsa County jail. As an English teacher, Stackable said she knew the power of the written word. She thought the women might benefit from writing so she began Poetic Justice by offering creative arts and restorative writing programs to women at the Tulsa jail.

Ellen Stackable, founder of Oklahoma-based Poetic Justice, talks with visitors at the

“To be disconnected from someone who is incarcerated is hard,” Weber said. “This doesn’t solve that, by any means, but it helps a lot.”

The program became popular as more and more women began asking to join in.

Poetic Justice programs are offered at five correctional facilities, as well as prisons in California, Oregon and Tijuana, Mexico. Poetic Justice leaders said more than 4,000 incarcerated women have been through the program with the help of more than 600 volunteers. Stackable has won many awards for Poetic Justice, including being named a CNN Hero in 2018.

Through Poetic Justice, participants often find meaningful ways to process trauma and confront feelings of worthlessness and despair to find hope and a sense of worth. Poetic Justice leaders said the women also discover a talent for writing and art along the way.

In addition to their writing and art, Stackable said the new exhibit at OCU features something new for Poetic Justice participants — their photographs. She and photographer Lisa Loftus thought it would be great to get photos of the women in informal settings because many of them don’t have any recent photos of themselves beyond the photos taken when they entered the criminal justice system.

People view portraits, poetry and art of incarcerated Oklahoma women on display at the

‘It was cathartic’

Lisa Black, a former inmate and current Poetic Justice board member, said she was introduced to the nonprofit program when it first began at an Oklahoma women’s prison. With a chuckle, she said she was an “OG,” part of the “original crew at Mabel Bassett.”

“It was cathartic,” Black said.

“It helped me deal with some of the things that I hadn’t dealt with, and it was just a place where I felt safe — a safe space.”

Black said things didn’t start out so positive, but Stackable and Poetic Justice won over the first Mabel Bassett participants because the Tulsan was a woman of her word.

Lisa Black, a former inmate and current Poetic Justice board member, views artwork and poetry featured at the

“When it first came in, we didn’t trust it. Really, we have a lot of people that come in and say, ‘I’m going to be here and here and here. I’m going to do this for you’ — and it doesn’t happen,” Black said.

“The first thing we noticed is she was true to everything said. Ellen Stackable was honest, and we found out really quick we could trust her.”

The women also found that being able to express themselves through writing and art work gave them a sense of freedom even though they were behind bars.

“I think the way it works is because they are able to work through the past harm through writing, creativity and art,” Black said. “This is an outlet — one of the only outlets that we have inside corrections.”

Black said her Poetic Justice poetry and artwork helped her stay connected to her two children while she was incarcerated for eight and a half years. She was released from prison in August 2022, and she’s using the love of writing that was nurtured through Poetic Justice to write a book for children whose mothers are incarcerated.

‘Something sacred happened’

Cyndi Lamb, 71, didn’t know what to expect when she became a volunteer writing partner for inmates at the now defunct Kate Barnard Correctional Center.

“When I came out, I remember walking down the steps and saying to the group (of volunteers), ‘Something sacred happened in there today,’ she said. “I was blown away the talent they had.”

She said Stackable had talked to the volunteers about treating the inmates simply as women and that is what she has done for the past eight years working with the program.

Cyndi Lamb, Poetic Justice volunteer distance-learning writing partner, attends the

“She says ‘Let’s just go in and be fellow human beings. Don’t criticize, don’t judge, don’t interrupt when people are talking — just common human courtesies,” Lamb said.

“It was such a learning experience for me, and they were most grateful.”

For Weber, Poetic Justice deserves praise because it gives her mother and other inmates a way to express themselves in a world where many of them have faced similar challenging life circumstances.

“I just think it’s absolutely beautiful that these girls get to share their stories because, in my opinion, they don’t belong in the spot they’re in — they need help.”

Stackable said she stresses to volunteers that there is no hierarchy in Poetic Justice, and one of the reasons for this is that many of the incarcerated women have high levels of childhood trauma and have spent their lives at the bottom of every hierarchy.

Portraits, poetry and art of incarcerated Oklahoma women are displayed at the

“So, I think we have to be so deliberate,” she said “Everything we do when we walk in, from the moment we walk in says, ‘You are a person of worth, you matter, your life matters, your words matter.'”

Poetic Justice: Voices on the Inside

  • When: panel discussion, 6 p.m. Nov. 9.; exhibit open through Nov. 30.
  • Where: Oklahoma City University Norick Art Center, 1608 NW 26.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Information: To learn more about Poetic Justice, the Voices on the Inside panel discussion and exhibit, go to http://www.poeticjusticeok.org. To volunteer as a distance learning writing partner or an in-person class volunteer, go to https://www.poeticjustice.org/volunteer.

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