Brian Daldorph first entered the Douglas County Jail classroom in Lawrence, Kansas, to teach a writing class on Christmas Eve 2001. His last class at the jail for the foreseeable future was mid-March 2020, right before the COVID-19 lockdown; the virus is taking a heavy toll in confined communities like nursing homes and prisons. Words Is a Powerful Thing is Daldorph’s record of teaching at the jail for the two decades between 2001 and 2020, showing how the lives of everyone involved in the class—but especially the inmates who came to class week after week—benefited from what happened every Thursday afternoon in that jail classroom, where for two hours inmates and instructor became a circle of ink and blood, writing together, reciting their poems, telling stories, and having a few good laughs.
Words Is a Powerful Thing brings into the light the works of fifty talented inmate writers whose work deserves attention. Their poetry speaks of “what really matters” to all of us and gives the reader sustained insight into the role that creativity plays in aiding survival and bringing positive change for inmates, and, in turn, for all of us. Daldorph’s account of his teaching experience not only takes the reader inside the daily life at a county jail but also sets the work done in the writing class within the larger context of inmate education is the US corrections system, where education is often one of the few lifelines available to inmates. Words Is a Powerful Thing provides a teaching guide for instructors working with incarcerated writers, offering an extensive examination of both the challenges and benefits.
When Brian Daldorph decided the story of his classroom experiences and the great writing produced by the inmates deserved to be told to wider audiences, he struggled with how to bring it all together. Not long after, an inmate wrote a poem titled “Words Is a Powerful Thing,” offering Daldorph a title, concept, and purpose: to show that the poetry of inmates speaks not just to other inmates but to all of us.