California Medical Facility inmates find voices through poetry

Men stand around one woman and a lectern in a prison.
Inmates participate in the Voices of Poetry reading at California Medical Facility.

By Krissi Khokhobashvili
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Inmates at California Medical Facility (CMF) showed their appreciation to the mental health team there by holding a poetry reading in their honor.

“You have all decided to work here, in this setting, with these people, in this situation – what were you thinking?” ribbed Carla Hunt, a recreational therapist at the Vacaville prison. She was addressing a crowd of physicians, therapists and administrators assembled for “Voices,” a first-of-its-kind poetry event at the institution. “It’s difficult work. It’s challenging work. And it is profoundly important work that we do here, to bear witness while people find their way in life.”

Clifton Freeman, an inmate and talented poet, set aside his nerves to read a statement from the group before sharing his original poetry.

“The reason we call our performing group Voices is because we want to be the voice of so many mentally ill people who are always misunderstood and feared,” he said. “We are seen as being other than human, or so-called normal. Calling ourselves Voices was a powerful way for us to express ourselves and to reach others. We hope others can find their own voice without fear of misunderstanding.”

Each Friday, the small group of men gathers inside CMF’s Enhanced Outpatient Program (EOP) facility. Under Hunt’s guidance, they pen beautiful works of poetry that come alive through vibrant imagery, keen word choice and the knowledge that flowing underneath it all are real experiences that have shaped the author.

“This gives us an opportunity to let out our inner thoughts,” shared Carl Perryman. “Things from the past, and present, to be able to gaze upon ourselves and see what experiences we went through in life. It also gives us an opportunity to connect with brothers who are having the same thoughts, feelings that we do.”

“When we come to this group, we see a different side of everybody,” reflected Bruce Williams. “I watch the masks come off, I watch the defenses go down and the shields go down – all of the protection, the armor we wear outside of the class in order to deal with the prison situation.”

Though general recreation has long been offered at CMF, Hunt shared that Voices was one of the first new, structured recreational therapy groups to open at CMF, and thanked the administration and staff for their support that has resulted in the implementation of many new, goal-centered recreational therapy groups.

While general recreation in and of itself is important, recreational therapy goes much deeper by allowing a professional to assess the needs of a subject, and then use a creative activity, such as writing, to address treatment goals.

“What they are really doing is putting words to what their life has brought them so far, and trying to make some sense of it,” she explained. “They’re trying to sort of come to terms with their life, with their band of brothers here who have their back. It’s kind of a rare, precious thing that happens in prison, this kind of trust, and really it’s an honor for me to be part of it.”

The men of Voices are quick to give credit to Hunt for supporting and encouraging them to write, and for providing a safe space in which to go outside their comfort zones in a positive way.

“Writing has brought us closer to ourselves and each other, and in that company we have been able to start a healing process that has made us better men,” observed Ahkin Mills, adding that he writes poetry as a way to focus his energy in a positive way while also hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

Marlon Walkwek also hopes to inspire others through his poetry and contribute to fostering a positive atmosphere, even inside prison walls.

“I write because I like to reflect lives in a positive way,” he said. “I’ve had to overcome the negative. I’ve faced a little adversity, but it’s inspiring. I had to get back to being myself. And I’m finding myself now, and I’m trying to let others live through me and just say what I feel and have it be instrumental to change.”

“To me, it’s an escape,” said Michael Shannon. “It allows me to deal with feelings that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to deal with. Instead of just holding them in, I express them, and it gives me relief.”

That sentiment was reflected by each member of Voices, who one by one shared the reasons they write, and the healing they have found within the walls of CMF. To a man, the poets shared how their prison experience is compounded by the fact that they are in EOP, but Voices helps them connect with one another, and themselves, in a way that reminds them at the end of the day, they are still people.

“After 25 years in prison, language has become my wellspring of inspiration and energy,” said Paul Adams. “When I delve into that world, it helps me get in touch with that humanness that I crave.”

As the reading wrapped up, audience members thanked the poets not only for sharing their words during the event, but also for being brave enough to put pen to paper each week and share a part of themselves with the group. Hunt emphasized that her role is not to dictate what the men write, but to allow them the space and encouragement to thrive.

“I always tell them, the prompt is if you need a little something to inspire you – don’t feel confined by the prompt,” she said. “The important thing is to find what is in you, put it on paper, and bring it to the group.”

“And then they read it out loud,” she added. “And they have somehow created a little bit of magic on Friday mornings.”

Poetry by the men of Voices at California Medical Facility


by Clifton Freeman

Each day when I rise, it is my expectation that

I will rise again. Even though I don’t have any

control over making that happen or not. I believe

it will come true. I do everything I regularly

do, you know, like brushing my teeth, washing my face and

my feet. It sounds simple, and to most of us, it is something that is normal activity. However,

it is my thoughts, that is the real reason

why I rise every day, 365 days out of each

year. This is what keeps me motivated,

brushing my teeth, washing my feet,

and my face. Because I expect to be doing

these same routines tomorrow. My true

faith in the unknown unseen hand, of what faith is

all about, believing in something we can’t see, or control.

So keep your faith. Things will manifest as long

as we have the faith to pass the test.


by Marlon Walkwek

Hope vanished

Hope suppressed

Hope renewed

Hope expressed

Hope removed

Hope approved

Hope found

Hope abound

Hope captured

Hope intrigued

Hope inferred

Hope retrieved

Hope validated

Hope believed

Hope typified

Hope imagined

Hope achieved

Hope reborn

Hope denied

Hope refined

Hope envisioned

Hope dreamt about

Hope visualized

Hope deferred

Hope realized

Hope crushed

Hope for you

Hope for me

Hope for us.

Sliding Fragments

By M.T. Shannon

I am

a composite

of everything

that I’ve ever seen

or read, enough said,

And the bits and pieces

of my life fall into words

never spoken

that gather

the momentum

of an avalanche,

but underneath

lies this poem

and tomorrow

will uncover


The Convict

By Carl Perryman

I am the convict,

I  possess the most unique abilities

known unto mankind…

with words alone, I’m capable of

transforming who I am

into who I want to be…

I’m one of the most intelligent of all beings.

but in my attempts to be recognized,

I remain ignorant and unseen…

I dwell in a place in the never land,

where living is non-existence…

your fate is king, and you can

only exist, years at a time…

I portray the image of those who seem

confident and secure, yet beneath the

surface of my external I am scared and insecure…

I am an illusion of my own undertaking…

I wear the face of horror to elude others,

not to see the fear in me

I can be quite deceptive in hiding me…

I claim to be self sustained yet

I seek out ways for to hers to take

care of me. Prison is my refuge for shelter,

protection, and exposure from the real world…

I emphasize the value of being your own man,

with the demands of respect, but it seems,

I’m not totally satisfied unless another man

is telling me what to do,

and, I’ve lost all respect….

I profess allegiance to a hood, group or sect,

but those who truly love me, I will abandon with what seems like small regret…

the virtues of being true to the game,

what kind of fool am I???