A Gonzaga law student and local poets team to give voice to county jail inmates

click to enlarge Poet Bethany Montgomery (right) is helping bring inmate letters to life. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Poet Bethany Montgomery (right) is helping bring inmate letters to life.

She came to him like an epiphany. When Kyle Madsen, a Gonzaga law student, heard Bethany Montgomery, founder of the performing arts collective Power 2 the Poetry, perform her spoken word for the first time at the downtown public library, he knew his search was over.

Madsen, a member of GU's First Amendment Society, collected eight letters from inmates at the Spokane County Jail to emphasize that regardless of how these people got to jail, they're members of the Spokane community with voices that need to be heard.

Madsen wants their stories not only to be read, but performed.

"When I initially started gathering the letters, I was like 'Uh, having a bunch of law students go up and just kind of read verbatim what was written might get a little dry,'" Madsen says. "It's great material, but some of it needs a little more interpretation and I wanted it to be more of an artistic event with a good meaning than just, you know, straight-up reading."

And that's where Montgomery comes in.

"She was doing what I was trying to come up with, or trying to frame, so she had it," Madsen says. "I figured I might as well see if she wants to join forces, and it worked."

For Montgomery, the idea encapsulates the type of advocacy work Power 2 the Poetry founded itself upon.

"We're all about giving a voice to the voiceless, to the marginalized communities [and] underrepresented people," Montgomery says. "So I was like, 'This is perfect, this aligns with our mission — everything that we're doing, [so] let's partner and do this event together.'"

The two forces orchestrated "Piercing the Concrete Veil: Affirmations from Inside the Spokane County Jail," an event that will be held Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Spokane Public Library.

With news that in just over a year, eight inmates had died in the Spokane County Jail, Madsen felt that as a member of the Spokane community, he had a duty to take care of his neighbors.

"I thought it was really important that they at least get to express themselves, and it's not really about guilt or innocence but about — these are humans," Madsen says. "These are people that are dying. Whether you've been convicted of a serious crime or whether you just had some drugs on you. That shouldn't carry a death sentence. And that's what was happening almost systematically."

And for Montgomery, hearing stories about life behind bars isn't unfamiliar.

"I feel like I really resonate with these inmates because I have personal family members who are locked up," Montgomery says. "I have a family member in Walla Walla right now, I have a family member who's been in and out of prison here in Washington state. So that's my family. These people, they're just like my family, so their stories aren't that far removed from me."

The stories sent to Madsen range from short, funny anecdotes to 10-page-long insights about the day-to-day life in prison.

"I couldn't believe [it,] these people's stories sound like a movie," Montgomery says. "The fact that it's something so close to me, it's crazy. It's heartbreaking. We've got to do something about it."

One letter the two received shed light on one of the themes repeated throughout the letters — the school-to-prison pipeline, which is the tendency for minors and young adults from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated due to harsh school policies.

"He talked about how he was talking to his friend over the phone about bringing his bong to school to smoke pot, and his mom heard 'bomb' and called the school. Then they arrested him and that literally started the process of always being incarcerated," Madsen says. "So he has just been in and out of jail since he was 15, and it all started with his mom mishearing the word 'bong' and thinking he was bringing a bomb."  

As Montgomery read stories like this one, she invited local poets to participate in the event, and picked letters that would best suit them.

Many of these poets have also written their own pieces to perform after reading the letters. These works are based on issues that are embedded in the stories written by the inmates, such as people of marginalized communities being systematically incarcerated, Montgomery says.

With performers assigned and the location set, Madsen's six-month brainchild will soon see light. ♦

"Piercing the Concrete Veil: Affirmations from Inside Spokane County Jail" • Tue, Feb. 19 from 6-8 pm • Free • Spokane Public Library • 906 W. Main • spokanelibrary.org • 444-5300

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