Time for Change


WRITTEN BY W. Derek Russell


Transformation is no easy task. Creating good habits — or breaking bad ones — requires motivation and focus. For those doing jail time, attempting to change behaviors while also facing legal ramifications can be incredibly challenging. But a few organizations throughout northeast Mississippi are geared toward just that: change. Thanks to these groups, incarcerated men, women and teens have access to writing workshops, college degree programs, behavioral counseling, therapy and help entering the workforce upon their release — initiatives that can motivate and aid in self-revision.

Keeping Teens on Track

Xavier Neal is a case manager and care coordinator in Corinth specializing in proactive work to keep teens who have faced juvenile court in Lee and Alcorn counties on track. Neal works for Region IV Mental Health Services, which provides community-based services to enhance and empower quality of life through a person-centered and self-directed approach for children and adults. Region IV provides outpatient services to individuals in need of mental health care and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.

In addition to the juvenile detention program, Neal also runs the Teen Initiative Program, a court-ordered group therapy program where troubled teens practice anger management, discuss resisting peer pressure and manage conflict resolution.

“We incorporate all that hoping the kids make better decisions,” Neal said. “We use evidence-based programs. We also provide them with family therapy and individual therapy. A lot of times, people have a stigma on mental health. People deal with this daily. So with the rising number of children that suffer from depression or anger issues or how to handle difficult feelings … if we can catch them during these difficult times, either through the court system or in the juvenile detention center, it helps to prevent the recidivism of them going back.”

In addition to home-based services, Region IV also has a school-based program where Neal monitors grades as well as the students’ behavior on campus.

“As a person who had some trying times as a youth myself, if I would have had somebody at that time sit me down, talk to me about my issues and the possibilities of what could really happen … it would have been monumental,” Neal said. “Adults have already experienced a lot, but a lot of times a child is put into situations that they can’t handle. We want to be there to help with that and keep them from making costly mistakes.”

Writing the Wrongs

Louis Bourgeois is executive director of the Mississippi Prison Writes Initiative, which teaches creative writing classes to inmates as a form of expression through critical thinking. The program began in 2014 as a way of giving the inmates a creative outlet and a way to tell their stories.

“Originally, we simply wanted to publish inmate writing from Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary), but there was very little writing to be found there,” Bourgeois said. “We set up a workshop to cultivate Parchman inmate writing for publication, and from that one class, we went into other Mississippi prisons in order to cull more writing. Then, it became apparent that the classes also served the inmates not only as a way for them to tell their stories, but also as an educational experience that enhanced other aspects of their prison studies.”

VOX Press Inc. has published two books of collected writing by PWI writers, “In Our Own Words” and “Unit 30.” A forthcoming collection titled “Mississippi Prison Writing” is in the works. Proceeds from the sale of the books help replenish supplies for the program.

In 2019, with aid from the Mississippi Humanities Council, PWI partnered with Hinds Community College to add college courses to its program. Eight women completed coursework in English composition and were awarded credits by HCC. Additionally, plans are underway to offer more courses in history and literature, as well as associate degree programs for some of the inmates.

Bourgeois said the classes and skills have been proven to reduce recidivism while also igniting a passion for both writing and reading among those enrolled.

“The response to our classes by our students is always fabulous,” Bourgeois said. “We have students who have taken our classes many times over. It’s interesting, to me, the type of individual who takes our classes. Many of our students would not necessarily take an art class or a music class — they are inclined toward reading literature and writing. I feel we are creating real intelligentsia.”

More than 300 inmates across the state have gone through the program, with courses offered at Parchman, Alcorn County Correctional Facility, Marshall County Correctional Facility and the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. In 2020, the classes will be offered in Greenville and Greenwood.

Bourgeois said that learning new ways to pour yourself into something can be cathartic.

“(It’s) shining a light in the darkness,” Bourgeois said. “It’s amazing. It’s what teaching is supposed to be. Just pen, paper and actual books. It’s relevant and needed. I think our students from across the state often astonish themselves with what they have written. Then they want to write more and more, until finally they become writers and didn’t even know it.”

Starting Over

For those who made mistakes and served their time, having someone to rely on when they are ready to re-establish their lives on the other side of the prison walls can make all the difference.

That’s what Missy Lunceford has been working toward the past 14 years in meeting with female inmates in Lee County.

“We quickly realized how our Lee County jail is often a revolving door because the ladies were coming in over and over,” Lunceford said. “Thus, Day One, a re-entry program, became an idea.”

The program helps incarcerated women prepare for the day they are released.

“All of our study and research has shown that (our) going into a jail prior to (their release) is what can make a difference,” Lunceford said. “We want to show them that women can have a good time together. We eat, and we laugh, and we want them to know about having a support group.”

In addition to fellowship, Day One offers aid with clothing, outreach opportunities and preparing for job interviews.

“We talk about the gamut of it,” Lunceford said. “Financial responsibilities, interview skills, jobs available and how to take responsibility for yourself. Basically, how to begin again. If you’re willing to help yourself and receive help, we’ll talk to you. It’s a blessing, and I love doing it. I see myself growing as well. We’re all broken in humanity, but it’s beautiful to help each other.”

To learn more about the Prison Writes Initiative or the Teen Initiative Program, call 662-816-8058 or 662-287-4055, respectively. For information about Day One, call Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo at 662-842-3338.

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