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Criminal Justice

Posted by Gianna Russo on Oct 24, 2019

Poems for Our Lives: In the Disciplinesis a blog that explores poems centered on the professional disciplines in which we, as academics, scholars and professionals, have made our lives.   

Building a discipline-specific discussion around a poem should be manageable for everyone. You can devote just 10-15 minutes of one class towards one poem.  You’re not going to be teaching poetry, you are simply going to be discussing ideas.  The best poems unearth the essential nature of their subjects. At the core of poetry is the idea of what it means to be human and that’s an idea everyone can relate to. You’ll be surprised at the variety of responses you’ll get from your students. Some students will find little gems of meaning and connections that you don’t even know are there. And students may be given an opportunity to write their own poems as well. Have fun! Think expansively!  And remember, Poetry, like the moon, is for everyone.  

Gianna Russo 
Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing 
Poet-in-Residence, REBUS 
Editor in Chief, Sandhill Review 
Director, Sandhill Writers RetreatPage Break 


Jean Valentine (1934--) was State Poet of New York, 2008-10. She has won numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

This poem contemplates the imprisoned person with humanity and seems to acknowledge that doing time can be, in some circumstances, the result of living without resources and a social safety net.

Discussion starters:

  1. Does the US imprison people who have not been accused of anything? What are the circumstances in which that could happen?

  2. What do you make of the list of situations in the third, fourth and fifth stanzas?

  3. Why would Valentine claim that this imprisoned person—a criminal—has a “pure face”?

  4. What do you think Valentine means with her last line: “you/who the earth was for”?

  5. How does this poem explore what it means to be human?

Professor, create your own question here:

Writing prompt for students: Write a “bad luck” or crime spree poem that includes a list of difficulties or crimes that the character in the poem (you or another character) endures or commits. Title the poem with the name of the result of all that bad luck or crimes, for example, In___________________. Feel free to share your poems with me at

In Prison
by Jean Valentin

In prison
without being accused
or reach your family
or have a family You have
heart trouble
(we lost the baby)
no meds
no one
no window
black water
nail-scratched walls
your pure face turned away
who the earth was for.

Jean Valentine, “In Prison,” from The New Yorker (May 27, 2007). Used by permission of the author.
Source: The New Yorker (Unpublished Collection, 2007)

To see the poem online go to:

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