One of the Mirrors

Poetry in prison — it matters to Cedric Rudolph.

By Brittany Hailer

Cedric Rudolph recalls one student inmate sharing that he had been homeless for months until remembering he had inherited a house. The story resonated with Cedric: “How many times in my own life has warmth, friendship or home been close to me, but I was figuratively sleeping on the streets. Not knowing what was mine.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!

Explore another voice in this series:

Sarah Womack: A song within a storm

Yeshua David's adaptation

Jason Sauer: Trying as best he can

Luna: Seeking compassion for those cast aside

Emily and Liza Geissinger: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Jason Toombs finds his voice while writing a novel and love letters from jail

Robin Tomczak: How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

Cedric Rudolph is a poet from Alabama, a student of fine arts at Chatham University, a recipient of Chatham’s Robert H. Mansell Fellowship. It is these accomplishments that have led Cedric to frequent the local prison and jail.

Cedric’s fellowship provides him a two-year teaching position in the Words Without Walls program. Through this program, he teaches creative writing to men in the State Correctional Institute-Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Jail.

Cedric received clearance to enter a men’s prison in his first semester at school in Fall 2016. He sat across a table from murderers, men in jail for life. He didn’t flinch. He came back again and again.

Cedric may seem reserved when you first meet him. But, in the course of a conversation with me, he warms up. His laugh is high pitched and abrupt. He jokes. He is the kind of person who smiles with his eyes and talks with his hands. I found myself nodding furiously as he spoke. I can relate to Cedric’s stories. I used to do what Cedric does.

Cedric Rudolph, 30, arrived in Pittsburgh on Aug. 25, 2016, to study in Chatham University’s Creative Writing master’s program. He chose this program specifically because of Words Without Walls, which sends him to prison and jail to teach poetry and writing. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

I’ve walked through the metal detectors at the Allegheny County Jail. I’ve had students ask me what the weather is like because they haven’t been outside in six months. There is no “yard” at the ACJ. Inmates exercise in a metal cage within the skyrise building. Once, a student told me she erupted into tears because a breeze managed to make its way into the gym. An incarcerated person at the ACJ could go years without seeing the sun while they are awaiting trial.

It can be intimidating to teach poetry in a jail.

You walk in wearing professional clothes. You tell your students you are getting a master’s degree. That you aren’t from Pittsburgh. That reading Langston Hughes does matter. That poetry is what kept you sane when your father was hopped up on cocaine. That your parents were addicts, too. That you made it out because you liked to read.

I’m curious to know what Cedric tells them. And why does he do this work? I’m drawn to the population because I come from addicts, so that’s the mirror for me. “I was wondering if there’s a mirror for you?” I said to Cedric.

Listen to Cedric's story on 90.5 WESA

First off, you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not in an institution, he says.

I've had issues in my life but I've never had to go through anything as traumatic as the men and women that I’ll be teaching. There is a part of me that said, ‘Will people take you seriously?’ And the answer is yes. I talked a lot about being honest about who you are. Honesty — it's a really big part of teaching incarcerated people. They can read you. They can tell if you have an act or if you’re trying to be someone that you’re not. I just kind of have to go in and say, ‘This is who I am today.’ And it worked.
I come from a middle-class family. I have people I can call if something goes wrong. I have a lot of privilege.
For me, my issues have been anxiety and mental health issues. At one time in my life I was a rising star and had these accolades from adults and teachers. And my life just spiraled out of control because I didn't know that I had anxiety. I ended up in a really bad place. Just stuck in obsessions and all these very strange behaviors.

Text in italics are Cedric's words.

How Cedric Rudolph interprets what the Words Without Walls program means: “Words, without walls. That statement means that, for the space of time the men or women in our classes are writing, the labels others have given them do not matter. For the time you write, you are just a writer, not a prisoner, inmate, parolee, addict, or criminal.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

No one really understood what was going on.
I feel like one of the mirrors is this guilt, this weight, from hurting people and not living up to other’s expectations.

Cedric sees himself in his students when they talk about forgiveness. He knows what it is like to let someone down, to not meet expectations. Disappointment and redemption often come up in a men’s prison classroom.

Even something as simple as a relationship with your father, or as complicated as a relationship with your father, a lot of these guys have the same issues, or they have children themselves. There was one guy who was almost at the brink of tears because he is having trouble with the correspondence between he and his son. There have been many times in my life when I haven't talked to my father. I recognize that.
When I was a kid, I had a very specific image of what I was going to be as an adult.
Not living up to that image is a very strange thing.

The Words Without Walls chapbook includes poetry, nonfiction, short stories and dramas written by inmates. Chatham University produces one each semester. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

The Words Without Walls chapbook includes poetry, nonfiction, short stories and dramas written by inmates. Chatham University produces one each semester. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Metaphor as a tool

So why does poetry matter? Why teach an ex-drug dealer, a convicted murderer or a prostitute how to write a 14-line sonnet? Why should Cedric and I care about the people society has decided to lock away?

This will be the first time that a lot of people in the prison or the jail write down their stories. This could be the therapy that this person never had before. Because it is better to get stories out rather than keep them inside, let them fester. ...
If the human race didn't need art, it wouldn't still be around. It was there in the beginning. It's on the cave walls. It's still here.

Cedric tells me that literary tools — metaphor, imagery, simile, exposition — are crucial. When an individual learns these techniques, they are able to better describe the world around them or the situation they are in.

That becomes a vital tool for them later when they're trying to work with their lawyer and they need to write something for court. When they're trying to get an appeal. It is important. Writing is important.
There is this component of self-advocacy which I've seen from a couple of the men. To be able to articulate why your sentence should be reduced. To be able to articulate why you are a different person in 1987 than you are in 2017. Because no one else has been able to see that. And you've been in prison all this time based on the charge that fell on you when you were 18.

At the Allegheny County Jail, Cedric Rudolph and a co-teacher taught a class with the theme of family. “The inmates are definitely receptive.” But because officers can revoke privileges or be called to complete a job in jail, they’re never certain who will be at the next class. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

There’s a bigger story

I ask Cedric, “Do you think these men expected to be in jail?” I find myself wondering how Cedric’s students cope in prison, and how they think about their future. I have never taught a male population. Many of the women I teach are in jail for drugs or prostitution in order to get drugs.

Cedric interacts with violent offenders, drug dealers, kids who are a product of the system.

Let me put it this way, I think that any time that you mess up in a very public way, it never does a good thing for your psyche. You're always worried, ‘When's the next time I’m going to mess up?’ ... I think that a lot of them are scared that when they get released, they’ll be back.
If a person returns to the environment that they left right before they were incarcerated, they have the exact same options. How do you make money? ‘Well, I make money by selling drugs here.’ How do you cope? ‘Oh, I take drugs here.’

Cedric believes returning prisoners to the same financial situation and home environment leads to high recidivism rates.

I think that as a country we pay attention to how we punish people. How do we make men and women see the error of their ways? But we don't look at a holistic picture and go, ‘You know, how can we improve conditions in this person's environment that they are going to return to?’
When someone returns again and again to go to jail or prison, there's a bigger story there.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at

PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.