‘You see the transformation’: How Miami’s Exchange for Change inspires inmates

Brian Rudolph, was incarcerated for about three and a half years. During his time in prison he discovered a program called Exchange for Change by seeing fliers about a writing class and said it “seemed a lot better than sitting in the hot sun.”

He attended about four semesters during his time in prison and said he became obsessed with writing and did it whenever he could, on any scrap of paper, and anywhere he could find a space to write.

And Exchange for Change teachers worked to get his, and the other students’ work, published in literary journals.

“That’s one of the most rewarding things and the best experience I had in prison that someone wanted to take what I wrote, handwritten on crappy paper, and type it up and publish it was an amazing feeling,” Brian said.

Exchange for Change started about five years ago, with one class of 17 students, and since then, the program’s taught thousands of students. It currently offer 30 classes split between 12-week fall and summer “semesters” and an eight-week summer course.

The classes are taught at Dade and Everglades Correctional Institutions and also at the Miami Youth Academy. And they focus on multiple aspects of creative writing from poetry to plays to short writing, and genres spanning from mystery to science fiction.

Brian got out of prison two years ago and now works a construction job. He said he’s grateful for what Exchange for Change did for him and the role it plays in telling the story of what incarcerated people face.

“The word ‘prison’ and the word ‘jail’ have become normal but the actual place isn’t normal at all,” Brian said. “Without the program it would’ve been a lot harder. It allowed me to connect to the outside world and feel like I was still a normal person.”

“You see the transformation”

Kathie Klarreich’s journey into teaching creative writing to incarcerated people was, like so many of these kinds of endeavors, a happy accident. 

She had worked for years as a journalist and reported in Haiti, before and after the 2010 earthquake. And in the midst of that work, she got the spark to try and help Miami’s Haitian community beyond just working in Little Haiti.

“I went to a performance at the [Miami-Dade] women’s detention center and after that I said I want to teach a course for Haitian women, in the center, in Creole,” Kathie said. “And it turned out not enough people signed up.”

She ended up just teaching a general writing course that would serve as the basis for Exchange for Change.

“I was seeing a transformation of people over several weeks who were finding their voice,” Kathie said. “I recognized that this could be much bigger than teaching a single class.” 

And Kathie says she’s seen the program evolve into much more than just another education program, it’s become a lifesaver for students.

“I watch men who for 22 hours a day are struggling because they’re just a Department of Corrections number, and then they come to class and for two hours they focus on learning and listening and finding their voice, and you see the transformation,” Kathie said. “They become students with curiosity and intellect and humor.”

“Don’t Shake the Spoon”

After a few years of trying to get the students’ work published in literary journals, Kathie and her team started exploring the idea of creating their own journal.

So they had a naming contest among the students and they voted to call it “Don’t Shake the Spoon.” The title was inspired by a common phrase among inmates when they’re in the cafeteria being served. They say “don’t shake the spoon,” so they can get the full serving. 

And that became a metaphor for the kind of writing Exchange for Change wanted to feature.

“The idea of ‘Don’t Shake the Spoon’ is that we’re not skimming off the top, we’re giving it to you how it is,” Kathie says.

The first edition was published in September 2018 and they’re looking to publish the second edition this October. The program got a $20,000 boost back in June when they received a share of the Miami Foundation’s community grant funding to support their work.

And Enzu Castellanos, the managing editor of the journal and Exchange for Change instructor, said they hope the journal can continue to grow.

“We want to get this thing to be a yearly journal and be comfortable enough to do some special editions,” Enzu said.

The first collection includes essays, poems and stories that are both fictional and based on some of the students’ experiences.

“I look forward to going to prison”

About five years into the program, Kathie still recognizes that there’s work to be done but she’s proud of what they’ve accomplished so far and other initiatives beyond the classes and journal.

Students also do letter-writing exchanges with local colleges (under pseudonyms) with schools like Florida International University, Miami Dade College and University of Miami and they’re planning to work with Gulliver Prep after previously working with Ransom Everglades.

She said that folks can get involved with the program by volunteering to transcribe the students’ writing into digital formats or to host small gatherings, and by attending readings by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks.

Folks can also volunteer to teach like Enzu does when he’s not at his full-time gig as a graduate student and adjunct professor at FIU.

Enzu said that he’s found so much value in teaching the students and seeing their passion and excitement when they get to share their work in front of an audience or when they get their work published. It’s changed his whole perspective on teaching.

“I look forward to going to prison a couple times a week, as crazy as that sounds,” Enzu said.