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'If You're Reading These Words, We've Succeeded': Prison Poetry Program Help Inmates Break Stereotypes

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - Every day, people are sentenced to prison for a variety of crimes. They're all different from race, age and even the crimes they committed. But once they're locked behind those bars, society's view of them changes and they become the violent stereotypes seen in moves, television and more.

One prison program looks to change that narrative by using writing and poetry to make a difference while allowing inmates to prove to outsiders that they are more than the cold-blooded criminals people make them out to be.

That includes Eduardo 'Echo' Martinez who is used to being judged because of the tattoos all over his body.

"They ask me what gang I'm affiliated with," said Martinez. "I'm not in any gang."

On his eyes, the words 'No Evil' are tattooed.

Eduardo's Tattoo
Eduardo 'Echo' Martinez has 'No Evil' tattooed on his eyelids. (CBS4Miami)

"When my eyes are closed, I see no evil," said Martinez.

From his lips, words pour out from his heart.

Martinez is the poet laureate of the Exchange for Change Program at the Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead.

Through the program, inmates exchange letters with volunteers outside of prison. The goal is to get the outside world ready for when the inmates are released and return to society. It's also to get the inmates ready for the outside world.

The program also currently offers 15 classes for inmates to take legal writing, film review, song writing, spoken word, trauma, memoir, Spanish poetry and more.

On May 17, nearly 100 inmates took prepared for their graduation from the program.

They performed their pieces to a live audience, giving them a chance to share their innermost thoughts with the outside world.

Martinez, the master of ceremonies for the graduation, wrote his own poem and read it to CBS4's Frances Wang.

Eduardo Poems from Prison
Eduardo Martinez is the poet laureate for the Exchange for Change program at Dade Correctional Institution. (CBS4Miami)

"You would be surprised how deep incarcerated minds dive and the treasures they find when they're buried alive," Martinez read. "Everyone's gifted, they just need help unwrapping themselves. It's sad that most men in here feel that society would rather see a monkey with a diamond ring, than one of us shine and succeed. Misconceptions fall both ways like tears fall from both eyes."

The crowd attending this ceremony included volunteers with organizations that partner up with the prison as part of the program, including the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, FIU, Miami-Dade College, and O, Miami.

Audience at Poems From Prison
The audience at the Exchange for Change graduation included prisoners and volunteers of the program. (CBS4Miami)

Martinez addressed the audience before the prisoners went up to perform. He reminded them how much it meant to him and his fellow inmates to have them in attendance.

"Perception, we're perceived in a lot of many ways in society," said Martinez to the crowd. "These labels that we wear daily. And we take that. We sit back and we take these words that are thrown about, about us and we accept them without wanting to accept them. But today we have you guys coming over here to break that perception that you have of us."

"It's an honor to have you guys here, it's an honor for us to get behind this microphone and share this piece of our experience with you," Martinez added.

Martinez realizes society and the audience may fear the prisoners, but he admitted the inmates are even more terrified.

"As you guys sit back and watch the show, you're going to see a lot of guys come up here and I want you to know that this is their first 'fist fight' with stage fright," Martinez said to the audience. "I'm hoping we give out a few black eyes to stage fright."

And that they did.

"If you truly want people to forgive you, then you must first truly forgive yourself," said one inmate as he read his poem to the audience. "So, I stand up and I shake myself like a soda can and I pop this top and release this pressure called unforgiveness. And so now, the healing process begins, I forgive me, can you?"

Prisoners Celebrating
Several inmates pose for an applause. (CBS4Miami)

The inmates' performances were received by a standing ovation from the audience. Many of them fought to hold back tears. They were given a moment to share their own thoughts on what the inmates shared with them.

But for the prisoners, this only lasts a moment.

As soon as the ceremony ends, the audience leaves and it's back to their cells.

Martinez will turn 40 this year and he has spent half of his life in prison.

On July 4, 2000, when Martinez was barely 20-years-old, he tried to rob a man at gunpoint. A scuffle ensued, the gun went off and the man died.

"Every day, I feel bad for it. I feel bad for the hurt I've caused people," Martinez said.

Martinez was given a life sentence for second-degree murder and attempted robbery because he did not take a plea deal.

He doesn't say he is serving a life sentence, but rather he was given one.

"At the end of the day, I feel like I can give it right back," said Martinez. "I feel like I can give it right back, if it's through a poem, through a piece of writing, persevering and being a good person."

Martinez embodies the hope of the Exchange for Change program, according to organizers.

The hope is for rehabilitation and redemption, a hope Martinez holds on to even though most would tell him otherwise.

"We hold onto hope," said Martinez. "Hope in here is like, I argue with hope all the time."

That's because most of the inmates who sign up for the program will be released at some point.

Martinez, while serving a life sentence, said he has to hold onto hope for his son Eddie, who is now almost 20-years-old, the same age as Martinez when he was locked up.

Eduardo and his family (Poems from Prison)
Eduardo Martinez and his family. (Courtesy of Raquel Diaz via CBS4Miami)

"Eddie, I'm proud of you. You're graduating this year, going to prom, doing good man. You're a success in basketball, you passed high school," said Martinez. "You beat the odds, you beat the statistics, and you're part of my motivation. You inspire me."

Martinez still hopes one day, somehow, he'll be free.

"You're what keeps the hope alive that one day, I'm going to get out and help you succeed in life."

Until then, Martinez keeps writing, because the only thing he knows can find freedom for sure are his words.

"Because if you're reading these words, we've succeeded. My words are breathing freedom and that's my reason to keep pushing this pen again," reads Martinez. "Believing that somebody out there is listening and might just care in humanity enough to help us make a change."

The Exchange for Change program started in August 2014 with 17 inmates. By the end of 2019, more than 900 inmates will have graduated from the program. It is only being offered in two prisons right now, but they are starting a pilot program at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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