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Poet Eduardo Martinez, who goes by "Echo." Credit: Aja Monet

In a Florida prison, a poet grapples with power and oppression

Written from a state prison in south Florida, the poem “we beez in deez trap” starts with a liberation.

Poet Eduardo Martinez, who is currently serving a life sentence at Dade Correctional Institution in Homestead, Florida, describes finding a weakness in “the fabric of God’s purse,” and what comes next:

This sense of an overarching, powerful system — and the question of how individuals operate within it — pervades the piece by Martinez, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 on convictions of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted armed robbery. Three years earlier, he tried to rob a couple at gunpoint and in the ensuing scuffle, his gun went off, killing a man. His lawyers claim he acted in self-defense.

Now, years later, Martinez, who goes by “Echo,” reflects on violence, incarceration and power structures through his poetry. In “we beez in deez trap,” he questions the agency that individuals have to resist oppression — and interrogates their ability to become unwitting participants in it.

In Martinez’s work, power is a trap; being ruled by it is a trap, and wielding it is, too, a dynamic that he said he confronts every day in prison. “Black and Latino correctional officers are oppressing their own people. They’re trapping each other,” he wrote in a letter to the NewsHour. “You got brothers and sisters struggling between remaining human and becoming a beast. It’s a moral balance daily.”

Of the more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., about 100,000 are incarcerated in Florida, which has one of the largest prison populations of any state in the country. And incarceration disproportionately affects people of color; nationwide, black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites, according to data from 2016.

Last year, the Florida Department of Corrections came under fire after a state investigation found no wrongdoing in the death of Darren Rainey, an inmate who had schizophrenia at Dade Correctional Institution. Witnesses disputed the state report, saying that corrections officers had locked Darren Rainey into a hot shower, turned up the heat to 180 degrees and ignored his cries for help for hours until he died. A paramedic who saw Rainey’s body said he had “second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of his body,” the Miami Herald reported.

In 2014 and 2015, the Miami Herald published a series of investigations into Rainey’s death and dysfunction in Florida prisons, including a report in which a former warden for Dade called it “the most dangerous prison I’ve ever worked in.”

Martinez, who has been at Dade since 2004, weaves this reality with the history of racial violence in the U.S. in his poetry, referencing laws “engraved in the bones of ancestors / who hung like decorations / from the porches of white supremacists.” While addressing confinement, the poem sprawls in form, with the words “necks like nooses” forming the shape of a noose.

He also looks to the past for answers, writing, “Traps … / don’t set themselves, / set in motion from elementary to penitentiary / we’ve been taught to defend ourselves and a dollar.” Against this historical backdrop, he wrote in a letter: “Why aren’t children in public schools being taught criminal and civil law at an early age? Or… how to question history and rewrite their futures?”

Martinez, who told the NewsHour he is hesitant to call himself a poet, composes his pieces in class with prominent American contemporary poet Aja Monet, who also spearheads the arts initiative “Voices: Poetry for the People.” The class is held through Exchange for Change, a nonprofit that offers classes on a variety of topics at several Florida prisons.

Exchange for Change was founded in 2014 by Kathie Klarreich, who aimed to provide incarcerated people with classes that range from Spanish to current events and different forms of writing, including poetry, memoir and songwriting. Classes range from eight to 24 students, who meet weekly for two-hour-long classes over the course of several months. The program has also organized written exchanges between incarcerated people and college students.

More than 600 students have participated in the program, which is currently operating at Dade Correctional Institution and Everglades Correctional Institution. Exchange for Change was recently suspended at Homestead Correctional Institution, a women’s prison, and several people working with the program have been barred from entering Florida prisons while prison officials review a “documented incident of prohibited conduct,” according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

In the program’s first year, Martinez was a student in Klarreich’s class. Since then, she said he’s become one of many students to gain confidence as they produce work through the program. “I have seen so many people come into themselves, their own sense of self worth and talent,” she said. “For two hours a day, they can be vulnerable and be individuals in an atmosphere that is designed to strip them of both of those things.”

“Steelborn,” a collection of poems by Martinez, will be published by Smoke Signals Publishing on Juneteenth, which commemmorates the end of slavery, this year.

Read “we beez in deez trap” below.

"we beez in deez trap" by PBS NewsHour on Scribd