New Haven professor invites readers to contemplate prison in new poetry collection

“I’m an open book,” Randall Horton said when discussing his new poetry collection, “#289-128,” which he titled after his Department of Corrections number that was assigned to him during his incarceration at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Maryland.

Horton, an associate English professor at the University of New Haven, describes himself as a driven writer who takes the craft of writing seriously and said he is “passionate about things that make me feel like a human being.” His new poetry collection will be published on Sept. 8 by the University Press of Kentucky.

Prior to his time in Maryland, Horton also served a sentence at Fairfax County Detention Center in Virginia. The poet said he first began to write after attending a program for inmates where Horton said he was encouraged to write self-reflective essays. From there he began to write essays, fiction and poetry.

“It was the first time that I really sat down and wrote about the things that were going on with me internally and I felt good about it. That was the beginning of me embracing writing,” he said.

Horton said he became interested in poetry when he was working on a story that included a poet which led him to do more research into it. After he was released from Roxbury, Horton earned his Ph.D. in English and creative writing from SUNY Albany.

“It’s the engagement with language, the intensity that happens between the lines of poetry,” that Horton said, draws him to poetry. “I think the idea of the poem can operate on multiple levels when you’re trying to get things out and I think, for me, it became a way to get lost in the imaginary.”

Horton said he doesn’t like to label his poetic style, “I hate to categorize it into one specific box,” he said. Instead he described his writing as “investigative and operates on many levels of inquiry.” Horton added that he layers in narrative intent, historical, social and theoretical elements.

The poet’s “#289-128” collection is divided into three parts; {#289-128} Property of the State, {#289-128} Poet in Residence (Cell 23) and {#289-128} Poet in New York, which Horton explained aims to dispel the reader’s preconceived notions about prison.

“It operates on a few levels, it’s an invitation to critique the criminal justice system in a lot of ways and the prison industrial complex and the idea of what we think of when we think about people that are on the inside and those that are returning citizens,” Horton said. “It attempts to break out of the definitions of what a prison is or a felony or what a felon is — what is that?”

The poet said the first section, {#289-128} Property of the State, aims to highlight the juxtaposition between the reality and the perception of incarceration. The second section, {#289-128} Poet in Residence (Cell 23), focuses on what it is like to live within the confines of incarceration and the final section, {#289-128} Poet in New York, critiques the idea of what individuals go through when they’re returning to society.

“Ultimately, I want to take the reader on a miracle journey that also makes you think about [life on] the inside,” Horton said.

He said the poems are based on his experience and the experiences of others that he observed while he was incarcerated. Horton noted that he named the collection after his Department of Corrections number to “amplify a lot of voices that would probably not be heard otherwise.”

As a professor at a university known for its criminal justice program, Horton said he often shares his experiences and views on the prison industrial complex with his students.

“It’s an interesting relationship, a lot of my best creative writing students come from CJ (the criminal justice program). I use it as part of my teaching, whatever I do I can bring something in,” he said.

As for his writing, the poet said he likes to work on a variety of projects. He has been the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Horton previously published his poetry collection “Pitch Dark Anarchy” in 2013 and his memoir “Hook” in 2015. He also published “The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street” in 2009 and “The Definition of Place” in 2006. While Horton’s latest publication revolves around his prison experience, not all of his work focuses on incarceration and despite his activist efforts to reform the legal system the poet doesn’t want to be labeled a prison writer.

“I often feel that people are trying to box me in as ‘the prison writer’ and that’s something I actively resist. I’m a writer first,” he said. “I’m trying to be an artist and a writer, I’m not trying to be the ‘prison artist and the prison writer.’”

In 2018 and 2019, Horton served as the poet-in-residence for the Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C., which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system.

Currently, Horton is working on a memoir conveyed through a collection of essays that examines race, the war on drugs and the fallout of his own actions. The Brooklyn Historical Society will be holding a virtual launch party for Randall’s new poetry collection on Sept. 10.

For more information about Horton and his writing, visit