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Serving a 241-year sentence, Bobby Bostic found power in poetry

Ronnie Amiyn, wearing a blue shirt and blue Cardinals baseball hat, stands at a microphone during a poetry reading. He reads from a book written by Bobby Bostic.
Danny Wicentowski
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Ronnie Amiyn reads from a book of Bobby Bostic's poetry during an Aug. 16 event. Bostic is serving a 241-year sentence for robbery.

On Tuesday, a crowd packed into the WordUp open mic to hear the poetry of Bobby Bostic. But Bostic wasn’t there.

That’s because he is in prison, where he is serving a 241-year sentence for a robbery he committed in 1995 at the age of 16. Bostic’s punishment, effectively a life sentence, has drawn attention from local and national criminal justice advocates. Even the judge who sentenced him has expressed regret and called for Bostic’s release.

In Bostic’s place as headliner, Ronnie Amiyn took to the stage at the Legacy Bar & Grill on Tuesday. In his hand, he held one of Bostic’s self-published books, this one titled, “Mental Jewelry.” It’s one of seven books of Bostic’s available on Amazon, each one transcribed by his relatives from his handwritten manuscripts.

The event drew more than 70 attendees to the weekly open mic. Amiyn read several of Bostic’s poems, including the poem, “When you pass away, what will you leave here?” The reading was featured on Friday’s broadcast of St. Louis on the Air. 

Amiyn, who serves as an organizer and mentor with the Freedom Community Center, has a personal connection to Bostic. Like the incarcerated poet, Amiyn was himself sentenced to spend decades in prison for his role in an armed robbery and assault he committed as a teenager. Entering prison at 19, Amiyn was in his 40s by the time he was paroled in 2018.

At one point, Amiyn and Bostic were held in the same facility at the Crossroads Correctional Center. On Friday’s show, Amiyn told guest host Emily Woodbury that while he knew Bostic as an inmate, he didn’t know until much later that he had become a prolific prison author.

“Our journeys were parallel. And our growth was as well,” Amiyn said.

A photo portrait of a Bobby Bostic, who is seated and wearing a gray prison uniform.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
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Bobby Bostic in 2018 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center

As it turns out, Bostic had been sending his poetry to the organizer of the weekly WordUp open mic since 2020. Amiyn, a poet himself, is a frequent performer at the open mic — and when the event’s organizer mentioned Bostic’s name, Amiyn recognized it immediately. The connection became Tuesday’s special production, titled “The Politics of Poetry: The Bobby Bostic story.”

In Bostic’s poetry, “I hear my own story,” Amiyn said Friday.

Until recently, Bostic’s story was locked into a tragic ending. In 1997, at Bostic’s sentencing, he had faced 17 separate criminal counts. Found guilty on all of them, Bostic was ordered by Judge Evelyn Baker to serve the sentences consecutively, adding up to a total of 241 years. She told the teen, “You will die in the Department of Corrections.”

Then something incredible happened: In 2018, well into her retirement, Baker went public with her regret for sentencing Bostic to die in prison. She called for his release, noting that new scientific research had made it clear that the brains of young people are still developing.

Dooming those youths to die in prison, she said, was wrong. But Bostic’s legal appeals were repeatedly rejected. Even when represented by the ACLU, Bostic’s attempt to bring his case to the U.S. Supreme Court similarly ended in failure.

Then, in 2021, a new state law changed the equation. Going forward, Missouri offenders convicted as juveniles — excluding those found guilty of murder — are considered eligible for parole as long as they’ve served 15 years in prison. In fact, Bobby’s case inspired the law’s sponsor. Later this year, he will become the first inmate released because of it.

Reached Thursday by phone, Bostic told St. Louis on the Air that he wrote his first prison poem shortly after his conviction.

“In my early years in prison, I stayed in a lot of trouble. So I was in solitary confinement a lot,” he said. “But while I was in solitary confinement, I just challenged myself to write 10 poems a day. And then those poems, eventually, I turned those poems into books.”

How Bobby Bostic found power in poetry

Bostic committed himself to change, obtaining his high school diploma and associate degree. He read voraciously and took as many rehabilitation classes as he could. His writing encompassed reflections on his past, his pain, the prison system around him, the people he had harmed and more. In paired rhymes, he wrote about his mother, the streets and the experience of spending more than half his life in prison.

And with passion, he wrote about the power of art — as he details in his essay, “The Redeeming Value of Art in Prison.”

“Prison art screams out to you in many ways,” he wrote. “It tells stories of longing, pain, need, wonder, beauty, and sometimes the divine. In creating such meaningful art, the prisoner finds meaning in their own life. This is how they redeem themselves. In many cases their talent is all that they have to give. Locked away from the world, with all its problems, the prison artist still sees so much beauty in the world. Because more than anyone he knows there’s nothing like being free. For all its flaws the world is still a beautiful place.”

Bostic said he plans to continue writing after his release on parole. He also hopes to help others like himself, including prisoners whose art deserves recognition and young people at risk of making the same mistakes he did at 16.

Today, Bostic is 43. His parole date is Nov. 9.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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