The Unlikely Writer: An Argument for Teaching in Prison
Matt Hudson | March 2010
Imagine the perfect student: eager, full of life experience, willing to commit extensive amounts of time to their writing.
Now imagine that student lives thousands of miles away—behind concrete walls and razor wire. For him, kites are small folded up notes that can be slipped between cell bars. Fishing means to communicate by hanging a string out of your cell and over the edge of the tier such that you can pass kites, pages torn from a book, or photographs by swinging your line side to side until you eventually tangle with someone else’s line.
This is life for Mike, my prison mentee. He spends twenty-three hours a day, five days a week in his cell. The other two days he never leaves. He doesn’t have a TV or toothpaste, and the COs confiscated his soy sauce during the last shakedown. What he does have is time to write.
And what he needs is someone to listen and someone to teach him how to write.
Why Educate Prisoners?
I am often asked why I work with Mike. Why not work in an after school program? Or, better yet, why not help the victims of crime?
The logical answer is simple. Educating prisoners makes sense. It has consistently proven to be the most effective way to reduce prisoner recidivism. In 1997 the Correctional Education Association conducted the Three State Recidivism Study on more than 3,500 inmates. The researchers concluded that “Simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29%. Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.” These results have been duplicated repeatedly.
Last year the country spent more than $55 billion on its prisons. To put that in perspective, in 1988 New York spent twice as much on higher education than it did on its prisons, but by 1998 New York was already spending $275 million more on prisons. Education remains the only way of turning a prisoner into a productive member of society, and since 97% of all inmates will be released one day; it’s in our best interest to start paying attention to what they are learning behind bars.
The emotional reason is more complex. For Robert Ellis Gordon, author of The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison, “By the end of my first week teaching inside, I was hooked on that savage jailhouse energy, which is composed of so many ingredients: hate, gore, utter despair, the ever-present threat of sudden violence, proximity to evil, proximity to grace, and roll upon roll of barbed razor wire that never once failed to turn my knees into jelly and send a tremor of fear through my vitals. Prison made for one hell of a thrilling psychic rush, and the other world, the workaday world, seemed pale, drab, and boring by comparison.”
For others, the emotional payoff runs deeper. Why do inmates need to write? Realistically they will not become professional writers, meaning it will not become their occupation upon exiting prison. Instead, writing offers them the opportunity to confront and process the pain and suffering of their lives. Not only is this essential for their recovery and development as individuals, but it becomes particularly important in an environment like prison, where writing provides a means of release, escape, and empowerment.
Wally Lamb, who has taught at the York Correctional Institution in Connecticut for over nine years, has witnessed the incredible emotional growth that writing can provide. According to Lamb, “Seventy percent of incarcerated women have been the victims of incest or sexual violence.” Many of his students feel like they have never had a voice. No one has ever listened; no one has ever cared—until Lamb arrived.
“Within the confines of the prison,” Lamb wrote, “their writing began to give them wings with which to hover above the confounding maze of their lives, and from that perspective they began to see the patterns and dead ends of their pasts, and a way out.”
For Lamb, “the reward, more than anything else, is my opportunity to witness these transformations.” Indeed, some of his students have undergone incredible conversions. After entering prison in 1996 for killing her abusive husband, Barbara Parsons Lane joined Lamb’s workshop in 1999. Five years later she won the PEN America Center’s First Amendment Award.
How To Become Involved
There are more than 1,800 prisons in the United States, but you’re not likely to find a paying position behind bars. When Congress passed Title IV of the Higher Education Act in 1965, inmates were permitted to apply for financial aid in the form of Pell Grants. By 1982 there were more than 350 college level programs available in jails across the country. But the rise of the country’s tough-on-crime attitude in the mid-nineties changed all that. The 1994 crime bill eliminated Pell Grants, despite the fact that prisoners received less than one tenth of one percent of the total grant awards. By 1997, only a handful of college level programs remained, and these were funded either through the universities themselves or through volunteer professors.
Instead of college level courses, today’s teaching opportunities range from volunteer-run workshops like Lamb’s to long-distance mentorships carried out through the mail. For me, PEN America’s Mentor Program (http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/232) offered an easy, stress-free way to get a taste of the prison teaching experience. In this program, all correspondence travels through the PEN headquarters office in New York, allowing mentors to remain as anonymous as they’d like. The program matches you with an inmate by writing style (poetry, fiction, memoir, etc.) and asks that you agree to exchange at least three packets with your mentee. If the relationship works well, you may continue to exchange as many as you’d like. If you’d prefer to try someone new or drop out of the program, than there is no commitment beyond that.
In order to become eligible in the PEN program, inmates are chosen from submissions to PEN’s prison writing contest. This means you will likely be dealing with someone with a demonstrated interest in writing, as opposed to someone who just wants a class to pass the time. That said, inmate access to computers can vary, so don’t always expect a high quality product. Mike, my mentee, has not had access to a computer in years, and some prisons restrict all access to outside news sources and books, further complicating the teaching process.
For those looking to head behind the razor wire, there are a couple more options. According to Partakers (http://www.partakers.org/), a nonprofit organization that helps raise tuition for inmates interested in education, there are currently a dozen colleges that provide classes in prisons, including Bard College, Boston University, Wesleyan University, Georgetown University, University of Pittsburgh, and Marymount Manhattan College.
If you can’t find a program like these in your area, try creating one of your own. Several years ago a faculty member at Grinnell College enlisted the help of four of his students and began a creative writing workshop at a local prison. The program was so successful that Grinnell now holds a conference every fall to educate others on how to start their own prison teaching programs (http://web.grinnell.edu/groups/prison/about.html).
If none of these options sounds appealing consider contacting a prison librarian directly or visit some prison-related Web sites, such as 360 degrees (www.360degrees.org) and the Council on Crime and Justice (http://www.crimeandjustice.org/). Most prisons would be eager for the assistance.
The Obstacles & Keys to Success of Teaching in Prison
Teaching in an environment like a prison has several unique obstacles, not the least of which involves overcoming the intimidation factor. Even working remotely, I have felt strange, irrational fears. Before the process started, I promised myself that I wouldn’t reveal any details about my life. I had visions of a Hannibal Lector–like genius lulling me into a false sense of security. All of this was absurd, of course, but it took time to realize this.
That being said, one should be cautious. Even at a distance, prison will confront you with an unfamiliar, emotionally taxing environment. “I do think that working in prisons requires a certain amount of maturity,” said Betsy Sholl, a professor in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing program, who has taught at a number of different men’s prisons along the East Coast. “You have to be discerning. For one thing, you are working with troubled people, often people who know how to manipulate, and you have to establish in them a kind of respect that you won’t let them con you. You have to walk a subtle line between supporting them and keeping a distance. You have to be able to tell when somebody needs a different response. The worst thing you can do is play into their own delusions, which helps nobody,” Sholl said.
For Gordon, the key to adapting to the prison environment was recognizing that each student came with unique emotional challenges. “Some students respond best to what is commonly referred to as tough love. Others—the most abused, whipped puppies in class—deserve respectful distant love. Some require nothing more than gentle love—the quiet love that enables them to give themselves permission to write their rue and oft-wrenching stories. And some students, frequently the hardest and most interesting cases, test us by demanding copious amounts of patient love.”
Beyond this emotional hurdle, the challenges of working with inmates will seem familiar to anyone who has been through a workshop. Inmates have surprisingly different backgrounds, particularly with regard to education. You might find someone who has far more writing experience than you do or you may find someone who can’t write more than a simple sentence. You are also likely dealing with a completely different kind of student, one who may require unique reading material and lessons. According to Sholl, “I had a fat American Lit. anthology, all white writers, starting with the 19th century, even B’rer Rabbit tales. There were ten black men, half of them Nation of Islam guys, two white guys (junkies who’d nod out in every class). Clearly that anthology wasn’t going to cut it. I started Xeroxing fiction from literary journals, stories written by African-American writers mostly. Sometimes I’d give them two-thirds of a story and ask them to finish it themselves. (They loved that and would write on and on and on.)”
Gordon echoes these thoughts. “One of the last prison classes I taught included, among others, a black nationalist, a white supremacist, a traditional Eskimo, some born again Christians, an assortment of nihilists, and one Jew. Outside of class, my supervisor informed me, most of these guys couldn’t talk to each other. But in order to make the workshop function, the students were required to hang their swaggers at the door, and to treat each other and each other’s work with respect.”
Lamb helped to create a comfortable workshop environment by first establishing some basic rules. He forbids the writer who presented her work from speaking during the ensuing discussion. Also, in an environment ripe with racial, sexual, and gang-related tension, he emphasized that the comments remain focused on the work. Lastly, only the writer can decide when the subject matter of her work should be made public to those outside the workshop. This is important because it allows inmates to begin processing their lives and their writing without having to fear a public backlash.
There are other potential hurdles, of course, like time (they have lots and you have little), money (they think writing will make them millions), but Lamb insists the most important element of running a prison workshop is just showing up. “Because prison is a place where the majority of society just wants people to be locked up and is complicit in this idea of what goes on behind the walls there is not anything that I want to think about, prisoners are largely silenced, and the fact that you are there means that you are willing to listen. I’m always taken aback at how grateful they are that you have shown up and that you are willing to listen to these developing voices that are put in front of you.”
What’s In it For You?
Just like with any teaching, the benefits for the student often translate into a rewarding experience for the teacher. Gordon summarized this by writing, “Teaching in prisons enabled me to meet a number of personal needs. Prisons gave me a mission, for one thing. They gave me a chance to nurture my students, a chance to feel useful and admired.”
As a teacher, Sholl experienced growth and change in her own life, too. “In terms of what I got out of working with inmates, I think the biggest thing was feeling an expansion of my world, discovering commonality with people I had only known as stereotypes or as concepts before,” said Sholl. “Sitting around a table with a dozen inmates talking about poetry or literature, suddenly none of you are defining yourselves as prisoners, but as students, as writers, as people sharing an experience. I loved that feeling of expanded community, of feeling like one wall or barrier had been taken down.”
Teaching in prison also produces heart-felt connections. Sholl described a time when, on her first day at a men’s prison in Virginia, she announced that she planned to read a number of poems about her mother, and she warned the inmates that they might not find them that interesting. “One inmate at the back of the room called out, ‘That’s okay, honey; we all had mamas.’” It was that empathy that attracted Sholl to the teaching. On another night, it snowed during her visit to the prison and the inmates made her promise to call the prison when she had made it safely home.
For me, I have found Mike’s writing particularly inspiring. I have never met him or heard his voice, but the image I have of him comes from the first story he ever sent me. He described how, prior to his family’s annual visit, he would neatly fold his uniform and put it beneath his mattress at night so that when he woke up in the morning the shirt and pants would have straight creases as if they had been ironed.
This deliberate, thoughtful nature has not always been Mike’s trademark—I do not forget that he is in prison for murder—but when I write to him that is how I see him: a quiet man in a clean, pressed prison suit waiting to talk to someone. He has been waiting a long time—nearly fourteen years. Fourteen years in the same violent, high stress, high disease, high insanity environment. Fourteen years without a sunset, without seeing a house, without affection.
Gordon wrote that “psychologists have determined that individuals who are incarcerated for ten or more contiguous years tend to become ‘institutionalized.’ These individuals are so damaged by their lengthy stays in prison that they cannot successfully reintegrate into the society at large.” This is not hard to believe.
Mike’s letters often include a note or two about someone he knows who has died—a fellow inmate who was stabbed to death or another who committed suicide—a reminder that prison is a world of little hope. Prisoner homicides are at their highest levels ever. Suicides are up, too. In fact, the reason the York Correctional librarian first contacted Lamb was because he hoped that he could do something to stop the rise in prison suicides. And help he did. Diane Bartholomew, a student of Lamb’s, described it by saying Lamb had become her “umbilical cord for a rebirth of hope.”
It’s easy to lose hope with writing: all of this alone time spent staring at a blinking cursor. It’s easy to think that all the writing in the world doesn’t make a bit of difference and that all this time spent writing has only succeeded in making me older.
But with Mike, it’s easy to know that the opposite is also true. There is great value in writing, both for the writer and the reader. There is even greater value in spreading this knowledge to others. All one needs is inspiration and opportunity, and when it comes to teaching in prison, both abound.
Matt Hudson received an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His collection of Colorado authors, titled Please Stay on the Trail, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. His articles have appeared in the Denver Post, the Arizona Republic, and other newspapers and magazines.
- 1. Stephen Steurer, Linda Smith, and Alice Tracy, Education Reduces Crime: Three-State Recidivism Study—Executive Summary, (Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association, 2001), 1.
- Robert Gangi, Vincent Shiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg, New York State of Mind?: Higher Education vs. Prison Funding in the Empire State, 1988-1998 (Washington, D.C.: Justice Policy Institute, 1999),
- Robert Ellis Gordon, The Funhouse Mirror, xix.
- Wally Lamb, “Author Essay: Wally Lamb on I’ll Fly Away” (New York: Harper Collins) http://www.harpercollins.com/author/..., 1.
- Ibid, 1.
- Daniel Karpowitz and Max Kenner, Education as Crime Prevention: The Case for Reinstating Pell Grant Eligibility for the Incarcerated (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Bard Prison Initiative, 2007), 6.
- Gordon, 103.
- Ibid., 44.
- Ibid., xix.