2.3 million people are currently imprisoned in the United States, that’s one out of every 100 adults—more per capita than any other country in the world. (Repressive China is a distant second, with one in 1,000 adults incarcerated.)
As Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi explain in the introduction to their book Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (McSweeney’s Books, 2011), “People in U.S. prisons are routinely subjected to physical, sexual, and mental abuse,” and “people of color are vastly over-represented in the American criminal justice system.” Women face special challenges inside prison walls—rampant sexual abuse and a prison healthcare system designed for men.
“At first, I found myself resisting the narratives in this collection, not wanting to deal with the reality they described,” writes Michelle Alexander in the foreword to Inside this Place, Not of It. “Perhaps it is natural, and thoroughly human, to recoil reflexively when one encounters extreme suffering…But then a voice in my head asked me: If you find these stories difficult to read, how much harder would it be to live them?”
Eighty percent of women in U.S. prisons are the primary caretakers of children, but the small number of women’s correctional institutions mean most prisoners are located far from family members, which makes it difficult for prisons to maintain relationships.
We see the challenges such separation causes in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s non-fiction masterpiece Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. when Jessica is sent from the Bronx to a maximum-security prison far away in Florida because it is the only facility available.
And women aren’t the only ones who suffer such soul-crushing distance from loved ones. The charismatic Cesar, who is the heart of LeBlanc’s story, is also shuttled from prison to prison. LeBlanc’s stirring account, which took 10 dedicated years of immersive journalism, describes the family members (mostly women and children) who take long bus rides from New York City to Upstate to visit loved ones in jail. Many family members lack the resources for such visits, which can play an integral role in rehabilitation.
Writing, in all its various forms, is a special lifeline for those behind bars. Here is Adrian in Random Family:
To have your name shouted out at mail call proved you mattered. In the most depersonalized of institutions, an envelope conferred distinction: it was addressed, by name, only and directly to you. If you were a boy with a long term, letters reminded you of what was out there, what else was possible—which was why some lifers preferred no letters at all. Maintaining a correspondence also required imaginative leaps and concentration, skills that slowed the process of becoming institutionalized.
Correspondence could create a future within prison: letters might lead to visits, and visits were gifts. The vast majority of inmates receive no visits.
When Anthony Cardenales (called “Cesar” in the book), his daughter, Sabrina, and Adrian LeBlanc visited ConVal High School in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a few years ago as part of a MacDowell Colony outreach program, Anthony told us about his management job at an electronics recycling company, his struggles with the law, and also about the importance of the prison education he received.
Through the Bard Prison Initiative , Anthony gained not only a bachelor’s degree, confidence, and a new skill set, but also a way out. As this PBS NewsHour video shows, Cardenales has become the unofficial spokesperson for prisoner reform programs that focus on education and writing, and he offers a glimmer of hope to many male prisoners, who will be looking for work when their time inside finally comes to an end.
While the Bard program is highly regarded, it’s not the only program out there having an impact on the lives of prisoners.
In 2011 Jennifer Bowen Hicks contacted “nearly every prison” in Minnesota to ask if she could teach creative writing. The Minnesota Department of Corrections at Lino Lakes answered her request, and the resulting program was so successful and rewarding for both Bowen Hicks and her students that she started an organization: the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
After an engaging email correspondence with Bowen Hicks about MPWW, I asked Jennifer if she would be willing to discuss her experiences working with Minnesota prisoners. While I expected her to share some interesting stories, I never expected this eloquent, moving essay to show up in my inbox.
Why teach creative writing to prisoners? Incarceration was something Bowen Hicks had experience within her own family. Also, a chance encounter with Wally Lamb and David Jauss at an AWP conference several years ago convinced her that this would work she should pursue. When the subject of prison writing work came up, Lamb and Jauss “became animated, passionate, [and] charged,” Bowen Hicks told me by email.
I admire them both greatly as people and artists and activists…I’ve heard David say working with ex-death row inmate Damien Echols was the most rewarding thing he’s ever done in his entire life. He says time and again (with a glow on his face) that it’s work he’s most proud of. This is a man with no shortage of accomplishments! So his example (though he was unaware of this), plus my personal connections, made me curious about prison work much more so than any drive to rehabilitate, though I believe strongly rehabilitation happens with the work we do.
There are roughly 10,000 individuals incarcerated in Minnesota state prisons, but few educational or creative outlets for inmates outside of a GED mandate. (As the MPWW website explains, when Congress abolished Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994, they effectively eliminated inmates’ access to higher education despite the fact that education reduces recidivism rates and costs far less than continued incarceration.) The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop seeks to remedy this need with courses in fiction and essay writing, poetry, spoken word, oral storytelling, and more.
“As a person who has spent the vast majority of his adult life caught up in a cycle of crime, drug addiction and prison,” says one of Jennifer’s students, “writing has been the one thing that has allowed me to reconnect with a part of myself that I lost sight of a long, long time ago. Writing and sharing my story has given me the opportunity to rediscover who I really am, who I was meant to be, and to finally begin realizing my potential.”
Here is the testimony of another MPWW student: “Built up anger, avoidance of emotions, silence of my voice from fear of judgment/exposure. To be me as only I know I am without the looks and opinions of others. I can yell, argue and fight without doing any harm to someone else. To empty my gut, relax my mind and free my soul: happiness, sadness, freedom—that’s the value of creative writing to me.”
The success of the program has Bowen Hicks setting her sites on even loftier goals. “If the DOC can accommodate us, we’d like to put a lot of teachers in outlying prisons—there are more of those than metro-centered and they get few volunteers…We’d like to begin offering courses where the pieces men and women write (a picture book, an epistorlary essay) are published and…go home to their children.” With funding and DOC approval, Bowen Hicks would love to see “an Artist-in-Residence in each prison, working with the men on a long-term basis to not just keep them immersed in writing, but to foster a deeper literary culture all around: readings, small groups, informal critique groups, etc.”
MPWW is also planning new evening forums where prisoners can discuss larger, philosophical issues, including deeper topics surrounding art. “Your Chuck Close/Alice Munro piece actually influenced this idea and will probably be one of our forum readings,” explains Bowen Hicks. “The student I mention in the essay was always wishing for deeper discussions and meatier engagements with big ideas.” (If such literary taste seems surprising, then just listen to Cardenales talking about his love of Kierkegaard and other existential writers in the above video.)
Jennifer Bowen Hick’s essay is a testament to the power of the written word, not only for her students, but for us, as well. And yet, as you’ll read below, her essay questions how far words can take us. Yes, there is the prisoner who tells Bowen Hicks that “he didn’t realize until taking…[a] class that books are where people hide all the answers.” Words have weight, and yet, when it comes to communicating the impact of a program like MPWW, they often fail—or as Bowen Hicks says, quickly deteriorate into blah, blah, blah, blah. This is a danger with any cause—we become hardened. Or as Michelle Alexander explains in Inside this Place, Not of It, these stories remind us “of our own vulnerability, and then fear or denial kicks in, leading us to turn away.”
But I assure you that “Postcards from a Prison Teacher” is a far cry from blather. This essay will put you, the reader, in the hot seat and make the lives of these invisible individuals very, very real. All of these narratives taken together make one thing clear: the subject of incarceration and rehabilitation is a messy mixture of horror stories and tales of hope. Of abandonment and antonement. Of cruelty and generosity.
A special thanks to Jennifer Bowen Hicks for sharing “Postcards from a Prison Teacher” exclusively with Gwarlingo readers.
Dear World: Postcards From A Prison Teacher
by Jennifer Bowen HicksOn the drive to my first class I practiced a tough-guy speech in case students made things difficult. I’d taught writing before, but never in a medium-security prison. I practiced terse, direct statements and envisioned pulling the screech-string on my body alarm if things got out of hand. Things quickly became difficult, but not in the way I expected. The men that walked into class were eager. They wanted to ask questions; they wanted to learn; they wanted to talk and write and share small, sweet stories and bitter regrets. My new students—wearing matching prison blues and ID badges—were tender. One man* shared that his favorite piece of work was a poem he had penned to his father as a 5th grader. Now a 40-yr. old man, he still remembered his favorite line: “You don’t got to be perfect, you just have to show up.” Another student wrote that the smell of carpet made him homesick for a place that no longer existed and never would. He wondered, through his writing, whether he would share that reflection with the class or pretend to be someone who didn’t care. Yet another student explained that reading Robinson Crusoe made him realize how fortunate he was to have what little he did have: food, a roof, an occasional blue sky. This was in the first twenty-minutes of the first class.
Albert Camus said: “A man’s life is nothing but an extended trek through the detours of art to recapture those one or two moments when his heart first opened.” I’d add to that “those moments when his heart first closed,” and I’d suggest many men showed up yearning to make that trek. In that class and each that followed men showed a hunger to learn, to play with words, and to be heard. It was clear from their writing—as well as their mailing address—that these men had made life-altering mistakes, usually a series of them. Workshop deals with the words on the page, but in prison those words are often loaded. Many men slipped away from class never to return. But plenty were ready to write. Those that stuck around shared their work, as all writers must, with courage and vulnerability. With each successful revision, the men—ages 18 to 65, black and white, urban and rural— listened to each other’s work. When one man wrote of wet dew on tall grass during his last walk with Grandpa, others praised him and expressed admiration. That was cool; I was right there in the weeds with you. When another wrote about the death of his father, someone else said: I’m sorry, but J’s story is still weighing on me. It’s hard to hear everyone else’s piece after that.
Much of what you’d expect inside a prison was certainly there: razor wire, metal detectors, guards; there was talk of chow hall and hunger, cheddar and blow, cellies and seg. While that was part of the experience, there was something much more interesting incubating inside that fluorescent-lit classroom. Radiance. It hummed alongside shock and despair at a decibel none of us knew we knew. None of us, including me, understood hope could exist beneath so much ruin and we didn’t understand the full power of words to unearth it.
By the end of the first class I knew I’d never want to teach elsewhere. When I tried to explain why, the right words disappeared so I used lots of the wrong ones. Trying to talk about my experience with others felt like travelling around the world and being asked to summarize it on the back of a postcard. All I could come up with was:
I don’t know how to explain.
Over and over again through this process, my postcard would only read:
Dear World, I didn’t know.
How Many People Would Show Up
I wondered if it would be feasible to form a collective of teaching artists. I had no idea how quickly and passionately others would assemble. The Twin Cities are home to a vibrant and generous literary community with great independent presses—among them, Graywolf, Coffee House, and Milkweed. We’ve got a wealth of independent bookstores run by smart, passionate booksellers. We’re lucky to have the Loft Literary Center, the country’s largest independent writing center that functions as second-home, if not a heartbeat for new, established, and emerging writers. There are two MFA programs in the city and more throughout the state. Minneapolis and St. Paul are consistently ranked among the nation’s ten most literate cities. Most importantly, the literary community around here is big-hearted and bold. Minnesota has approximately 10,000 prisoners and seemingly as many writers. If ever there were a community that could rally around a nascent prison-writing program, it would be this one. In fact, the city has done just that. Hamline University kindly sent word to their MFA students and alums. I held an information session on campus and in a short time it became clear the problem wouldn’t be too little help, but how to harness it. Grad students and alums stepped forward. From there word spread to other writers. The Minnesota Department of Corrections carefully welcomed our influx of eagerness. Though it takes enormous work on their end, they’ve allowed our volunteers to pass through security scanners and into medium- and maximum-security classrooms. Our first group of teaching artists stepped forward with clear plastic bags and without pay or precedent. We’ve since received a one-time grant from the Minnesota Arts Board to pay teaching artists. In the short time since this program began we’ve held in-depth workshops in classes ranging from essay writing to oral storytelling to fiction writing to poetry. We’ve worked with over 70 incarcerated men, many of whom have given readings and seen their work published in chapbooks that are donated by Redbird Chapbooks. We’ve started a mentor program wherein men who’ve taken a class can continue working on their writing with a mentor through the mail.
Also, There’s Light
Without a doubt, prison is a dark, lonely existence. Without a doubt, more humans in this country are locked up than makes sense. There are prisons around this country that do nothing but damage already damaged people. I knew this going in. What I didn’t realize is the extent to which prisons are also filled with compassionate teachers, therapists, and administrators, who care about the men incarcerated in their facilities. Lino Lakes Correctional Facility Education Director, Jim Muckenhirn, filmed my class’s first reading, passed out certificates, and congratulated each writer on his hard work and good words. Stillwater Correctional Facility Education Director, Pat Pawlak, started a Character Counts program because she was tired of seeing men come back to prison. She is invested in the long-term well being of the men in her facility; she knows them by name; she pushes them to see different possibilities for their lives. Assistant Deputy Commissioner, John King shows up for these men’s readings and knows most by name. He reads their work in the facility newspapers and I’ve overheard him offering encouraging feedback. A few of my students’ therapists have shown up for student readings and introduced themselves to me as if we’re distant relatives.
The men themselves form lasting friendships and family units; they support each other, read each other’s work, root for one another. Prison destroys lives, I have no doubt, but occasionally it saves one, too. I have a friend who is a pastor and he once said with regard to liberal Christianity you’ve got to draw the line somewhere and it ought to be drawn at the resurrection. I agree that’s a sensible place to draw the line and I happen to be on the opposite side from him. I don’t believe we ascend after we die unless through soil that feeds Jack pines that make oxygen that encourage breath and birdsong. But since I’ve begun teaching in prison (of all places!) I do believe in resurrection during life. I’ve seen a couple of men who’ve been saved because they went to prison, and I’ve seen a few who’ve come alive again, at least for three hours in our small room.
Curriculum & Our Expectations, Ever-Shifting
We’re still figuring out how to do this thing, instructors and students. Some of our classes address plot and character and pacing. We talk about scene versus summary. We talk about the importance of Truth in art. We chat about strong verbs and avoiding passive voice. Sometimes we talk about reasons for making art, but more often we practice making it. Once in a while, a man develops what Flannery O’ Connor calls, “a habit of art.” Any given class can hold a man who has never written a story beside another who has been at it for years, maybe even published on the outside. Some of the writers in our classes don’t write complete sentences, others make me shake my head in wonder—as I do with any good book—at the vibrancy and elegance of the prose.
I’m starting to suspect choosing the sort of work “prisoners like to read,” is akin to picking the sort of book, “humans like to read.” One student of mine who has such a whip-smart mind he could’ve done anything, often complained about the difficulty of writing in a small cell in close proximity to another man. I brought in Gwarlingo’s feature “The Complete Creative Part 3: Chuck Close, Alice Munro, & Jack White on Creativity & Constraint.” Alice Munro graced the first photocopied page, standing against a tree, smiling at the camera. The heading below her picture said: The Challenges of Motherhood. I crossed out the word Motherhood and edited it to read: The Challenges of Writing in Prison. My “constrained” student, a man in his 50’s, grew curious about Alice Munro and requested several of her books from the library. He said he craved heart and Munro’s words were a balm. The most popular story I’ve brought to class yet has been “The Long Road Turns To Joy,” by emerging writer Robin MacArthur. In it, a woman named Apple worries about her son, Sparrow, who is at war. The story has starlings, dancing, starlit skies, a red skirt, and the gift of a half-eaten cherry pie. I’ve been told, in myriad ways, to bring my students crime stories or edgy stuff, or even Greek tragedies. I’ve been told to drop the pretention and everything I learned in grad school. I’ve been urged to ask them what they want to read. I’ve made one stupid pedagogical choice after another and failed more often than I’ve succeeded, but this seems true: time and again my students respond well to compassion, in any genre.
Writers have been doing this for ages: Wally Lamb, Peter Weatherbee, David Jauss, Jimmy Santiago Baca, to name just a few. I can’t help notice many who start working with incarcerated writers never stop. Maybe because we gain immeasurably when we enter that classroom. When MPWW instructors get together we talk and talk over and under each other; it’s a sharing frenzy; the magnitude of what we’re experiencing is hard to keep to ourselves and it feels like meetings should last a day, not two hours. Instructor Dain Edward recently told me about a student that dropped his oral story telling class. Dain assumed he’d never see him again. The night of the final reading, some five weeks after T__ had dropped, he showed up. Dain said, “Knowing how emotional it would be for him to share, he brought a box of tissues up with him to the podium. He knew how it would affect him, yet he still walked up there and told his story.”
Arts instructor, Wendy Brown-Baez, assigned “Crying Poem,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca. The group wrote and discussed what she thought would be difficult material. Though it was, they eventually wound their way toward an unshakeable reality that they readily acknowledged: boys who grew up without fathers now find themselves fathers who’ve left children at home.
Another of our instructors, Peter Pearson, was surprised at how concerned his students were about him. “During our last class period, we talked about how things had gone, how they had liked the class, etc… They were interested in how it had been for me. Had I liked teaching the class? Was prison like I thought it would be? Were they like I thought they would be? It was really touching.”
Kelly Hansen Maher is a poet who has training as a lawyer. After her first class she said she felt closer to justice than she ever had through law. She said true justice was more nuanced, more lyrical than she’d realized.
Another instructor, Nico Taranovsky, wrote to our group a few days after his first class. He said couldn’t stop thinking about his students. I assumed he meant—because I’d been there, too—their hunger, their vulnerability, their very normalcy. Yep, we all more or less said, but we said nothing more, because nothing more was needed; we all understood what Nico couldn’t express. The Prison Creative Arts Project, in its book, Doing Time, Making Space, mentions a community member’s reaction to inmates’ art: I didn’t realize. That sentiment is deeply familiar; I’ve been saying it since the first hour of my first class.
It’s so hard to explain.
We didn’t realize.
We had no idea.
The Value of This Work
Now that it exists, I’m often asked why such a program is necessary. It’s the kind of question for which any answer seems inadequate. North Carolina Poet Laureate and prison instructor Joseph Bathanti says, “Prisoner writing, even when about the most hideous things, is a personal declaration of vestigial goodness. Goodness denied them, which they of necessity have denied possessing. Writing is their confession of goodness.” I once heard a woman say that when you become a prisoner in our culture, you’re defined by your worst moment for the rest of your life. Indeed, writing reminds us that we have many moments by which to define ourselves fully. Art offers openings; to provide access to it is humane, also logical. Such are the types of answers I offer when people ask, Why should we fund prison teaching? I share anecdotes, too. I share that one of our students said he didn’t realize until taking our class that books are where people hide all the answers. Another said writing reminded him of the man he used to be before drug addiction and crime entered the picture. One said our class, in conjunction with other opportunities he’d been given, made him feel, for the first time ever, like a citizen of a larger world. Still another said our writing class “kinda saved [his] life.” People, especially those offering financial support, naturally want to understand ways that incarcerated men gain from this work. Of course, we hope and believe our classes are valuable. We see men’s writing improve in concrete ways. We see their courage and imagination and vulnerability expand, as you might with anyone immersed in art making.
Yet, I feel like I’ve been keeping a dirty secret. I’m tired of avoiding it, so here it is:
I still don’t know how to honor the nadir of this experience with words, and the nadir of this experience is what matters most. I understand how ludicrous it must sound for a woman who founded a prison writing program to admit it’s difficult to write about the program, worse, that it’s detrimental to write about it (this, as she’s writing about it).
Not only is prison teaching difficult to explain, the words, in fact, get in the way. For instance, as soon as I start talking about forgiveness and expression and empowerment and vulnerability you hear blah, blah, social justice, blah, but you don’t feel your chest expand or your pulse startle; you don’t see a man’s eyes deepen after he’s written something that alters him. Even if you do see that, you see it inside the room I described in the first paragraph, which is filled with ID tags and a screech box and men we call prisoners who live in a place we call prison. While all that’s true, it’s also all wrong. Something is missing. The reality is, before a man walked behind the wall, he was—in addition to making whatever mistake brought him to prison—cooking dinner, returning from war, fishing in the Mississippi, changing a diaper, calling in sick, showing up for work, painting the bathroom, planting dahlias, passed out, happy, sad, high, sober, scared; he and others like him were and are fathers and sons and neighbors and uncles. The day he walks out of prison—as 90% will—he’ll be the same man wearing street clothes. I never want readers to be so distracted by razor wire and prison blues or, even transformation, that they miss the heart of the father-son-uncle-man crafting his story.
So instead of picturing a prisoner in these classrooms of ours, envision your father. Imagine him enter a room in which we’ve convened around a rectangular table. We arrange books and paper and pencils. Below the table someone taps his foot to the rhythm of unspent energy; it’s the same man every week. As the buzz of greetings die down, R___ (your father) shuffles his papers and reads aloud. His voice is a little quiet, but it gets stronger the longer he continues. He immerses us in the dust motes of memory, remembering the way light streamed across his childhood carpet as he learned his mother died of an overdose. He was confused at age five and he expresses his confusion now, at age fifty-five. His story echoes long after he sets his papers down; it vibrates in the air with other men’s stories. We travel, together, through alleyways and churches, through children hurt and marriages broken; we travel through baseballs tossed, gunshots fired, falling snow, a stabbing, a first kiss, remorse. We travel through those one or two moments when hearts opened and when they closed. Picture dust motes. Hear silence. Picture your father and breathing and light. How can we articulate why this is important? Writing ushers us into the sacred. Once we’ve arrived, words are beside the point.
*Note: Identifying details are altered for anonymity.
Our Plans + You
There are men and women sitting in facilities who want to write and there are men and women outside facilities, who would like to work with them. We want arts instructors inside prison walls sharing stories and essays and poems with anyone willing to participate. If you’d like to learn more about us, visit our website. If you’d like to contribute to our effort, please donate here.
About Jennifer Bowen Hicks
Jennifer Bowen Hicks is the Founder of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Her work has been honored with a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction, and a Loft Mentor Series Award in Creative Prose. Her essays and stories appear or are forthcoming to The Iowa Review, North American Review, Defunct, and other journals. She conducts interviews for The Rumpus, and teaches creative writing in Minnesota State Correctional Facilities.
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