Dispatches | April 03, 2015
Literature on Lockdown: Accused of Writing
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s writer is Sandra Gould Ford.
When authors teach creative writing to the incarcerated, prisons are usually chosen. Other facilities should be considered. Once upon a time, I didn’t know that there were differences.
For three reasons, I asked the warden of the Allegheny County Jail if I could teach inmates how to write fiction, poetry, essays and memoir. First, because I’d heard a young man from my low-income, black neighborhood say that good employment was hopeless because of “the box” on job applications. When marking that he had a felony conviction, his employment consideration ended. In that moment, I believed that writing could provide income based on the quality of the manuscripts rather than problems in the past. I was also inspired by Wally Lamb, Sonia Sanchez and other authors who taught in correctional institutions. Thirdly, a grant maker asked me to propose an arts project.
When Warden Rustin granted me permission to teach, I completed the grant application. The jail also advised that they would provide no funds. While I awaited the major grant, start-up funding was received from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council as well as support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Arts in Education program. All I needed was money from the grant maker who asked for my proposal. When they did not fund the project, the jail provided the remaining support.
The Bureau of Corrections exists to, “protect the citizens of Allegheny County from criminal offenders.” For that purpose, two facilities are maintained. The prison was first built in 1826 and influenced Charles Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol. The State Correctional Institution that was rebuilt in 1882 houses about 1,500 convicts. Jails are different.
About eighty new arrestees arrive at the Allegheny County Jail each day. There, they await formal identification and the pre-arraignment hearings that will decide if arrest was warranted. When cause is found, the arrestee is either released on bail or held until trial. Jails “lock up” parole or probation violators, fugitives, persons whose bonds are revoked and people sentenced to Jail by the Court. Most of the 2,000 people in my county’s jail are accused of crimes, but have not been convicted.
In prisons, the length of stay is prescribed and can be lengthy, lasting years or lifetimes, without the possibility of parole. In jails, the accused – unlike the convicted – could leave at any point. Thus, class and program planning must be flexible.
The Allegheny County Jail has eight floors for housing inmates. Each level has thirty-five units (pods) designed to hold 56 inmates. Women are on one floor. Of the 35 pods on the fourth floor, the women occupy just four units. My first classes were drawn from that female population.
For the first few weeks, the women were open, cooperative and enthusiastic. They loved the idea that their writing would be published in a special book. But, in the fourth week, the ladies dragged into the classroom. After slumping into their chairs, they asked why they should bother. They’d become convinced that no one would want to read anything they wrote. That’s when we discussed diamonds and how those gems began as coal. They became rare and precious when great pressures transformed them. From that understanding, the title for our first book was enthusiastically born, Diamonds in The Rough.
At first, I refused male students. I’d just seen a program about ruthless male gangs. Although jail officials counseled that their populations – unlike in prisons – were too transient for gangs to stabilize, I wanted no problems. But after months of “Good morning” and “How are you?” and doors held open by males in red jumpsuits in the hallways and offices, in accepting that a momentary lapse could land anyone behind bars, in remembering one young man’s employment plight, I agreed to teach men … if the jail let me return.
Year after year, my swipe card kept opening the jail’s entrance. Along the way, the students produced beautiful, illustrated anthologies and a spoken-word poetry contest, men vs. women. Students learned about publishing contracts, copyright and how to create personalized chapbooks. One student wobbled to class – slightly dazed but determined – fresh from 60 days in ‘the hole.’ Several were ‘sentenced’ to the class because of suspected talent or because the chance to write prevented disruptive behavior. The writing also offered opportunities to vent, as with one student who finally expressed childhood abuse and another released pent-up anger about a betrayal. Two students won PEN Prison Writing Contests, a stellar achievement under any circumstance, but special because of the short learning experience that is the nature of jails.
I had promised ‘Da County’ five residencies. As my fourth ended, I searched for a replacement. The Graduate Writing Program at Chatham University was approaching prisons about teaching the incarcerated. Chatham eagerly stepped in and is growing the program, now called Words Without Walls, expanding to a half way house and Pittsburgh’s prison. They’re also producing a book that will guide others in establishing writing programs for the incarcerated.
Two major films have been located at the Allegheny County Jail. In 1984, Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton starred in “Mrs. Soffel,” a true story about an incident at the older jail. In 2009, Russell Crowe starred in the vigilante thriller “The Next Three Days” at the new facility. I think I spotted him once. For me, the stars were the accused and the convicted who tried writing poetry and flash fiction, novels and Op-Ed pieces and reflections on their lives via memoir.
Authors can make meaningful differences by teaching the incarcerated the craftsmanship, discipline and insightfulness required to produce literary art. For many of my students, I suspect that the classes changed – even if just a little – how they experienced jail and how they view life. Best of all, some students continue to write. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, artist and activist Grady Hillman said “creating a piece of art, whether it’s dance or music or creative writing, is an act of critical thinking.”
It requires considering the needs of the audience, which means (the incarcerated) have to look at what they’ve done from the point of view of others. That’s one of the fundamental premises of corrections — to be penitent, think about what you’ve done to others, try not to be totally in the moment but think about the consequences of your actions and how what you do affects the lives of others.
In the May, 2014, the Prison Arts Resource Project survey showed how the arts in general and writing in particular helps the incarcerated; therefore society. Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the project’s report includes:
• As a result of the Prison English Program, the New Mexico Corrections Department receives program savings of $27,000-$40,500 per semester.
• Participation enabled offenders in the Northeastern Correction Center, Concord, Massachusettes to begin (or continue) the process of changing their self-identities from procriminal to prosocial.
• Participants in California’s Arts In Corrections programs reported increased self discipline, self-esteem, self-respect, sense of purpose, and reconnection with family as a result of the program. Participants also reported reduced racial tension in the correctional facility. The evaluation follows up on ex-offenders 25 years after participation in the Arts-in-Corrections program.
I appreciate the incentive created by the invitation to apply for that arts project grant; even though my jail proposal was not funded. I’m thankful that Wally Lamb, Sonia Sanchez and others have established models for other authors. I’m grateful for the Polaris that is the PEN Prison Writing Program. And I endlessly value the efforts of Austin-based poet and translator Grady Hillman who’s spent 25 years teaching creative writing and helping to design and implement arts-in-the-prisons programs around the world. Other programs exist and deserve support.
My thoughts are bittersweet about the young man who spoke so passionately about the employment challenges people face after serving their time. I regret his challenges and send him blessings because, without him, the path to Allegheny County Jail’s Words Without Walls would not have begun. Because of him, I hope more writing programs are developed for the incarcerated, the convicted as well as the accused.
Sandra Gould Ford is an author, artist and educator who presents writing and arts experiences that encourage, refresh, enrich creative thinking and inspire. She founded a writing program at a 3,000-inmate jail, published an international quarterly and produced two writer conferences. Sandra now enjoys exploring the human experience through the arts. Visit her online at www.sandragouldford.com
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