Reading and Writing in Prison

“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions.” Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice, 1974

I led an eight-week poetry workshop at our county jail a few summers ago, and there was a corrections officer who routinely laughed at me when I went through the security process to get to my classroom.

He’d say, “What do they need poetry for?” or “Writing poetry? Ha! Yeah, that’s what they need!”

I’d simply smile and say, “We all need poetry!”

I’ve been volunteering in the prison system for four years. I taught classes in writing and literature in our county jail, and I’m currently a writing mentor for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and an advisor/editor for the inmate-written newsletter, The Grove, at the State Correction Facility – Pine Grove. You can access our newsletters here.

I do this work because I believe with all my heart that writing and literature connects us to our humanity, and if there’s a place and time people need to feel connected to their humanity, it’s when they are in prison.

Working with the inmate community, I witness writing that is raw, truthful, powerful, self-reflective, angry, funny, searching, and every other kind of human emotion out there.

Reading poetry and literature, though, is a different animal. Upwards of 50 to 70 percent of inmates in the U.S. have not completed high school, or cannot read above a fourth-grade level. While many of my students have completed high school, almost everyone at first resists offering their ideas about a piece of writing or starting a conversation about a text that is confusing or complicated. This isn’t unique to the prison population. Could you analyze a text in front of your peers? Imagine if those peers were strangers you lived with every day! High school, college, graduate school…it doesn’t matter how much education, background knowledge, or experience you have, you’re probably going to be nervous offering a thought out loud.

What frustrates me the most is when students call themselves stupid. I know it’s a defense mechanism, so part of my job is to bring out their confidence, to help them believe in themselves as readers, and – in the grand scheme – to believe in themselves overall. So I try to select texts that speak to them or wake them up.

For instance, at Pine Grove, I met a man who goes by the pseudonym “Stone.” He writes poetry and has contributed several pieces to our newsletter. I asked him if I could use his poems in the men’s poetry workshop, and he agreed. Students couldn’t get enough. His words spoke to their feelings, and it helped them understand how to read and relate to an unfamiliar work.

Many of my female students wanted to read texts that addressed drug addiction, bad relationships, and motherhood. Their request is in keeping with what I said before: Literature helps incarcerated students relate to their humanity, to “find” themselves again, and reconnect to their former lives and selves. I don’t mean they want to wallow in their past or how they got to prison in the first place. They just need a place in which they feel engaged with a larger and similar community.

For instance, I like to use the poem “Emotional Idiot” by Maggie Estep. It’s a poem about emotional duality in an intimate relationship. It begins, “I’m an Emotional Idiot / so get away from me. / I mean, / COME HERE.” When my female students read it, several of them exclaimed, “Oh my god, that’s ME!” When male students read it, their reaction was similar, but in reverse. “Oh my god, that’s my wife!” (or girlfriend or significant other). Either way, both groups connected to the poem and, more importantly, connected to themselves and their lives.

I could go on and on with examples of how literature and writing impact incarcerated students, but I realize that some people think offering reading and writing classes to people in prison is a bunch of liberal BS. Believe me, I hear that all the time: “Why would you want to work with those people? Aren’t you scared?”

No, I’m never scared. I do this work because annually, roughly 641,000 people are released from state and federal prisons and back into our communities. The question we must all ask ourselves is: Who do we want them to be?

Study after study shows that the more literate an offender is upon release, the less chance he or she will recidivate. Check out these statistics. In general, the national recidivism rate, without engaging any education in prison, is as high as 75 percent. However:

  • Completing some high school courses cuts recidivism rates to 55 percent.
  • Vocational training cuts recidivism to 30 percent.
  • An associate degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent.
  • A bachelor’s degree reduces it to 5.6 percent.
  • A master’s brings recidivism to zero percent.

Hope is central to success on the outside, and when incarcerated individuals start to believe in themselves and believe that they can achieve academically, they can change the direction of their lives. It gives them a powerful tool that will not fail them on the outside, and can give them the confidence to engage with the difficulties that will most likely arise upon release.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

For more information about education and the criminal justice system, please visit the website my friend and fellow grad student developed last year,

Clinging and Distraction

Have you ever thought about someone you haven’t seen in ages, and then a few days later you see them somewhere, like the grocery store?

This morning I listened to (checked Twitter) a dharma talk that I didn’t realize would address an issue I’ve been dealing with the last several days. (Checked email. Googled “dharma talk definition.”) (A dharma talk is like a sermon given on some aspect of Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher.)

The title was “Letting Go.” Gil Fronsdal, one of my favorite dharma teachers, asked the questions, What do we cling to? What non-helpful, non-beneficial thoughts and actions can we let go of? (Made the bed.) He wasn’t talking about things, per se (Googled Marie Kondo. Her approach to tidying things is very Buddhist-like.).

Suffering happens when we have a tight grip on ideas that “limit our ability to be wise, to see, to maneuver freely in the world,” and that freedom from those limiting thoughts and actions comes only when we intentionally let go.

In December I committed, again, to writing the book I’ve been saying for years that I would finish. Despite the self-doubt and (checked the news) questioning my ability (answered a text), I’m finally doing it.

 (Emailed my daughter.) Listening to the talk, I thought about how I cling to negative thoughts about my writing, and how my tendency is, while writing, to distract myself (responded to a Facebook message), like I hope the writing will write itself while I’m doing something else. Gil suggested that when we identify what we want to let go of, that we let go into the clinging itself and ask, What’s going on with that feeling? Where are those actions coming from?

Here’s what I came up with: I cling to the fear of failure, and staying present and writing through the clinging is not easy. Ouch! Keep going! And I soothe myself by thinking that if I fail, it will be a familiar feeling and it won’t hurt as bad. I’m afraid that if I put myself out there again, my voice will be ignored, or worse, it will be like talking into an empty barrel. (This is too much. Texted a friend). And I deal with these thoughts through distraction.

As you can see, in just seven paragraphs, I left the process of writing this blog nine times! Even more times if you include the times Jim called, and the dog needed to go out, and I adjusted the electric heaters because we have to conserve gas because the gas line is frozen, and I was hungry and made a sandwich, and I was in the mood for a cup of tea.

The distractions I invent are even worse writing the book. I walk away and distract for hours and days at a time.

But here I am, near the end of this blog, back from the distractions to finish. I will get this blog on my site today (paused…reached for my phone, didn’t pick it up, didn’t give in to the desire to leave), because this is a really important topic, and I want to talk to you about it. Not about my clinging, but yours. You don’t have to get personal, but what do you cling to? What do you want to let go of so you can be more wise and move more freely in this world? Leave a comment. I promise I won’t read it as a distraction mechanism.

If you’re interested in listening to the Letting Go talk, you can click here for the link, or watch the video. What Gil says about grief and depression starting at minute 30 is especially interesting. If you get that far, let me know what you think. I’ll be blogging about it soon and would love your input.