Telling Stories beyond SpeakOut!  

For this month’s dialogue, let’s get to know another prison writing program by reading some work anthologized in Wagudu Journal (https://sites.cortland.edu/wagadu/v-17-2017-special-issue-telling-my-story-voices-from-the-wyoming-womens-prison/) and featuring women writers from Wyoming prisons.  Read the introduction to the collection and several (or more) pieces.  Choose at least three to discuss in your posting.  

 If you were able to attend the WY Prison Education Symposium, please make a few observations about that as well.  What was most compelling?  What will you take back to your workshop?

4 thoughts on “Telling Stories beyond SpeakOut!  

  1. Recidivism. That’s a key topic in most conversations about prison efficacy.

    How can the prison system mitigate prisoners’ tendencies to reoffend?

    It’s hard not to think of prison education programs in those terms too. Especially for those of us who see deficiencies in the current prison system, and who see prisoners as individuals who’ve made a mistake—or mistakes. Given my own personal history, it often seems like dumb luck that I am on the outside and others are on the inside.

    But I’ve changed. We all can change.

    Luckily, I was afforded the opportunity to change outside of a system that often snuffs out the humanity in individuals.

    Back to education.

    Katy Brock, in her essay “Reducing Recidivism through Education,” lays out a number of ways in which education programs in prison help to reduce rates of reoffense, including development of positive social skills and increased self-value. As one may see, neither of these results is about accumulating knowledge or academic accolades. Instead, they seem to point to a social/familial/personal deficit; and through education, these areas of personal transformation occur.

    At the Wyoming conference, Mary Gould made a point that reducing recidivism rates should not be the sole factor for bringing education programs into prison. She presented a more nuanced view of the multi-faceted benefits of these programs, including opportunities for personal growth for those with longer sentences (meaning, those generally left out of the recidivism conversation due to lengthy imprisonment). To me, this was an eye-opening concept because I, too, was largely thinking in terms of “how to make model citizens out of prisoners.” Gould’s presentation seemed to humanize the individuals we were talking about—or, at least, to think more about the individuals in incarceration as opposed to the abstract notion of an effect on society.

    In “Memoir and Memory: A ‘Telling My Story’ Focus Group,” Jess White touches upon a subject that is near and dear to my heart: memoir writing. The questions that her female inmates grapple with are the same that we struggle with in my writing classes—what is memoir? what is memory? how do we navigate difficult life experiences and memories in a way that is meaningful and cathartic?

    White mentions that “several women also described a sense of responsibility to their stories as a kind of testimony, including the hope that their story might motivate other people to avoid making the same mistakes.”

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    This resonates so much with me. I feel like my war memoir writing is a type of karmic penance for all the bad things we did in the name of American militarism and patriotic hegemony. Really, karmic balancing for the hurt we (I) perpetrated on the Afghan people.

    I think memoir writing in prisons can be therapeutic and healing and life-changing. Baca, of course, is a great example of how language can transform a person’s life in a positive manner, creating a ripple-effect of positivity in the world around him.

    The final piece I’ll comment on is Lorna Barton’s photo-essay. Her pictures of wide open spaces and sparsely populated rural regions feels otherworldly when compared to the unnatural cramped conditions of modern prisons. The idea of caging humans to “rehabilitate” them feels so counterintuitive that I imagine future generations will look back on this practice in human history as barbaric and motivated by the darker impulses of humanity.

    Looking at her pictures, it’s strange to think we travel those “long roads” just to arrive at a block of concrete where humans are stripped of their dignity in an effort to improve society. The same society that is producing these mistake-making individuals who are symptomatic of deeper pathology. An endemic illness that will require more than prison-bandaids to cure its root ailment.

    Dismount soapbox

  2. Below are my reflections on some of the content from the Wagadu Journal, followed by thoughts on the symposium at the University of Wyoming.

    Introduction (Susan Dewey): I was glad to read more about the development of Wyoming Pathways from Prison, knowing that it came from a feminist perspective and a needs assessment that seems to have meaningfully involved the voices of the actual people incarcerated in the prison. Those who started up this program were clearly intentional about the classes and materials used, and I loved reading through the list of authors who are women and were included in the course content for teaching memoir. Particularly after the conference, where my sense was that many people who work in and with prisons may not be consistently and genuinely engaging in thinking and action around power and privilege, it felt encouraging to read about how this group does that. Practices like not editing the content of the women’s writing while still engaging with issues of anti-sex work writing or racially stereotyping content, reflect a commitment to actually transformative & feminist work.

    The Women We Are (Katy Brock and Darla Rouse): I loved this piece because it gave both historical and personal context for two lives; two women, born within about a year of one another – one who ended up incarcerated and one who did not – whose paths crossed as student and facilitator respectively in the prison education program in Wyoming. There is so much power in the individual narratives, but even more power in the juxtaposition of one with the other, and both with brief blurbs about what was going on domestically and globally at that time.

    A Photo-Essay (Lorna Barton): This was an interesting piece especially from the perspective of a writing workshop, where we ask people to engage with just one medium of communication. I liked how this combined writing and reflection with photography, allowing the writer to reflect on the landscape in which the prison is situated, as well as the journey by which women enter the prison. Writing about these journeys and images from memory can certainly be impactful, but this writing directly from photographs seems to allow a precision and depth of writing, such that the author doesn’t have to be caught up with describing the images for the reader but can focus on giving context and making interpretations situated in the experience of being incarcerated in the prison nearby.

    Sissy (Sissy Pierce): This piece was a longer, more traditionally-formatted memoir piece. Reading this piece was impactful and reminded me of how crucial just telling one’s story, in one’s own words, can be, especially for people who are denied this change most of the time. It has me reflecting on what we can do in our SpeakOut workshops to facilitate this. While short-term prompts yielding poems and brief snapshot-type stories can be good, I wonder about this more long-term work. Is there a space for it in our workshops, especially with the week-to-week turnover of the groups? Is there a way to support this kind of writing for those who want it, perhaps to work on between workshops?

    Symposium on Transformative Education in Prison: One general reflection & takeaway from the conference was that there is such a broad range of motivations for and implications of working in prison/jail/”correctional” facilities. Seeing this diversity of intention and level of engagement has inspired me to ground more deeply in an understanding of this work, and other work I hope to do beyond this, with the lenses of power, privilege, the prison industrial complex, and prison abolitionism. It certainly reminded me of the importance of the work we do to supplement work that is more formal and academic in nature. Moreover, it reminded me of all the directions from which support can and should come, for those who are & have been incarcerated. Formal education is important, creative writing is important, therapeutic change is important, supporting people while incarcerated is important, supporting people after incarceration is important. Reading some of the work that emerged from this one Wyoming program helped give me a deeper sense of the work being done – and how much creativity and crucial storytelling can be accomplished even in these formal education programs in prisons.

  3. Introduction (Susan Dewey): I was glad to read more about the development of Wyoming Pathways from Prison, knowing that it came from a feminist perspective and a needs assessment that seems to have meaningfully involved the voices of the actual people incarcerated in the prison. Those who started up this program were clearly intentional about the classes and materials used, and I loved reading through the list of authors who are women and were included in the course content for teaching memoir. Particularly after the conference, where my sense was that many people who work in and with prisons may not be consistently and genuinely engaging in thinking and action around power and privilege, it felt encouraging to read about how this group does that. Practices like not editing the content of the women’s writing while still engaging with issues of anti-sex work writing or racially stereotyping content, reflect a commitment to actually transformative & feminist work.

    The Women We Are (Katy Brock and Darla Rouse): I loved this piece because it gave both historical and personal context for two lives; two women, born within about a year of one another – one who ended up incarcerated and one who did not – whose paths crossed as student and facilitator respectively in the prison education program in Wyoming. There is so much power in the individual narratives, but even more power in the juxtaposition of one with the other, and both with brief blurbs about what was going on domestically and globally at that time.

    A Photo-Essay (Lorna Barton): This was an interesting piece especially from the perspective of a writing workshop, where we ask people to engage with just one medium of communication. I liked how this combined writing and reflection with photography, allowing the writer to reflect on the landscape in which the prison is situated, as well as the journey by which women enter the prison. Writing about these journeys and images from memory can certainly be impactful, but this writing directly from photographs seems to allow a precision and depth of writing, such that the author doesn’t have to be caught up with describing the images for the reader but can focus on giving context and making interpretations situated in the experience of being incarcerated in the prison nearby.

    Sissy (Sissy Pierce): This piece was a longer, more traditionally-formatted memoir piece. Reading this piece was impactful and reminded me of how crucial just telling one’s story, in one’s own words, can be, especially for people who are denied this change most of the time. It has me reflecting on what we can do in our SpeakOut workshops to facilitate this. While short-term prompts yielding poems and brief snapshot-type stories can be good, I wonder about this more long-term work. Is there a space for it in our workshops, especially with the week-to-week turnover of the groups? Is there a way to support this kind of writing for those who want it, perhaps to work on between workshops?

    Symposium on Transformative Education in Prison: One general reflection & takeaway from the conference was that there is such a broad range of motivations for and implications of working in prison/jail/”correctional” facilities. Seeing this diversity of intention and level of engagement has inspired me to ground more deeply in an understanding of this work, and other work I hope to do beyond this, with the lenses of power, privilege, the prison industrial complex, and prison abolitionism. It certainly reminded me of the importance of the work we do to supplement work that is more formal and academic in nature. Moreover, it reminded me of all the directions from which support can and should come, for those who are & have been incarcerated. Formal education is important, creative writing is important, therapeutic change is important, supporting people while incarcerated is important, supporting people after incarceration is important. Reading some of the work that emerged from this one Wyoming program helped give me a deeper sense of the work being done – and how much creativity and crucial storytelling can be accomplished even in these formal education programs in prisons.

  4. While scrolling through the table of contents, I was immediately drawn to Lorna Barton’s “Photo Essay”. Words are a great way to tell our stories, of course, but pictures really are worth a thousand words. Images and visuals are rich storytelling tools in and of themselves. Many times in workshop, I’ve wondered what it would be like to see the world through the writer’s eyes. Where do they come from? What does their world look like? What scenes stand out when they reflect on past experiences? This piece gave me a little glimpse into what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of the incarcerated.

    The story these photos tells is striking. Though all of the women incarcerated in the Wyoming State Prison have different tales to tell, this chapter of their lives is nearly identical. These photos capture the moments when their path diverged and formed a shared identity. I couldn’t help but imagine these women sitting in the back of a police car, head rested against the window, stomach dropping lower and lower as the empty landscape passed by.

    Barton notes that “the land goes on as far as the eye or the camera can see, the horizon always looming in the distance, seemingly unreachable, untouchable, unimaginable.” This beautifully captures the sense of fear, uncertainty, and emptiness that these women are subjected to. Wyoming’s landscape is the perfect metaphor for an inmate’s experience.

    This essay and photo story is particularly interesting to me as I passed through this land only a few weeks ago. While driving to the Wyoming symposium, I couldn’t help but reflect on my surroundings. I’d never been somewhere that was just so… empty. Forgotten. Ignored by the outside world. I was surrounded by other drivers, and yet I felt this strange loneliness that I couldn’t quite recognize. I imagine it’s a very, very small glimpse into what these women felt traveling this same road.

    I was also drawn to Sarah M. Lujan’s piece “3:15”. There’s a writer in my workshop who often plays with time— once piece that really stuck with me was his poem “15 minutes”. It’s very similar thematically— both writers are tethered to reality thanks to their weekly 15 minute visits. I loved that Lujan chose to blend both traditional narrative storytelling and poetry. People tend to choose one or the other; for some reason, they feel that they can’t do both. This piece proves otherwise… different thoughts and memories lend themselves to different modes of expression. Though many of the other pieces let me feeling empty, this one was a twinkle of hope. It’s so uplifting that Lujan was able to take something that used to bring her down and turn it into her silver lining.

    Finally, I’ll talk about BDK’s “Heaven. Hell. Repeat.”. A month or two ago, my volunteers and I led a prompt where we asked our writers to revisit significant events in their lives through the eyes of their childhood self. Much like this piece, the results were raw, painfully introspective, and heartbreaking. There are so many things that we can’t understand until we’re older, and formative events are no different. I’m sure BDK found new meaning in her reality while writing this.

    The Wyoming Prison Education Symposium was quite different than what I expected. I was a little disheartened by many of the other panels— many felt removed and self-aggrandizing. It seemed that the only reason they were attending was to say “look at me, look what a difference I’m making.” That said, though, many of the speakers brought some excellent perspective. Dr. Castro really stood out to me— seemed to have the best understanding of the value of this work, the benefit it provides, and the challenges facilitators like us experience. It was refreshing to see someone so passionate about their work. Dr. Castro certainly relit my fire, and I think the remainder of workshops will benefit from my extra enthusiasm.

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