Jennifer Bowen Hicks loved to watch one student in her lyric essay class at Moose Lake state prison who took to writing with great energy and enthusiasm. He got better and better all the time, and he beamed whenever someone complimented his work.
It’s that type of response that led Hicks to found the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) in 2011 after a successful trial class at the Lino Lakes prison.
Hicks had conducted the original class after a graduate school instructor raved about a similar experience. Some of Hicks’ family members have also been incarcerated, which “nudged my interest,” as well, she said.
Hicks was delighted by the results. “My students were eager, motivated, grateful. Their effort was intense and their writing grew noticeably, which was rewarding to see. Plus, I learned a lot about teaching. Their energy fueled my effort, and it still does,” she said.
Today, the MPWW leads classes in poetry, spoken word, oral storytelling, children’s literature, fantasy, essay and more at six state prisons. Hundreds of incarcerated men have taken courses through the MPWW. Twenty-two students also have mentors “on the outside.”
The workshop has also garnered interest outside of the prisons. A public reading of students’ work by MPWW volunteers drew more than 100 people last year, Hicks said. MPWW volunteers are a diverse lot, which helps, too, she said. Recently, the group raised $11,000 to expand its operations.
For the inmates, writing offers “a chance to explore different ways of defining themselves and the world,” Hicks said. “In this context, it’s such a hopeful, affirming undertaking.”
The inmates hunger for opportunities like this, she said. Inevitably, the classes lose a few students along the way, for various reasons, but those who stick around are very dedicated. Some veteran students help newcomers acclimate. The students’ writing improves in concrete, observable ways, as they get a better handle on everything from language to character development. “We get to read writing that’s often pretty urgent and compelling,” Hicks said.
However, the workshop isn’t an easy undertaking. A class might be canceled in the event of a lockdown, for example, or a student could go into segregation or lose computer access. Instructors have no contact with students outside of class, and inmates’ reading levels vary greatly.
Although inmates couldn’t be reached for this story, their works convey powerful messages. Some of the stories are hard to “leave at the office,” Hicks said, like one titled, “A Letter to My Son.” It starts out, “I never got to make sure that you did well in school, or to teach you about how important it is to be educated. I never stood over your shoulder as you struggled over algebra. I never got to feel happy for you when the lights went on and you finally began to understand it.”
An example of success
John R. King, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Corrections, saw in the initial class how men who had been closed off were able to pour out their creative side. The work they produced was phenomenal, said King, who was then the warden at the Lino Lakes facility.
Prison is not a place where people feel comfortable being vulnerable. However, through writing, the inmates speak candidly, he said.
King saved a copy of a poem from a man who is serving a life sentence and who has made a lot of progress in prison, thanks in part to the writing classes, King said. “It’s bittersweet because his progress is something that the greater society might not see. And yet, how they are in prison is important, too. We’re a community, just like any other community,” King said.
Often, in the prison setting, it’s the failures that come up, he said. He keeps a jar of tunnel dirt from an escape attempt at the Stillwater prison on his desk, symbolizing how fragile things are in corrections. The poem, on the other hand, which is also nearby, is more uplifting.
At the Stillwater prison, MPWW students keep up their efforts outside of class in a writing group that meets regularly. The prison has a longtime writing community, which MPWW complements. Many studies show that education, too, helps inmates to rehabilitate. “We have to have hope for them that they can change. If we take away hope it’s not good for society or prisons,” King said.
Honing their craft
Some inmates are truly gifted writers, MPWW teachers say. Many have won writing awards, and one student will be featured in the forthcoming book “Prison Noir,” for which author Joyce Carol Oates is the editor. The writing process is cathartic; the inmates describe everything from prison to their lost loves. Their pieces have a wistful quality, a sense of longing, said Deborah Appleman, a Carleton College professor who teaches in the MPWW.
Bill Breen, a poet and English instructor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College who is teaching with MPWW, said that despite the prison setting, once he gets into the classroom, it’s about the craft of writing. Focusing on “sensory description, character development, conflict, voice, powerful things happen,” he said.
The class bonds as a group. “We argue and laugh and share personal experiences and compliment and challenge each other,” Breen said. “We bridge gulfs. It’s a blast.”
One student whom he describes as a budding Junot Diaz, because his writing style is similar to the novelist’s, discovered he had “some crazy raw talent and was getting all kinds of affirmation from the other guys in class.” A short story he wrote “had us alternately mesmerized and howling with laughter because of its vivid detail and dramatic tension,” he said. The man told him it made him forget he’s in prison, Breen said.
MPWW volunteer Kelly Hansen Maher echoed that: “I’ve got men writing sonnets and running them past their buddies in the yard. I love that there is a thread of beauty and an ambition for art that’s fostered there in the prisons,” she said.
For more information about the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, go to www.mnprisonwriting.org/.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.