Writing “On the Inside,” Working with Women in Prison


My professor asked me if I would be interested in working with the women in prison, who were taking his Introduction to Literature course through the YSU system, as I portion of my independent study. I’ve worked with domestic violence victims, individuals with persistent mental health diagnoses, the geriatric population in rehabilitation and assisted living centers, elementary and middle school aged students at summer camps and programs, and of course, college undergraduates. But women in the prison system would be the first. Being that I am almost always excited about meeting new people and having new and unique opportunities such as this, I accepted immediately.

“What do you want me to do?”

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

I thought about it for days, keeping it in the back of my mind as I read selections from their assigned anthology, following along in the class syllabus. How could I contribute to this course while giving something useful and meaningful to these women? How could I contribute my own background in writing and teaching? How could I incorporate my women’s studies orientation and my feminist principles? The project, whatever it would it be, was already turning out to be massive if it was to meet all these objectives. This, of course, shouldn’t have surprised me.  I jump long before anyone says to and typically much higher and longer than anyone ever really expects.

When I met with my professor two weeks later, I had decided I wanted to engage the women in a project that would aim to compile their creative works into a final anthology. The only requirement being that their work had to focus on some aspect of their personal experiences as a woman and was not limited to being a woman inside the prison system. They had ownership over what experience to write, how to write it, how many pieces to submit, etc. I would merely point them in a direction, provide some deadlines, offer some feedback, and type. A lot.  It was the perfect way (in my mind) to keep the project reading-inspired and writing-focused, incorporate my skills as a teacher, writer, and feminist, and to include feminist philosophies and pedagogical theories.

The following week I was hooked up to a microphone and standing in front of a giant screen, several women, of all ages and various races, all dressed in uniform, sat watching me. Teaching has come naturally to me the last few years, but this was stiff and awkward. There were bodies and faces, but they weren’t three dimensional and it was hard to engage with normal energy and enthusiasm when I felt like I was nothing more than a dull, afternoon special. My professor assured me he would set up site visits at each facility and instruction would be much easier.  

After a brief introduction and some reading of my own work, I pitched the project to them hoping it might liven things up, get some energy going.

“You want us to write whatever we want?” one asked repeatedly.

“Yeah, whatever you want as long as it’s got something to do with being a woman.”

“And you don’t care how it’s written?” another asked, not buying it.

“Well, I want to be able to read it and understand it, but I don’t care if it’s poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. And it can be of any style or form.”

“Whatever we want? For real?”

“Yes.”

“And then you’re gonna put it together for us?”

“Yes.”

“And give us each a copy?”

“Yes.”

They kind of looked around at each other, back to me on screen, and then whispered among themselves.

“That sounds cool,” a couple of them finally said and many of them even smiled.

I was in.

So much of their days are scheduled for them: when they eat, when they shower, what they wear, when and if they can go outside, they had difficulty grasping this project that had few restrictions. Here, they had a chance to make the rules, to share their stories and be heard as a person not as an inmate. Here they got be recognized as an individual, not just another number in the system, by telling particular experiences significant in their own histories, experiences that have shaped the women they are now. True that some of them echoed one another, but they were individual stories and experiences nonetheless.

A few weeks later I was on my couch, sicker than a dog with some flu-like thing going around, transcribing their written words onto my computer, and crying in between nose blows. These women bared their souls in these lined sheets of paper. They told me about their drug addictions that led them to lose children or family. There were stories of their children’s deaths while they were locked away.  They wrote of the men who beat and raped them repeatedly.

One woman in particular told her story through poetry, constantly repeating the line, “I deserved it, that’s what [insert person here] said.”  The order of her story going something like this: her brother molested her, her husband beat her, her husband raped her, she killed her husband, and then the legal system gave her forty to life.

There were stories and poems about loss, death, fear, regret, pain.  But there were just as many that included love, forgiveness, survival, empowerment, hope, and faith. I wondered where this inner strength and perseverance came from. How did these women have the will to make differences in their own lives from inside a system that potentially failed them? Some of these women had been abused, driven to commit terrible crimes because of it. Some of these women didn’t have a chance to begin with because of socio-economic status, race, low educational attainment, or a combination of these.

The more I read their stories, the more the lines between victim and perpetrator became blurred and confusing. They seemed to be both the victim and perpetrator and our system did, too. I began to think that there was no truly innocent or guilty party, yet, their they all were, living out their terms, taking all the responsibility. I just wasn’t sure that was fair. Or right. Or just. I wasn’t sure what I thought but I knew it made me feel for them. And so I read. I cried. I wanted to rush to these women and hug them.  Ask them what more I could do. Who did I need to write to, where did I need to picket. Find out if this project was doing any good.   

Shortly before going into either prison to work face-to-face with them, several people asked me if I was nervous. Several people told me to be safe, to keep my eyes peeled, etc. I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t nervous. I was more bothered by people’s immediate assumption that because they were inmates they were automatically dangerous, hardened criminals who couldn’t be trusted and would want to do me harm for no apparent reason. These women had shared some of the most painful experiences of their lives with me, with poise and integrity. They felt like distant friends.  

Both visits were successful. The women were engaged with me. They were open and respectful, enthusiastic, exhibiting qualities of star students. We laughed and joked, discussed their work seriously. And while I was there, I felt such fulfillment in being a part of the project and working with them. There was something different about teaching there with them than one of my typical days at The University of Akron. It’s not that UA students are not engaged or enthusiastic, or that I don’t have a good time teaching them, but this was different.

This reached new levels. It was a new kind of teaching high. It wasn’t just instructing. It was touching. It was both, I guess. The project was one that both served to educate but also to heal, to share, to empower. Both them and me, as I read and looked to women with far worse stories than my own, still finding joy and hope in each coming day. Some of this combination of teaching and touching does occur in my Intro to Women’s Studies classroom, but not to the same extent. Maybe it was simply because I entered their world and met them at their pace rather than my UA students and myself walking common ground, sharing similar location and culture. Whatever it was, it was powerful and transforming.

They decided that the title of their anthology would be, On the Inside. Though they had very clear literal and figurative meanings, and thus, reasons for choosing this title, I don’t think they realized that I found double meaning in it, too. Not only did they welcome me to ‘the inside’ but that’s where they touched me. Way down, deep in there.

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