Category Archives: incarceration alternatives

The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

By Wendy Robertson

Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.

Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.

Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.

In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street  when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side  swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’

When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.

My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.

We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.

These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with  teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.

Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.


My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.

In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.

The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.

On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.

The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.

After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” – both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here. 

Prison Overpopulation, Alternative Sentencing, and Immigrant Deportation

By Kyle T. Green

Prison Overpopulation

With the issue of prison overpopulation on the nation’s collective mind, a closer look at alternative sentencing trends may help to provide answers. Since 1997, total state and federal incarceration rates have gradually increased, by a total of about ten percent to date. The increase corresponds with a consistent decreasing trend in alternative sentencing such as probation, probation with confinement, and prison with community confinement. Perhaps more surprisingly, is the sizable disparity in alternative sentencing between citizens and non-citizens, linking the incarceration rate growth to the rise in non-citizen offenders in the federal sentencing population.

Alternative Sentencing Disparity

In a report entitled “Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System,” the United States Sentencing Commission found that, while non-citizens represent only 8.6% of the nation’s population, they comprise upwards of 15% of the total prison population and nearly 30% of the Federal prison population. According to the study, sentencing policies differ vastly between U.S. citizens and non-citizens, as non-citizens rarely receive alternative sentencing. For the purpose of comparing rates and procedures of citizens and non-citizens in the federal system, the USSC divides offender sentences into four zones:

  • Zone A:  0-6 month confinement—probation only; probation with confinement; prison with community confinement; imprisonment
  • Zone B:  1-12 months confinement—probation with community confinement can be substituted for imprisonment; one month of the total term imposed must be imprisonment
  • Zone C:  8-16 months confinement—imprisonment for at least half of the minimum range of the sentence, with the remaining half in community confinement
  • Zone D:  1 year-life—no probation or community confinement

The vast majority (between 86% and 95%) of non-citizens in Zones A, B and C were sentenced to prison, while far less U.S. citizens in corresponding zones were sentenced to imprisonment.

U.S. citizen offenders in Zone A have consistently been sentenced to probation at a rate of approximately 75 percent. Probation for non-citizen offenders in the corresponding zone had dropped to 13.1% in 2007, making the ratio of alternative sentencing almost six to one, of U.S. citizens versus non-citizens.

Trends are similar in Zones B and C: 30-50% of citizens are sentenced to probation versus 3-4% of non-citizens. Only in Zone D do sentences correlate. Zone D sentences do not fluctuate as much due to the harshness of the crimes involved. The great majority of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens are sentenced to prison for Zone D-related crimes.

Sentencing Policy and Antiquated Law

The explanation of this disparity lies in a mix of sentencing policy and antiquated law. For instance, illegal aliens are subject to deportation and account for approximately 80.3% of non-citizen Federal offenders. The Bureau of Prisons assigns deportable aliens to confinement at their second highest custody level, requiring institutional supervision and prohibiting work details or other programs outside the secure institution.

At the same time, since 1917 there has been a law which provides that immigrants can be deported only after they have served their sentences here in the U.S., in order to ensure that they were adequately punished. Therefore, an illegal immigrant who is convicted of a crime, even an immigration offense, is automatically sent to Federal prison, where they must serve their sentence with little to no chance for parole or other alternatives before they can be deported.

Deportation Loophole as a Solution to Prison Overpopulation

Now, a loophole does exist that allows immigrants to be deported without serving their full sentences if they were convicted of non-violent offenses. However, the appropriate power must request early deportation and correction officials almost never use the exception. Thus, it is clear that some change must be made in the imprisonment-before-deportation rule to reduce the number of non-violent illegal immigrants being held in the system. Amending the law to allow for immediate deportation of immigration related offenses could, not only balance the disparity of alternative sentencing, but ease overcrowding and prison budget crises as well.

Kyle T. Green is a criminal defense attorney in Mesa, Arizona.  Mr. Green has handled cases on both sides of the law and is a passionate advocate for justice.

Three ways literature can help criminal offenders make better decisions

By Jack Meyers

As alternative sentencing gains in popularity, many will wonder just how this form of “punishment” enlightens offenders. Instead of sticking people in jail to think about what they have done—usually devising better ways to be criminals—literature and support groups can help offenders realize how their decisions affect those around them.

Characters and stories in literature can impact how an individual processes information. A well written novel correlating to an offender’s specific crime can create more of a positive impact on the offender’s mind, compared to being locked up. How can literature be so inspiring to those who read it?

1. Caring about what happens
Well written novels can develop characters that readers can connect with on an emotional level. These connections can stir emotions as tribulations unfold within the novels causing readers to care about what happens to the characters.

Connecting with literary characters can lead offenders to emotionally bond with the stories. Understanding the characters’ decisions can help offenders begin to understand why circumstances happen and how to deal with them in ways other than breaking the law.

2. Analyzing the affects of actions
If offenders can discover how their actions affect the world around them, it could lead to enlightening realizations of how their actions hurt those involved.

The imagination is a powerful tool. It can create objects of wonder or items of destruction. Using their imaginations could help them realize the damage they have wrought with their actions. By helping offenders analyze their circumstances in relation to literature, there is a good chance that they will have an epiphany about their own experiences and how their surroundings were affected.

3. Getting support
One of the most important aspects of alternative sentencing through literature is the presence of supportive individuals who help offenders discuss the nature of each chosen novel.
Most of the support groups using alternative sentencing methods consist of visits by parole officers and the judges who sentenced the offenders. This could be a vital piece of the puzzle—it shows the offenders that there are those that care about whether they succeed or not.

Whether it is the Bible or a coveted novel, the stories and characters in books can reveal a lot about who you are. This isn’t saying that books can cure all criminal intentions, but they can go a long way in helping some offenders see how their actions can lead to a ripple effect in the pond of life.

Jack Meyers is a regular contributor for As a detective he wants to spread the knowledge of the terrible things that can happen when people don’t fully verify the credentials of a caregiver or any employee. He also writes for various law enforcement blogs and sites.

Woman of the Year embraces alternative sentencing

Judge Bettina Borders, of Bristol County Juvenile Court, was named 2012 SouthCoast Woman of the Year. She made “contributions to the community as a justice and activist,” according to the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times. Her work includes making use of alternative sentencing programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature.

Read reporter Natalie Sherman’s full article about this amazing Woman of the Year.

Is someone in your community changing lives for the better? Tell us about that person.

To submit brief comments, use the comments link at the top of this post. To submit longer comments, or to include images, email me at

We look forward to hearing about the remarkable, and perhaps under-recognized, people in your communities.

–Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor

Rehabilitation through reading: an opportunity to self-reflect and gain perspective

By Sara Dawkins

While reading, you use your imagination to visualize a story’s characters as if they’re starring in a movie within your mind. Although the author’s words greatly impact the flow of your mind-movie, your imagination fills in the blanks. Reading about characters who have similar circumstances to yours can help shed light on your own situation. This is one of the base beliefs behind the alternative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature. How can literature encourage positive change in a criminal’s way of thinking?

1. Reflection:  When offenders openly analyze their own lives through literary characters, they get a chance for inner reflection that they may never have explored before. They put themselves in the spotlight for self-examination.

2. Positive Role Models:  After ordering CLTL classes as part of sentencing, judges may attend the classes involving the offenders-turned-students. By contributing to the literary discussions, the judges start becoming positive role models in the students’ lives—possibly changing how the students view the world. Parole officers can become role models just as much by participating in the students’ progress in the classes. This can greatly increase the chances of rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

3. Self-Worth:  In order for the program to work, students must have a capacity to accept responsibility for their actions. Students must show and demonstrate that they can be proactive in their own rehabilitation. For some, it is difficult to rely only on themselves to stay motivated enough for better lives.  Family histories can be pivotal to how students adapt to this method of rehabilitation.

4.  Perspective:  This alternative method of sentencing is more than just a book club. The literary works chosen reflect students’ lives—either through the characters or the situations. It’s a way for students to examine their actions from the perceptions of others. As their imaginations explore the settings, the literature often drives a point home better than more jail time would.

5. Safety:  The philosophy behind CLTL is such that it allows students to feel safe when discussing literature. Students open themselves up and discuss the actions of literary characters, and how the characters relate to themselves.

Alternative sentencing methods for criminal offenders has had great success. Support is growing for methods such as these. Words can be powerful to those who are open to their meanings. We should embrace the success of CLTL and support rehabilitation over punishment to those who need it and who are willing to benefit from it.

Sara Dawkins is an active nanny as well as an active freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor of

A creative writing community project brings people together

Lessons: Stories that connect from Stories Connect

Lessons cover

Lessons cover

By Sally Flint

People’s lives have been changed not only by reading and discussing literature, but by writing creatively too. In Exeter, England, this has culminated in publishing a book of linked short stories and poems. This book is Lessons and it comes from Stories Connect—a community project, similar in format to Changing Lives Through Literature, that takes place outside prisons to help ex-offenders, substance misusers and other vulnerable people get over difficult times in their lives.

In 2011, after reading Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, discussions centred on the significance of characters in storytelling, how our lives interconnect, and how perceptions of one another can be very different according to our individual experiences. Rather than read more texts to illustrate this, both the participants and facilitators of Stories Connect began a collaborative writing experiment.

Each person invented a character—then got to know his imaginary person through answering a questionnaire which not only detailed a physical description and obvious things such as what the character did for a job, but also smaller things such as what the character kept under his bed. Once each character was firmly established in each writer’s mind the group discussed how the characters’ lives might overlap and be brought together. Part of the success of this collection is that each writer firmly took ownership of his own imaginary character and stepped into his character’s shoes.

However, to bring the characters together it was decided something more was needed—an event. Parties and weddings and all sorts of other occasions were brainstormed and somehow, out of talking about school reunions, the idea surfaced that the characters would all attend a memorial service for a recently retired headmaster, Keith Simon Lung.

Everyone discussed, debated and created—then each person wrote his character’s story in a way that linked to the headmaster and his memorial. The stories took months to shape, edit and bring together as an anthology. This process fostered an environment of trust and commitment. It motivated both participants and facilitators to further improve their communicative and observational skills. Everyone worked hard to make each story stand alone, while ensuring there are many intriguing links to be made across the whole collection and questioned by the reader.

Some of the contributors had never written a story or poem before while some had read and written lots. Perhaps what this book reveals best, and why the group wanted it published, is to show how the process of writing brought them together. The result, Lessons, proves that stretching imaginations and the practice of storytelling unites people at all levels, regardless of age, background, ethnicity or past histories. In the process of creating, the group encountered the unexpected and overcame challenges and, it has to be said, they all laughed lots!

“This is a consummate piece of group story-telling, a feat of cooperation and collaboration,” writes poet and broadcaster Matt Harvey in the book’s forward. He supports and works with Stories Connect.

Lessons is published by Dirt Pie Press, University of Exeter:
ISBN: 978-0-9558326-7-3

For more information, e-mail either:
Dr. Sally Flint, facilitator and publisher:
Louise Ross, Stories Connect co-ordinator:

Dr. Sally Flint joined Stories Connect in 2007. She is a publisher, writer, and, creative writing teacher. She also co-edits Riptide Journal.

Convicted Reading: a relationship between literature and jail

Listen to Dr. David Sherman of Brandeis University interview Changing Lives Through Literature co-founder Dr. Robert Waxler. They talk about the relationship between literature and jail in this “Convicted Reading” Literature Lab podcast.

 Brandeis University, Department of English, Literature Lab