The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.
By Shari Randall
The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.
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.
Benjamin Fleury-Steiner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. His most recent book is Dying Inside: The HIV/AIDS Ward at Limestone Prison.
The overwhelming majority of two-million plus offenders locked away in the nation’s jails and prisons are poor, non-violent drug offenders. Indeed, only a fraction represents America’s so called “worst of the worst” violent offenders. This observation is not controversial and has been well documented in an imposing empirical literature.
Another observation, however, of what exactly locking up so many human beings means is rarely addressed by academics and the public alike: Most of the people swept up in the prison boom of the last three-plus decades lack health insurance and disproportionately suffer from a host of serious-if-untreated illnesses such as Diabetes, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
When we consider gross carceral overcrowding and dwindling budgets for medical resources, it is not surprising that the federal government and the states have been forced to contract out health services with a focus on cost-cutting. In this way, even the most well intentioned health care workers and wardens simply cannot address and therefore must learn to live with increasing numbers of sick prisoners that needlessly die in their midst.
It is very easy place blame on politicians, prison officials, or doctors for this disturbing state of affairs. But playing such a blame game is counter-productive. The bottom line is this: Nearly four decades of locking up an unprecedented number of the chronically ill uninsured poor is institutionally unsustainable and, most importantly, inhumane and immoral.
While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.
Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.
They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.
It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?
Radek M. Gadek is a graduate of the Boston University’s Master in Criminal Justice program. He is the founder of Criminal Justice Online, an interactive blog dedicated to criminal justice academia and law enforcement careers.
Since its inception, the correctional system in the U.S. aimed to keep crime out of the streets. There are notable differences, however, when it comes to the way juveniles and adults are ultimately being helped while within the “system.” One must consider the age of an adult person in the United States is eighteen, and often, this is where the line gets drawn between being convicted of a crime as a juvenile and as an adult.
As long as a juvenile is being tried in a juvenile court and is convicted of a crime there, they will not enter the adult facilities until they turn the legal age of adulthood (exceptions apply). This makes a huge difference when it comes to rehabilitation, suppression of future crimes, and length of sentence.
It’s widely known that each correction system uses incarceration to punish offenders. However, rehabilitation is often the key concept of juvenile corrections, and not adult corrections. There are more incentive programs offered for adolescent criminals. For example, American Youth Prevention Forum states that
Services found to be effective in juvenile justice include: smaller, 15-25 bed, programs that reduce violent incidents; low staff/student ratios that lead to higher academic achievement; five hours of academic instruction per day (usually required by law); cognitive restructuring programs that, among other things, help young people understand thinking errors which get them into trouble; and gradual returns to the community from secure facilities through day treatment which reduces recidivism, results in higher levels of academic achievement and provides more connections to employers.
This kind of care is not fully available in the adult correctional system-it focuses stringently on punishment and offers only a handful of rehabilitation initiatives when compared to its juvenile counterpart. It’s a shame. Even though many first time offenders commit crimes before their 21st birthday, society contends such services would not work well with adult prisoners and would be a waste of taxpayer money at the benefit of “hardened” criminals.