“Can Writing Stop Prisoners Reoffending?”

In England, funding for the Writers In Prison Network (WIPN) – a group that sends writers into prisons to work with inmates – is being threatened. WIPN has based one of their programs, “Stories Connect” off of the Changing Lives Through Literature model. In the following BBC article, Arts Reporter Liam Allen presents the possibility that the  WIPN program actually saves the government money by providing a rehabilitation service to inmates, and thus presenting them with options and opportunities upon their release from prison. Also on the site, a small article written by WIPN’s Clive Hopwood about the CLTL model program, “Stories Connect.”

“Can Writing Stop Prisoners Reoffending?”

Erwin James, a former inmate who served 20 years for two “appallingly serious” murders, says prisons are “full of people who are not very good at communicating effectively or appropriately”.

“They can communicate with a pool ball in a sock or a razor on the end of a toothbrush or by shouting and bawling,” he adds.

The 53-year-old says he went into prison in 1984 “with massive social inhibitions, I couldn’t speak or to talk people, I was always acting, I was always trying to be somebody else – I didn’t know who the hell I was”.

“What we did in the group went back to the wing with us and made us more thoughtful and more reflective,” he says. “Writing does that.”

Communication is no longer a problem for James, now a successful author and Guardian journalist.

The Writers in Prison Network (WIPN) – started in 1992 by Arts Council England and the Home Office under a Tory government – was “instrumental in making me think that maybe I could do this as a job”, he says.

The network funds writers-in-residence, each costing £20,000, at 16 prisons across England. Alongside creative and autobiographical writing, they help offenders with projects including oral storytelling, staging plays, publishing magazines, making videos, producing radio shows and recording rap music.

On Wednesday, Arts Council England – which has had its budget slashed by 30% and which currently funds half of the residencies – will tell the Writers in Prison Network if it is going to reduce or cut its grants.

If it does, the network could be forced to reduce its number of residencies – or even fold.

Read the rest of the article here.

Gaining Perspective


 

Katie Newport is the current Editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds, and is a graduate student in the Professional Writing Masters Program at Umass Dartmouth.

A few weeks ago, we posted a moving piece of writing by twenty-nine year old Robin Ledbetter. Since the day I opened Robin’s letter and read her story, and since it posted here, I’ve struggled to find a way to “follow-up” on the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog. Why has it been a struggle? Well, because I felt – and still feel – especially touched by Robin’s story.

Judging by the responses we received after posting Robin’s story, I was not the only one.

This month, Changing Lives Through Literature will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. It was twenty years ago that UMass Dartmouth English Professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane approached Wayne St. Pierre, a New Bedford District Court Probation Officer, to get his opinion on a theory they had about introducing literature to offenders – the beginning of a program that is now one of the longest running in the Massachusetts Probation Service.

I first heard of CLTL during my first few months as a graduate student at Umass Dartmouth. Then, as merely an appreciator of CLTL and this blog, I assumed understood the program; it’s benefits and accomplishments. Reading Robin’s story, however, made me realize I was missing something that whole time. Sure, I understood the program, but I did not understand the perspective of people who need, and benefit from, the program.

Of course, as is common nature these days, after I heard from Robin, I Googled her name and read about her some more. When I did, I came upon details about that fateful night when a desperate and homeless fourteen-year-old Robin Ledbetter approached a cab driver with a friend and demanded money.

It was the night of my thirteenth birthday.

I tried to imagine what I was doing on that night in 1996. I can’t remember now, but I can only assume it was something that – at the time – I hoped would be unforgettable. It was, after all, the beginning of my teenage years. I’m sure my parents took me out to dinner somewhere. I’m sure I wore a new outfit and got a present or two. I’m sure I was blissfully unaware.

Now, I am aware that on that night, just a couple states away, a girl who was only one year older than me was in desperate need. So desperate, in fact, that she had to steal to survive.

I am twenty-eight years old, now – only one year younger than Robin. I wake up every day in my apartment, I walk my dog, go to school, and I work on my writing every day (something that Robin and I do have in common). Sometimes I go out to dinner with friends and every week I bartend for extra income. I am a long way from where I was when I was fourteen years old. Robin, on the other hand, wakes up every day behind bars – still at the mercy of a mistake she made when she was fourteen, still remembering every detail of that particular night in 1996 and trying to repent.

After I read about Robin, I began to understand not just the “what” of CLTL, but the “why” as well. Robin has found a release in her writing, she has found a way for her voice to be heard, and she has discovered a community of people who want to hear that voice – people who recognize talent, humility, and passion in her words.

Recently, I communicated via e-mail with Harriet Hendel. Harriet and her husband Stan have become like parents to Robin, and her advocates as well – being a part of Robin’s life has, says Harriet, changed theirs. Harriet tells me that Robin feels truly validated that we have recognized her writing, and that she is now the recipient of a PEN Prison Writing Award.

I think, in turn, Robin has become part of what validates the work that CLTL has been doing for twenty years. I look forward to continued communication with Robin and the Hendels, and I am grateful to have been a small part in this chapter of the CLTL story.

 

“Laying Roots” (Part 2 of 2)

The following post is the second of a two-part entry here on the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog.

The piece, entitled “Laying Roots,” came to Changing Lives Through Literature co-founder Bob Waxler, along with a letter from author Robin Ledbetter. Robin is currently serving a fifty-year sentence at York Correctional facility in Niantic, CT and, after hearing about the CLTL program and CLCM blog, hoped to share her story with our audience.

This is the second and final installment of Robin’s memoir here on CLCM entitled “Laying Roots.”

In the years I have been in York Correctional, I have learned to appreciate my life. I learned that I am worthy of love and care, and being treated like a person. I learned that I didn’t deserve the things I endured growing up – the abuse, the neglect – from years of childhood trauma.

In that process, I’ve learned the true value of human life and with that knowledge I came to understand the devastation of my crime. It hit me like a runaway freight train, crushing me and dismantling me. It pulled apart all the work that I did when I thought of the pain I caused. I felt like I was drowning in the guilt and thought I could never forgive myself for what I did. The beginning of that realization led to my first attempt at suicide while incarcerated.

I didn’t want to live with what I did. I spent two weeks in the hospital and came right back to my cell to sit with my guilt, shame, and a need to make amends, knowing that I really couldn’t. That was in the first year of my bid – before I was even sentenced.

Four months after my eighteenth birthday I was handed down the sentence of fifty years. I sat in a courtroom and saw the father of my victim look me square in the eye and let me know just how much he hated me. I sat perfectly still, afraid even to breathe, as he told the court why I should rot in jail. I didn’t feel worthy of breath. I felt as though every molecule in my body was on fire. I felt that I deserved every harsh word he said and deserved to be in jail.

I was numb when I read the judge read the list of charges and the time attached to each. All my feelings and emotions went to my victim’s father and to keeping it together in the courtroom. I didn’t feel I was allowed the luxury of shedding a tear for myself. It would be disrespectful to the real victims; it would make a mockery of their pain. I thought they’d point an accusatory finger at me and yell: “How dare you act sorry now! How dare you care now? You’re looking for sympathy? We’re the only ones in pain here, not you! How dare you! How dare you! How dare you…”

***

“Ledbetter, Med-line on the door!” says the nurse outside that huge window. Her voice jars me from my thoughts.

I stare at her for a few seconds, blinking back the memories. Is it worth me moving to get the meds that will quiet my thoughts?

“Do you want them or not?” she says, annoyed. I can see the guard peering me at me over her shoulder. He has his clipboard in his hand and when I sit up, he writes on it, marking my progress. I saw nothing and take my time peeling the heavy blanket from my body, readjusting the heavy gown. My neck is still sore and I shuffle to the door, the trap slams open. I put my hand through the slot. The nurse places some pills in my hand and I put them in my mouth, stuck with the thought that I haven’t needed medication for a long time.

I had been off my anti-depressants for a while now, and I never agreed to get back on them – but they were a part of the routine when you enter the mental health unit: you receive the universal cocktail. I swallow the pills with a shot of water, give a mouth check, and turn my back to the door. The trap scares me when it bangs shut. I take a few steps back to my bed and reclaim my place under the blanket.

I stare up; Na-na Loves John 4-eva. I try to focus on just that but my thoughts wander again. I ruined lives and I deserve to be in jail, but as I lay on this plastic mattress in mental health, I know that I don’t deserve to spend the rest of my life here.

I am more than I ever thought I could be. I am a loving person, giving and understanding. I have learned to love both myself as well as others. I have worked hard on my rehabilitation and I have grown. I have gotten my GED and learned some skills. I have done many groups and become a role model to a lot of the younger girls. I pass on my wisdom and knowledge. I have learned to communicate, to express myself, to be an individual, a leader. I have learned so much. I have bled this place of all the resources available to a woman with my time; now, I am just stagnant.

Because of the length of my sentence, I am not permitted to take college classes. I am blocked from partaking in other programming because of my sentence. I am only good now for scrubbing down the institution and maintaining its polished floors. I am only good now to shovel out slop in the chow hall and empty the trash. They want me to sweep, mop, and window wash this jail for the next thirty-eight years and I am supposed to choose life over death?

I often ask the guards, “Do you remember what you were doing what you were fourteen years old? How has your perception of reality changed? Can you draw a graph of who you were at fourteen, at eighteen, at twenty-one, twenty-five, or thirty – and then protect yourself at sixty-four? Can you chart your growth, the lessons you have learned? Can you still laugh at something you once thought was so funny, so important, at that age, but you now know is nonsense? Would you like to wear a scarlet letter on your chest for the rest of your life for the things you did at the age of fourteen? How about a life sentence?”

They stutter; even the hardest of guards admit that it’s a mind-blowing concept. I deal with this every day, and that is why I am wearing this safety gown right now. This is why, occasionally, I cannot fathom living this life another day.

I used to feel like a flower that was found dried out and wilting, ready to die. I was repotted, watered, and cared for until I shed my old petals and bloomed into my beautiful potential. Now that I have flourished and sprouted healthy roots, I need a garden where I can continue to grow. My roots have outgrown the pot and I am slowly strangling myself. What else am I to do except to double back on myself? My growth betrays me as my beauty is wrung from me, a little more each day. I am wasting away in here. This place, this pot, can only take me so far. Don’t I deserve a chance to act upon my changes, chase my dreams, reach my goals, and live?

I exist in York Correctional, but now that I am correct, where do I go from here? Now that I have been saved from another attempt on my life, what do I do with that life? This is the last thought on my mind as I look out at the guard perched outside my window. Where do I go from here? This is my last thought as the meds kick in and I drift off to sleep. Where do I go from here?

***

It is now 2010, and it has been a little over two years since my last attempt at suicide. Since then I have grown even more. I made a promise to myself that I would never again try to end my life and take for granted the blessing God has given me. I am here for a reason. He has saved me from so many things, including myself, and now I realize that. I have earned my way into two mentoring programs. I am a facilitator in an Alternative to Violence group. I speak to at risk youth. I have a true spiritual connection with God and I live in a housing unit that is spiritually based. Some of my writing has been published, and it has given me a voice outside of here and blessed me with new and amazing friends who never let me feel sorry for myself and push me to do better things.

Just recently, the federal government passed a law stating that children under the age of eighteen cannot be sentenced to a life sentence if their crime did not result in the death of their victim. That doesn’t directly affect me, but it gives me hope. It lets me know that there are people willing to listen and give young offenders a chance at a new and rehabilitated life. It shines a light were darkness once was. I know that there is a chance at an expansion of the law and that it might apply to prisoners like me. I know that I will walk out of here once day and be the shining example that people can change. An example that, no matter what trauma someone has endured, no matter their family history or their past actions, there is no such things as a throw-away child.

I am now twenty-eight years old and I have spent the same amount of time in prison as I have out, and I have come so far. I will never stop growing. All I want is a chance to break free from the pot and lay roots in the ground.