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. 


Illness in the System

photo by Valery Titievsky on Flickr
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.  


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Juvenile vs. Adult Corrections: How Do They Stack Up?



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.


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Success and Failure in the CLTL Classroom

photo by faungg on Flickr

Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.

In Changing Lives Through Literature, the difference between success and failure ought to be perfectly clear. By definition, success means changing your life, certainly not one of life’s easier tasks. Or, in slightly more practical terms, it means students who, having opened themselves wider to possibility and tasted the fruits of open communication, are ready to go out into the world with new hope and self-esteem and to live their own lives more efficaciously – insofar as that is possible in the world given to them.


In the Dorchester Men’s program, an important theme is manhood lost and manhood found, as mirrored in the weekly readings, the writing, and the discussion. Early on we discover parallels between the readings and our own lives, and so the characters we read about become exemplary or cautionary, or, simply, another angle of understanding. This is the process by which our students, and we ourselves, move toward success or failure.


By these standards, academic “success” is not about getting straight A’s, but is about recognizing and doing what we can to heal our own and one another’s wounds. There are moments, at least, when we practice the blessing of acting, no longer out of isolated ego, but out of the community we create, however tentatively and briefly, in the short life of the class.


We all know, at least tacitly, that what we have here is a rare chance to enter discourse on virtue and values. Such an opportunity to reflect, and to experience community and trust, doesn’t come readily in the streets. If some of our graduates who must return there want to sustain the values they’ve learned in the class, they may have to create them from scratch – which, incidentally, is also what our readings from Frederick Douglass and others illustrate.


In practical terms, the quest for change is much messier than I’ve described because it’s complicated by the actual day-to-day problem of the situations that our students fall into or create.


Read about some of the successes and failures Bert witnessed by checking out the full essay on the Changing Lives Through Literature website. 

Want to read more about the delicate balance between success and failure in the CLTL program?

Read CLTL Co-Director Jean Trounstine’s essay.
Read CLTL Co-Director Robert Waxler’s essay.

CLCM Monthly Reader: November

Once a month, we feature relevant news, articles, and links about issues concerning criminal justice, incarceration alternatives, and the influence of literature on our lives. Click on the red text to open the site in a new window.

Check out our links below and give us your take on one or more of the issues they address. Have you read or watched something (a book, newspaper article, website, news clip, etc.) interesting lately? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Justice Transition CoalitionSmart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress

On November 6, the 2009 Justice Transition Coalition released its recommendations for the Obama administration and members of Congress. From their site: 

After the 2008 elections, America’s policymakers will take a fresh look at the criminal justice system, which so desperately needs their attention. To assist with that review, leaders and experts from all aspects of the criminal justice community spent months collaboratively identifying key issues and gathering policy advice into one comprehensive set of recommendations for the new administration and Congress. This catalogue is the fruit of those labors.

The report calls for reform in fifteen key justice-related areas. Take a look at their recommendations for expanding alternatives to incarceration in federal sentencing guidelines and suggestions for juvenile justice reform.  




photo by David Levene for The GuardianShafts of Sunlight

In this article from the November 15th edition of The Guardian, Jeanne Winterson talks about the consoling power of poetry as a T.S. Eliot festival opens in London 

From her article: 

[When] people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is….Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain.

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Youth Uprising’s Poetry and Prison Project

picture-1Youth Uprising‘s Poetry and Prison Project is a youth-led citizen journalism effort that uses poetry to speak about the effects of mass incarceration on young people in urban America. The project’s multimedia study, Poetry and Prison features videos of program participants reading their original poems and discussing how writing poetry impacts their lives. 

One of the program participants, poet and researcher Alberto Perez, is interested in exploring the interactions between poetry and prison. In this short clip (2:45) Perez discusses how writing poetry gives those impacted by incarceration a link with humanity and a positive vehicle for the emotions they experience.


Perez has also written about the intersections between prison and poetry. In his essay “Poetry: A Means for Prisoners to Maintain a Hold of their Humanity” (published in the Spring 2008 edition of The Berkeley McNair Research Journal), Perez explains that individuals who enter the prison system undergo a “hardening” process whereby they learn to withhold their emotions. Writing poetry gives these emotions a safe outlet. As Perez insists, “Convicts who write poetry find that it enables them to privately connect with feelings that they must openly negate.”

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