When It Matters Most

Teaching in the Allegheny County Jail this semester has been a whirlwind of challenges, surprises, and emotions, but has been above all things, humbling. There is so much I want “the outside” to understand about life within the ACJ but so far, I have not yet found the right words to effectively convey my experiences there. Which is ironic, of course, because words are what it’s all about.

As a writer, I’ve always had a love for words and believed in their power. But never before have I been able to see the power of words so directly as when I’m inside the Allegheny County Jail, surrounded by women who are swathed in red, huddled to and fro and counted like sheep every few minutes, women who’ve been locked away, who’ve faced hardships I can’t imagine, women who are often mothers, separated from their growing babies.

Sometimes I look around the room and I look at these women, young women, old women, white women, black women, women of all backgrounds and shapes and religions and levels of education, and I count the ways in which we are different, marveling at the fact that once pens are in hand all of those differences never seem to matter.

We simply become women with words. Words to share, words to write, words to exchange with one another. Whether the words we love are Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer or Jennifer Egan or Maya Angelou, we are women who sustain ourselves with words, who need words to survive.

This is the lesson I re-learn each week. Writing matters most when it matters most.

While technique and craft certainly do matter, I believe it is equally important not to forget the power that raw writing has, and the purpose it serves as a medium for healing, for making sense of our world and the things that happen to us. The reason we were all drawn to writing in the first place. And it is easy to forget.

But I am lucky enough to be reminded every week. The process of entering the Allegheny County Jail requires leaving everything (car keys, cell phones, jackets, umbrellas) behind, and every week I enter the jail I am slowly stripped away until there’s nothing left but pen, paper, and my own body. I tunnel further underground through a series of locked doors, guards, and people in red who look up at the clink of my heels and the badge at my waist, and I can feel the sun, the bitter wind, the stories I have due next week, the part of my thesis I’m stuck on, everything about my life “above ground” on the “outside” disappear.

Every week I sit in a room listening to the sounds of the jail, the echo of boots, the rattle of keys, the annoyingly frequent intercom messages, officers calling out pods and asking for cell numbers, and I wait until I see familiar faces. Women who, despite everything, manage to come in with smiles, to laugh with one another, to write happy – which is so hard to do.

I went into this experience trying to harden my stomach, assuming I would have to beef up my nonchalance towards graphic violence, language, or sex. I wanted the women to feel comfortable to write about anything they wanted and I wanted them not to worry about offending me.

But overall the women are much more mild in this regard that I thought. These are women in jail, I remember thinking, nothing I can say or do will shock them, they’ll want to write graphically, shock me. But that’s simply not the case. Many women do not swear, are uncomfortable when somebody else does. Many women sigh when someone reads an emotionally intense piece, say, I don’t want to listen to more sad things.

But despite all the surprises, the challenges, the amount of time it takes to simply get inside the jail, I am continually humbled by the small details of life inside ACJ. Yesterday, I listened to a student explain how she makes Christmas ornaments in jail: a two day procedure involving paper mache-ing toilet paper around a tampon and using Kool Aid to dye it red.

Another student sighed and said how she wished they could get a US Weekly magazine or People magazine from October. All the magazines are from August still.

Another student mentioned how badly she felt having to ask her family or people on the “outside” to do something as simple as calling the insurance company, since they’re not allowed to use the jail phones for calls that require a “touch dial” function.

Yesterday, a beautiful student in her early twenties wrote about the happiest day of her life. Like many women, it was the birth of her first child. But since she was incarcerated at the time, the story of her son’s birth involves being handcuffed to the hospital bed and going through the days of labor completely alone. And even still, this woman is able to call, what could easily be deemed a traumatic experience, the happiest day of her life.

It is this resilience that I find so inspiring, that I wish more people on the “outside” could understand. Here’s hoping that through the hard work of programs like Words Without Walls, the stories of America’s men and women behind bars can someday reach the “outside.”

-Hayley Notter, Teacher