Books on the Shelves


Some weeks I assist Alex Friedman with the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) library. There was no library until Alex, education director Jack Pischke, and other Chatham alums worked with jail administrators to make it happen. The library is a medium-sized store room at the back of an adult classroom in the education area. The door remains locked unless Alex or I grab Jack’s keys, an old-timey set on a big metal loop—the kind Andy Griffith carried.

As for the books on the actual shelves, they are all donations from libraries, Chatham alums, current Chatham students, and eager cults looking to drop off their book-length pamphlets. There, of course, are rules for what materials we can bring into the jail. No hardbacks. No books with excessive pencil notes in the margins. Nothing spiral-bound. But we’ve acquired a wild assortment: vampire romance novels, baroque romance novels, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, werewolf romance novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald…

Most Mondays, Alex, two other library-science grad students, and I organize shelves. We’ve acquired enough books at this point to give books away to inmates on every floor of the jail. And that’s what we do each month. Alex and I pack clear Rubbermaid bins full of paperbacks, stack them on a hand truck, and deliver them to male and female pods on each floor. I wish people on the outside could see the glint in inmates’ eyes when we deliver books. It is a glint I have rarely seen even in grad students’ eyes. At some pods, the guys pace around the doors when they see us coming. “What y’all got in there?” “Got any James Patterson?” “Can I look through the bin first?” We dropped off books at one women’s pod. Alex and I were surprised they already had a bookshelf, a bookshelf filled with Bibles. The women asked, “Could you please take some Bibles down, so we can put other books on the shelves?”

According to, over 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth-grade level. Many inmates in jail and prison are at an educational disadvantage, but these women and men crave books. Many want to use their time locked up to improve themselves. They read biographies, graphic novels, literary fiction, “urban” fiction. They are voracious for knowledge because knowledge is power. That is not just a cliché. Inmates need words because words help them prepare for court. Words help them self-advocate as they grind through the gears of the justice system. Words help them write letters to a loved one. As grad students, we have so many books to read, we often take it for granted. We complain, “How am I going to get through this stack of books?” We don’t think of the woman or man in jail who just wants a good mystery to take their mind off a life sentence, and a book is nowhere in sight. It is a privilege to know how to read, to have ready access to books, to have the freedom to read whatever you choose.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

Women's Voices, Women Writers

I’ve found myself in a unique experience this semester at Allegheny County Jail. I’m a man teaching a class of only women by myself. But I’m glad for it. It’s given me a chance to work on my approach to teaching and look introspectively at my own identity. My class is titled Writing as Empowerment: Women’s Voices for Women Writers. We’re only reading published pieces written by women and I try to let them dictate the conversation as much as possible. I do as much as I can to be in the background, to let their voices to come forward.

They’re happy to dictate and discuss. Our first class, focused on poems about home, still stands out to me. It was an intense class and my students were already willing to share so much of themselves and their work. However, I still worried about being overly authoritative. I felt like a huge looming presence in the room.

When we got to reading for the day, my students couldn’t stop talking about “Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich. They were looking deeply into the relationships in the piece. In the latter half of the poem, a milkman appears and my students were trying to puzzle out what his presence meant. One student, bright but quiet, piped up suddenly:

“I think she’s screwing the milkman!”

And without hesitation, we all burst into laughter. In that moment, I felt the illusion of my authority fall away. My students started to speak and act differently; for the first time the room felt comfortable. Since then, I’ve noticed a huge shift in the classroom. Through that shared experience of crude humor, my students are more willing to offer up opinions and ask for things.

Their asking has been a huge delight this semester. They are so hungry for knowledge and challenges. One student requested pictures of poisonous flowers so she could write a poem about an ex-lover. Another student wanted to learn about epigraphs in poems. Still another is in the process of writing an Ars Poetica. It’s important to note that none of these are classroom assignments, these are all tasks they have undertaken themselves.

These women are also incredibly generous listeners. They encourage one another to read aloud and then clap or snap after every reading. They encourage me to write and read with them. My classroom has become a place of intense generosity, rigor and safety. This is all because of my excellent students.

-Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher

A Dream, Deferred

“What happens to a dream, deferred?”

 That’s the question Langston Hughes poses in “Harlem,” the poem we read and emulated today in the Monday juvenile class.  But before we discussed Hughes, or Harlem, or dreams, we jumped right into sharing.  I’d say 7 out of the 16 kids sang at least a hook or a verse, all of it memorized.   Some of the melodies were really catchy, too, and went perfectly with the hooks.

One of our students is leaving tomorrow, and he led off sharing.  There is such mixed emotion with arrival and departure, in this place.  Going anywhere else, whether it’s upstate or home, means a much less stressful environment, but it also tends to be much harsher.  It was so nice to be able to say goodbye to him.  I still have the hook from his performance from last year in my head sometimes, it was that good.

After sharing, we talked about dreams (real dreams), goals, and their intersections.  This lead into close reading “Harlem,” and how he utilizes the five senses.

I created a fill in the blank poem and the kids jumped right into making their own comparisons: “Does it smell moldy like wet paper?”  “Does it float around like a plastic water bottle.”  I asked them to memorize their poems for next week. I’m really excited to see what they come up with! 

I found a really cool teaching source in pedagogy that paired hip-hop songs with poetry called Hip-Hop Poetry and The Classics For The Classroom.  My favorite was so far is a worksheet for “Harlem” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” We didn’t have time to look at both in a week, so I think we’ll listen to Biggie next week, and write to the prompt: “It was all a dream…”

To be honest, when this class goes well, it makes my whole week brighter.  These kids are so talented and I am honored that they even listen to my advice about hooks and rhymes (and anything, really).  I think I should probably read up some more on songwriting, in general, because these kids are going to run circles around me.

Thanks for reading. 

Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teacher






Summer Communities

It was only after our six-week-long summer semester that I really stopped to think about what our classes accomplished in such a short period of time.  We were lucky to have a lot of experienced poets, and a few students who had taken the class previously.  But a good portion of our students were first time writers, and many of them had no clue what the class would even be until they arrived on the first (or second, or third) week of class.  

In only six weeks we submitted to a literary journal, wrote collective stories, read and discussed dozens of poems and short stories, and even created our own chapbook.  Then, we gathered as a group to share our writing at the final reading.

We had funny lull between the last week of class and the reading, because all of us teachers were enrolled in an intensive 10-day writing residency at Chatham's Eden Hall campus.  In those ten days we as teachers had a chance to reflect, both individually and collectively, on how our classes went.  That's when we began to realize that our summer program at ACJ was really a writing residency of its own, and given the variety of skill level and experience from our group, we couldn't say enough about what they accomplished.  

We returned to the final reading to watch our students reaffirm our conclusions.  Almost every student stood up in that microphone and shared a piece they had written.  They spoke with the same pride and enthusiasm that fueled their hard work throughout the summer.  It was so rewarding to see my students transform their shy reluctance into a genuine eagerness to celebrate their writing.

Some of my students were released during the semester.  Others are sure they'll be sent elsewhere by the fall.  But many of them were excited to start up again in the fall, and I must say I couldn't be more enthusiastic in preparation for my second year teaching.  I'm looking forward to sharing my reflections, here, and to writing more about teaching at ACJ in creative work.

We've got lots of exciting things in the works for Words Without Walls tenth year of service!

Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teacher

The Magic Word

 For the first few weeks of our Friday Men’s class, Mike and I struggled to engage our students. While many were interested in writing and sharing their work, we had trouble getting discussion focused and cutting down on side chatter. Frustrations around what had happened in the jail that week often percolated through the class, derailing discussions. Each week, we tried to bring in readings that would inspire the class—with mixed results. And then, we discovered the magic word: volunteer.

It came up as the guys asked us some logistical questions. We said, we don’t work for the jail,
we’re just student volunteers. The attitude in the room shifted. “You guys aren’t getting paid?”
one of the students asked. Many seemed surprised to learn we were here not because someone
was paying us to be, but because we wanted to be. More importantly, we weren’t a direct part of the system they were frustrated with. “What do you guys get out this then?” one of the students asked.

What do we get out of going to teach in an environment like the jail each week? And, the
question I get asked so often when I tell friends and family about the program—what do the
inmates get out of it?

I’m sure that it varies for each one of us who decides to participate in Words without Walls. If
nothing else, it’s teaching experience, a valuable thing to have on our resumes. For me, I enrolled at Chatham at the end of two years of AmeriCorps service. I didn’t want to lose my connection to community work, so when I saw that I could teach creative writing in jail, I said “sign me up!”

Of course, what we got in our class was something much different and much more than I
anticipated. On the first day, some of the guys rapped what they’d written during freewriting exercises. Over the course of our six weeks together, one student shared his memoir with me. One of the shier, quieter students wrote about the experience of being locked in his cell during count.

Each student brought something different to the class, and on the day we owned up to being unpaid, we really got to see the men at their best. It is these moments that draw me and other teachers to this program, moments when we forget where we are and focus on genuine human connection through the written word.

What the inmates get out of it is sometimes harder to see. It comes back to the belief that writing is worthwhile in its own right—it’s a chance to express themselves, to be heard. A chance to better their skills as writers in a space where they’re seen as people, not prisoners. And maybe, just maybe, that certificate of completion will add something worthwhile when their case goes before a judge.

Amanda Kay Oaks, Words Without Walls Teacher