In 2005, Sandra Gould Ford received a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation to teach creative writing at the Allegheny County Jail. During her tenure there, she published three anthologies of student writing and taught hundreds of incarcerated writers.  Her impact on the lives of those students is legendary.  Listen to Sandra’s TED talk to hear more about her work at Allegheny County Jail. To honor Sandra’s legacy, each year we offer the Sandra Gould Ford Prize to a student who has shown tremendous promise and leadership in the classroom.

In 2009, Sandra ushered in Chatham University students to continue her work at the jail, and Words Without Walls was born under the leadership of Sheryl St. Germain, who directs the MFA program at Chatham University. Sarah Shotland, program co-founder, organized Chatham students to begin developing a curriculum that they could bring to the jail, and their first course began in the summer of 2009.

Since Chatham students began teaching at the facility, the program has steadily grown as we’ve added more courses at the jail, expanded to serve Sojourner House and SCI Pittsburgh, and launched the Maenad Fellowship Program.

Since 2009, over 3000 people have been served by Words Without Walls. Almost 70 MFA students have taught in the program, and we’ve brought dozens of visiting writers to Pittsburgh to engage with our students in and outside the walls of the facilities we serve. We’ve published dozens of chapbooks and anthologies, and our writers have gotten recognition by winning four PEN America Prison Writing awards. You can read their powerful work HERE.

In order to do this work, we’ve received a lot of help along the way.  Generous funding has been provided by The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Foundation, Staunton Farm Foundation, the A.W. Mellon Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Along with foundations, we’ve had many generous private donors who have supported our work and the students who make the work worthwhile.

Foundations and funders are important to the work we do, but at the heart of our program are the writers and volunteers who keep fresh ink on the page and fresh ideas coming to the classroom. Our teachers show up even when facilities are locked down; our students write in the most difficult of circumstances; and our partners do all the invisible work that allows us to keep coming back.  With a big team, we hope to continue bringing voices from the inside, out.