Words Without Walls featured on Next Pittsburgh

Words Without Walls and more literacy projects helping those behind bars

 Leah Lizarondo

 April 11, 2015

 Current FeaturesNEXT Wave

“The misperception about those who are in jail—although many have done horrible things— is that that is all they are. Treating them as writers, working with them on their writing—blows away perceptions. There is sadness, regret, remorse. Women are ashamed and miss their children.”

So says Sheryl St. Germain, whose brother and son have both spent time in the prison system and is one of the leaders ofWords Without Walls. She agrees with many articles that seek to break pop culture perceptions and the stigma of incarceration. “Imagine the worst thing you ever did in your life and you get caught and put in prison—that is the thing you will be remembered for all of your life.”

Words Without Walls is one of three Pittsburgh projects that humanizes those who are incarcerated through art and words. The project from Chatham University teaches creative writing inside the Allegheny County Jail, State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children.

“I saw women and men who previously identified as inmates or addicts—we begin to treat them as writers and they begin to tell stories,” says St. Germain.

Chatham University graduate students teach the Words Without Walls program and St. Germain says the program also transforms the teachers. “I watch the students go into the jail, some of them afraid—and see how dedicated they become. I see them bloom as teachers in ways they may not have. Some of them, after graduating, have started programs themselves in New Orleans and North Carolina.”

The group has published an anthology of the same name with work from writers and inmates that reflects on addiction, violence and incarceration.

Book ‘Em

Another Pittsburgh project works with the written word in a different way. Book ‘Em, a project of the Thomas Merton Center, sends books to prisoners throughout the United States. The all-volunteer group that has been working for over a decade sent almost 2,000 books to inmates last year. The group meets for two hours on the first three Sundays of the month at the basement of the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield and responds to inmates’ requests.

The letters from prisoners are a window into our shared humanity.

One inmate writes a request: “I was just recently introduced to your organization after being in here for over a decade. I’m currently in solitary confinement for a year and desire reading material. My friend seemed to have a lot of the Penguin Classic Series and I started to read some and was struck by authors of the Age of Reason and metaphysics such as Voltaire and Rousseau and Goethe and Hume. If you have any of those authors, or Francis Bacon, George Berkeley, Thomas Aquinas, Plutarch or Tacitus, I would appreciate it.”

And another, a note of gratitude. “Thank you for your important help. This is the 17th year I’ve been at the penitentiary. Were it not for books I’m pretty sure I’d be hopelessly insane or dead.”

Art Behind Bars

A third project, from Duquesne University is Art Behind Bars—an exhibit of 20 pieces of multimedia work by inmates from State Correctional Institute Pittsburgh.

Dr. Norman Conti, associate professor of sociology and Dr. Elaine Parsons, associate professor of history, lead the project. Both developed The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program—a program that holds classes inside jails and prisons, with class members that include Duquesne students (outside) and those who are incarcerated (inside).

Through this work, Parsons discovered that many of the incarcerated men expressed themselves through art. “It is too easy for us to forget that there are many incarcerated people who are our neighbors,” Parsons says. “They are physically walled off from us. But taking the time to look at their art helps us to remember them and ways in which we are connected to them.”

Art Behind Bars opened yesterday and runs until April 30 at the Les Idees Gallery in the Duquesne Union.

 

Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Incarceration and Violence Book Launch on WESA

Essential Pittsburgh: Words Without Walls Teaches Creative Writing to Inmates 

By ESSENTIAL PITTSBURGH  MAR 24, 2015 

Words Without Walls is a program at Chatham University teaching creative writing to residents of Pittsburgh-area correctional facilities and drug treatment centers.The instructors are students in Chatham’s MFA program in Creative Writing. Joining us in Studio A to discuss the program and a special book launch taking place this Friday are  MFA Program Director and Author, Sheryl St. Germain and Jonny Blevins, a student and instructor in the program.

Explaining her ambitions for the program, St. Germain says:

"It was not just the idea that we thought we could help people tell their own stories, and that would heal. Obviously that was really important, but it was also important for me as a director to get students from our program working with alternative populations. ... It's a way to get students to interact with members of the community."

You can listen to the interview here: http://wesa.fm/post/essential-pittsburgh-words-without-walls-teaches-creative-writing-inmates

Public Source, "Jailhouse poets find voice in writing course"

Few inmate education programs in Pennsylvania

By Jeffrey Benzing, Public Source

Brother Umar wears ketchup-colored jail garb. He’s been locked up for 14 months, but his words earn him snaps as if he’s at a hipster coffee shop.

“For good Abel can’t help but to sacrifice his life to this ‘caine that’s so fatal,” he recites, part preacher, part emcee. Then, conversationally: “That’s Cain and Abel.”

Umar, whose real name is Chris Westbrooks Jr., is in the Allegheny County Jail awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault in connection with a 2013 shooting in Duquesne.

Today, though, is like a graduation. It’s the final meeting of inmates in the Words Without Walls program, a weekly course taught by Chatham University graduate students.

His fellow inmates hold pages of their own poems and stories written over the summer. They are reminiscences and laments. Some are humorous, others raw. Some dig into the mistakes and addictions that put them here in the first place.

Every school term, a handful of the jail’s male and female inmates attend a weekly three-hour class on creative writing, which concludes in a final reading that brings the groups together. 

Through the program, they learn to channel feelings like anger and loss into something constructive, one of the program’s main goals.

“Instead of going out on the housing pod and knocking heads, we’ve had guys that’ll go back to their pods or back to their unit and start to write,” said Jack Pischke, the jail’s inmate program administrator.

...read the entire story at Public Source here.

City Paper, An interview with novelist Sarah Shotland

Debut novel Junkette depicts addiction in New Orleans

By Bill O'Driscoll

Sarah Shotland's striking debut novel, Junkette (White Gorilla Press), is an alternately lyrical and matter-of-fact account of a few months in the life of college-graduate junkie Claire, a twentysomething bartender in pre-Katrina New Orleans. In chapter 1, Claire says she's splitting for Boulder, Colo. But she can't bring herself to leave, and over 168 pages of episodic first-person narration, she deals with scoring, her job, her boyfriend and various characters in her neighborhood's heroin demimonde.

Shotland, a Dallas native, is a widely produced playwright who's also taught English in China. She now teaches in Chatham University's graduate writing program and at Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She is co-founder and director of Words Without Walls, a local nonprofit that holds creative-writing classes for some 350 students in prisons, jails and rehab centers. "The possibilities of who you can teach writing to are pretty endless," she says.

Shotland lives in Friendship. She recently spoke with CP.

How does your writing relate to your Words Without Walls work?

I'm definitely as a writer and as a person interested in disaster, and how people deal with disaster in different ways, especially the disasters that happen on the weather of your insides. Definitely the content of Junkette ... would be similar to what a lot of my students at Sojourner House especially — because it's all women addicts — are writing about. And that was really interesting working in that environment while I was editing the book. Because it kind of made me realize how universal the experience is of being isolated, of feeling out of control. And also of feeling that you really love the people that you're around when you're in an addiction. Sort of like clinging to them.

Claire inhabits a very circumscribed world.

She loses the ability to see new things. She loses the ability to travel. That's really her lack of freedom. She can't leave this two-block radius. Even though through the whole book, she's saying, "I want to go to Colorado."

Why does the book's layout leave horizontal gaps between every paragraph?

On one hand, I think the sort of fractured paragraphing is just the way that addicts think. And maybe more than just addicts! We're all always thinking of a couple different things at the same time.

What about how the book toggles between procedural passages — the how-tos of getting a fix —and lyrical ones?

I think I intentionally do that. I think for better, for worse as a woman writer, I sort of carry the fear that people will criticize my work for being somehow too lyrical, or hiding behind lyricism. And one of the things that was a big challenge for me in revisions of this book was cutting through that, and really saying it straight. Saying it to the point. And a lot of the things that a lot of these characters are dealing with are striking enough on their own, just to say them.

...read the entire interview with the City Paper here.

Pittsburgh Magazine, "The Write Way"

Life in prison doesn’t exactly inspire creativity or story-drafting. Fortunately, Sarah Shotland came up with Words Without Walls, which teaches inmates how to perfect their writing.

By Robert Isenberg

Photo by Martha Rial

Photo by Martha Rial

Sarah Shotland casts a wide net. Originally from Texas, she’s a produced playwright, a published writer and a veteran instructor. Shotland has an apartment in Friendship, but she’s lived in such varied places as New Orleans, Spain and China. She recently earned her MFA in writing at Chatham University, and an agent is shopping her novel to publishers.

Meanwhile, Shotland is program coordinator for Words Without Walls, a free writing workshop for the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail. Shotland helped create the initiative and has taught classes since day one.

 

Q&A

How did the idea come about to teach writing at the Allegheny County Jail? 
I worked for a dropout recovery high school in Austin, Texas. I did a theater program with them, and had the best time working with the kids. When I got to Chatham, I definitely wanted to do more of that work — but I also wanted to reach out to those kids as they became adults. I knew that Sheryl [St. Germain, director of the Chatham MFA program,] had wanted to do a program like this. She had taught in a prison, and I knew she would be sympathetic to that idea. It was just serendipitous. They had a program at the jail that was ending. They wanted to continue it, and we were right there to pick it up.

How has this experience affected you?  
First and foremost, as a writer. I get to hear great stories. That’s a selfish reason, but I’m always looking for a great story and great voices to mimic. And every person has at least one great story: how he or she got there. I get a lot of inspiration. But I also get to see how something I love can impact people. It’s a very concrete way to make art intersect with the community. It’s great to get published and have an audience, but none of us wanted to become writers because we thought it was a way to make a living; it’s because we got some personal satisfaction, at [age] 9 or 10, writing in our rooms.

...read the entire interview with Pittsburgh Magazine here.

City Paper, "Serving Sentences"

A writing program opens up new possibilities behind bars

By Abby Mendelson

It's 8:30 on a Friday morning, in a 12-by-12-foot cinder-block room in the basement of the Allegheny County Jail. And Theo is here to testify.

Sarah Shotland has just asked him and the other 14 men here if they have anything they want to share. Theo (not his real name) certainly does. He's a drug dealer, Theo says, and he's angry about it. Angry because when he leaves County, he's still going to be a drug dealer. Angry because he wants to provide for his family and doesn't know any other way to do it. Angry because he misses his kids — and because he's afraid that they'll do the same things he did, and end up here too.

The other men, all dressed in red scrubs and sitting in a circle, murmur assent.

"That's so real," one says. The others nod.

Shotland seizes the moment: "Who else is a dad?"

All 14 hands go up.

...continue reading "Serving Sentences" in the City Paper here.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Local inmate takes second place in PEN American Center's Prison Writing Contest"

She participated in the creative writing course led by students from Chatham University

By Jacqueline Feldman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Chatham University program to foster creative expression at the Allegheny County Jail has discovered a talented writer.

In March, inmate Lynne Schaffer-Agnew of Shadyside received second place in the fiction category of the PEN American Center's Prison Writing Contest for her short story "Sabrina," about an inmate who dies of heroin withdrawal.

Ms. Schaffer-Agnew, who was recently transferred to Cambridge Springs women's prison, is serving a nine-to-20-year sentence for aggravated assault and attempted homicide of her husband.

For eight weeks of her sentence at the Allegheny County Jail, she participated in a creative writing course led by students in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Chatham. 

"She's one of the most talented writers I've come across," said Sarah Shotland, one of Ms. Schaffer-Agnew's teachers, a Chatham MFA student and the graduate coordinator for the program, Words Without Walls.

Homewood fiction writer Sandra Gould Ford started the program, teaching writing at the jail for five years before retiring to leave Words Without Walls with Ms. Shotland and her classmates last spring. The MFA students took it on feeling there should be more to their degree than "art for art's sake."

...read the entire article at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "At Allegheny County Jail, creative writing classes release pain, channel rage"

Freedom in the words

By Dante Anthony Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Photo by Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette

Photo by Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette

Jason Toombs' hands steady the papers he's clutching. His name is called -- on this day, an invitation, rather than the more typical order.

He shuffles to a microphone in front of his teachers, his comrades -- and others monitoring the room. He breathes deeply. His voice shakes. But when Mr. Toombs reads aloud from two pieces he's written -- recounting grim realizations from his time in the courthouse "bull pen" -- he finds a rhythm.

"Obviously I'm fighting the system, but who am I really fighting?" Mr. Toombs, 30, said, his voice reaching a crescendo. "I was trapped in what I ignorantly built. Now I'm on the outside wondering, 'How in the hell am I going to tear this thing down?' "

The room applauds. As he smiles, Mr. Toombs appears to recognize -- despite a rap sheet for serious crimes dating back to his teens, and his current incarceration on pending charges of robbery, drugs and aggravated assault -- that he still has the freedom to tell a story. It's a recognition shared by the students around him, uniting them beyond the identical red scrub suits they wear.

At their "final reading" last month, these inmates at the Allegheny County Jail presented polished writing samples produced in the nonfiction class they've completed -- minutes before guards escorted them back to their cells.

Candidates from Chatham University's master of fine arts program in creative writing started teaching two gender-separated writing classes for inmates this summer in a collaboration both sides intend to continue. The eight-week nonfiction class -- in which some students eventually wrote poetry and fiction as well -- met for three hours once a week, with as many as 15 men and 15 women attending per week.

"When I decided to go back to school for a creative, artistic pursuit, I felt conflicted about it," said Sarah Shotland, 28, an MFA student specializing in fiction writing.

Creating "art for art's sake" often can be isolating and selfish, she said, and she was interested in working with groups of "under-represented," or disadvantaged people.

So when Sheryl St. Germain, the director of Chatham's MFA program in creative writing, mentioned in a meeting that she once taught creative writing at a women's prison, Ms. Shotland was inspired to get involved with a similar program.

She initially approached halfway houses and mental health facilities, but she and others from Chatham sought to collaborate with the county jail after learning it already offered creative writing courses.

...read the entire story at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.