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
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.
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.