words without walls

about the program

[Overview] [History] [Programs] [Publishing] [Who We Are]


Words Without Walls is a creative partnership between graduate students from Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). Students from Chatham teach creative writing courses to male and female inmates at ACJ, organize readings of their work, facilitate community workshops after their release, and publish their work in an annual anthology.

Words Without Walls gives students permission to create, a supportive and positive community, and a reading audience. By providing an atmosphere for creative growth and nurturing student work, Words Without Walls empowers students to express themselves on the page. Community workshops facilitated by members of the Chatham community allow students to continue a writing practice after their release, and the publication of the annual Words Without Walls Anthology allows writers to be recognized as published authors with an audience.

We believe that the exposure to contemporary writers and the nurturing of the participants’ own writing leads to an increased sense of self-worth, gives them a healthy outlet for their emotions, and prepares them for a more meaningful life outside of the jail. We believe that the skills of creative writing, which include, but are not limited to the ability to be honest and intimate with oneself and others; the ability to craft and imagine both current realities and new futures; and the development of a confident, mature voice, are crucial skills for those who are incarcerated as well as those who may be released from prison into a less-than-perfect world.

We are inspired by the passion, intelligence and talent of many of the inmates with whom we have worked; this program has the primary goal to help them make their writings better, and to help make the best of their writings available for others via print and web publication.
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Words Without Walls is an outgrowth of a five-year creative writing program created by writer and publisher Sandra Gould-Ford in 2005. For five years, Sandra passionately inspired her students at ACJ to write and published their work in anthologies including Dawn and Phoenix Rising.

In Spring 2010, students from Chatham began visiting Sandra’s classes, meeting students and engaging with their work. In April 2010, students attended the inmates’ poetry slam, serving as judges for the event.

In June 2010, Words Without Walls taught its first two classes in tandem with two classes taught by Sandra. The four classes supported over 60 student writers at the ACJ. The classes focused on Creative Non-Fiction and culminated in a semi-public reading open to members of the Pittsburgh press, Chatham community, and ACJ staff. The event was covered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and student work was published on the paper’s website.

Sandra’s residency at ACJ ended in July 2010, and in the fall of that year, Chatham students took over the Words Without Walls program, teaching two courses. Inspired by the motivation and dedication of former students to continue their writing practice after release, we also began holding the VOICE CATCH community writing workshop on Chatham’s campus twice a month. These workshops provide ongoing community support and creative engagement for students dedicated to furthering their writing lives.

In October 2010, we also began an initiative to bring contemporary writers into the jail for lecture and discussion. Award-winning memoirist Mary Karr visited ACJ and gave a moving talk regarding her writing life and process. Since then, writers Terrance Hayes and Toi Derricote have visited the program, inspiring students and sharing their experiences and work.

We continue to teach a men’s and a women’s class at ACJ, and have plans to expand classes in order to meet a growing demand. The VOICE CATCH workshop has grown to include Pittsburgh writers, MFA students and committed Words Without Walls graduates. Our first two Words Without Walls publications are available for purchase now!

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ACJ Creative Writing Classes

Our creative writing classes are 9-weeks long and include a final reading where students present their best work to an audience of their peers and selected guests from the community. Classes meet once a week, for three hours. Classes include readings from contemporary writers, in-class writing prompts, craft lectures and discussion, and group workshops.

While classes sometimes focus on a specific genre, students are encouraged to write what comes naturally and to respond to contemporary work that speaks to them. In this sense, every Words Without Walls class is a multi-genre course. Our students have worked in the genres of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, flash and memoir. The graduate students who teach have a wide range of knowledge and can respond to and instruct students on a variety of genres.

Professors from Chatham University also visit classes, lecturing on their areas of expertise. Poet and memoirist Dr. Sheryl St. Germain, screenwriter Marc Nieson, and poet Dr. Heather McNaugher have impacted the writing lives of Words Without Walls students through their generous teaching support.

Voice Catch

After release, Words Without Walls students are invited to participate in a twice-monthly community writing group. Open to all members of the Pittsburgh writing community including current students, alumni, published authors and faculty, VOICE CATCH provides a supportive writing community to new writers as well as old. Writers are encouraged to bring the material they are currently working on to share with others. Workshop facilitators are current MFA students and alumni, and bring writing prompts to generate new work and spark discussion. VOICE CATCH allows Words Without Walls students to share their writing with new readers, build new healthy relationships, and nurture their writing process. VOICE CATCH meets the 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month, from 10 AM- 12 PM, at Lindsay House on Chatham’s campus.

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The Sandra Gould Ford Prize

The Sandra Gould Ford Prize is offered annually to the writer whose work the Words Without Walls teachers and Words Without Walls Board judge to be most worthy of publication. The award includes publication the writer’s work in a special section of the Words Without Walls annual anthology. The awardee has input into the selection and design process, with the final editing and design decisions made by the Words Without Walls teachers.

The award is announced in February each year, and books are published by April of that year. The writer receives 10 copies of the anthology, which are also available for purchase to the public.

This year’s Sandra Gould Ford Prize nominees are: Joe Garfield, Terra Lynn and Samantha Woods. 2011 nominees were: William Arrington, Denaun McFadden and Lynne Agnew. The 2011 winner was Lynne Agnew. Lynne’s chapbook, Flying Squirrel & Other Stories is available for purchase. Denaun and William’s work is featured in the annual anthology.

Words Without Walls Annual Anthology

Each year, the Words Without Walls teachers select the best pieces of student writing for publication in an anthology. The anthology is published each April, and work is selected from classes held the previous Summer, Fall, and Spring. The 2011 anthology, Look Here, is available for purchase.

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Who We Are

Teachers 2012:

Sarah Shotland, Faculty Coordinator
Jessica Kinnison, Student Coordinator
Leslie Condor
Leah Brennan
Christina Deka
Kelly Lynn Thomas
Ian Riggins
Lindsey Scherloum
Maryann Ullmann
Vincent Rendoni
Jessica Server
Alecia Dean

Current Teachers Fall 2014:

Sarah Shotland
Jenny Ashburn
Hayley Notter
Cody Leutgens
Jamie Wyatt
Jonny Blevins

Current Teachers Spring 2014:

Jenny Ashburn
Alysa Landry
Cody Leutgens
Sean Lawlor
Siobhan Lyons
Jonny Blevins

Words Without Walls is guided with the support of our generous and talented Board of Directors.

Board Members:

Jayne Adair
Jan Beatty
Toi Derricotte
Sherrie Flick
Sandra Gould-Ford
Yona Harvey
Terrance Hayes
Lauria Mansell Reich
Jack Pischke
Sheryl St.Germain
Margaret Whitford
Teake Zudema

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[Overview] [History] [Programs] [Publishing] [Who We Are]