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 ProgramAllegheny County Jail (ACJ), State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh (SCI Pgh), and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers and their children.

Students from Chatham teach creative writing courses at each facility, organize readings of student 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 students 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.

In 2011, we began teaching an additional class at ACJ, serving approximately 120 students per year.  In 2013, we expanded our program to serve  Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center for mothers and their children.  Each semester, we host a public reading for the women and publish a chapbook of their work.  In Fall 2014, we began teaching a class at State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, a state prison in Pittsburgh’s West End.

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Creative Writing Classes at ACJ, SCI Pittsburgh & Sojourner House

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.

Winners of the Sandra Gould Ford Prize are:  Will Arrington & Lynne Agnew (2010); Joe Garfield (2011); Stephan Hayes & Terra Lynn (2012); and Mia Tuzlic (2013).

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.

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Who We Are

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
Laurie Mansell Reich
Jack Pischke
Sheryl St.Germain
Margaret Whitford
Teake Zuidema

Each semester, we have a group of committed MFA students and alumni who teach our creative writing classes.

2014-2015 Words Without Walls team:

Program Director: Sheryl St. Germain

Program Coordinator: Sarah Shotland

Student Coordinator: Jonny Blevins


John Caputo

Siobhan Lyons

Stephanie Vega

Dakota Garilli

Alison Taverna

Whitney Hayes

Ryan Rydzewski

Laura Castonguay

Lindsey Scherloum

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