In 2014, I founded Writer’s Block, a creative writing workshop for the incarcerated at the Hagerstown Correctional Institution, a medium-security state prison for men.
Wayne from Slant Light Poets connected me to Ms. Barbara, the volunteer coordinator at the facility, and I wrote her my weeks-long proposal of goals, expectations, and itineraries. I propositioned it as “an informal writers group for inmates who are interested in poetry, storytelling, and overall expression with words.” She gladly accepted and ushered me into the operations of a penal institution.
In preparation for my first day, I was given handouts on the core curriculum of volunteer services, Emergency Evacuation protocol, and a memorandum on the Makavelii-System, a “how-to” manipulation manual made from a gang leader on the inside. I was to be friendly but alert.
1. No physical contact whatsoever.
2. Topics that cannot be discussed: sexual, violent, or offensive content.
3. Items brought into the facility must be in a clear plastic container or pre-approved to prevent contraband.
4. Nothing in – nothing out – nothing personal. Things can come, but nothing can go.
I walked into a room of ten grown a** men. I introduced myself and explained where I was from, what OUT40 was, and the premise of Writer’s Block. I thanked them for participating.
“I am Kiki. Thank you for being here today.” Here were my rules.
1. This is not a class. I am not a teacher.
2. What we write here, stays here. I will always respect and protect your voice and work.
3. No handshakes. Sorry.
4. Don’t make me cry. I’m a very empathetic person. And I hate crying.
5. No compliments. If I didn’t think I looked presentable I would have stayed home and watched the world through my blinds.
6. I will always write with you. And I can always share first to make you comfortable.
…and that was my speech. “Now let’s get started shall we? Why are you here? Why do you write?”
I passed around a collaborative exercise and encouraged my new writers to finish the sentence. It read:
Today, I write. I write to change lives.
These were their responses.
I write: To free myself from this place.
I write: To free what is locked up inside.
I write: To lift those out of this world and into the realms of might and magic.
I write: To envoke thought, encourage, and support.
I write: To tell a story of my life and paint a portrait of my pain.
I write: To seek the truth and change a person’s way of thinking in order to make a difference.
Nigel* stared at me apprehensively. “How old are you,” he sneered. He wasn’t sold on my credentials.
They told me I smile too much, unfit conduct for a prison.. Like an innocent little girl who couldn’t be read. Truth is, I was a little girl. I was 21 trying to poker face my way through our first meeting. On the surface I seemed poised, bold, nonchalant. But dig a little deeper, and anyone can see I couldn’t contain my bubbling excitement and apprehension. I was overflowing with emotion. What exactly did I get myself into? I guess these next few weeks would show me.
Kenneth* had a deep divide in his hair that made me think he was conservative. He arrives before the scheduled time, sits on my far left. His bushy beard where his fingers rested and stroked often and terse words were our first encounter. A quiet storm. Methodical and cautious, every motion and thought spoken was calculated and pondered. He held his paper down with two fingers while he wrote, a uniquely immersed technique.
Also on the first day, I titled a blank page “Expectations,” and allowed the group to make their requests known.
Every class, I was given an Inmate Passlist, an attendance checklist. There were days when some of my writers couldn’t come to class. They were on cell restriction. And even still, it is there I wanted to reach them most.
Each week we explored various themes. One week it was Perception versus Self-Definition, the next Empathy, etc. Another day, I asked the men to write a letter to their reflection. What do they see? What would they like to see? Has anything changed? Stayed the same? What do they want others to see?
On Wednesday, June 25th, 2014, I encouraged the men to write I Am statements.
Nigel* wrote: I am the king of my universe. I am the forgotten one. I am my brother’s keeper; his actions are my actions, his ways are my ways.
Bradley* wrote: I am a father. I am a victim of my upbringing. I am sincere. I am a prisoner.
It was there he explained many things he was taught as a child he finds hard to let go of as an adult.
Matthew wrote: I am a fighter. I am a comedian. I am a thrill guy.
Randy* would become entranced in his writing. Often times he’d state he doesn’t know what he’s writing until complete. Bradley* was very literal. In his speech, behavior and writing style. An older black man, he seemed institutionalized by his interactions and body language. He posture was that of a straight-A student. He spoke to me in formalities, always answering with ma’am at the end. Tony was my fantasy writer. He could write for hours with compelling story lines and intricate details you would find in movie scripts. Matthew often doubted himself. He was private in nature and rarely shared with the group. Nigel* was more of a conversational writer. He wrote as he spoke and recited his work with ease.
“This is why I’m a timeless being, I live in a world of fantasy.” – Tony
On a day I asked them to write to themselves, an exercise rooted in reflection, Kenneth* responded, “the only thing missing from this reflection is freedom.” One of my favorite exercises I like to do are proclamations. It is a personal declaration of values, principles, and beliefs. It’s what you stand on, your response to the universe when your existence or purpose is questioned. This pulled the men to and from places they had not visited and challenged them to put it in words.
“Guard your thoughts.” – Bradley*
Writing is an escape. And each class I allowed these men to escape their realities…even if for an hour and a half. I lied and said this wasn’t a classroom. But I taught. I taught lessons on life and self. I explained how we subject ourselves to currency, we value ourselves as being too cheap or too expensive as worth. I explained how evolution is critical in becoming upstanding men and women. But evolution without reflection is meaningless. Anais Nin says, we write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect, and I wanted these men to find a reason, their reason, behind the(ir) writing. Not only did I teach, I learned. I taught them, and they taught me.
I still remember Chris and Corey* being so excited to tell me of their upcoming release. I congratulated them on their journey and wondered what the rest of their story will be. Both young, African-American men, with so much time and opportunity to recreate their futures. My happiness for them was just as genuine and sentimental as my own. Grateful that I was able to be apart of their trek, hoping they continually carry the gift of writing with them, in fear, in confusion, in joy, in reflection, always.
As the weeks went by, the inmates asked me if they could write for OUT40. As badly as I wanted to say yes, prison policy prevented me from furthering our writing relationship. It would have been nice to witness my writers grow, flourish, and discover. But I knew that was a selfish quest. But maybe one day…
On the day of graduation, the workshop came to an end and the inmates were rewarded with a institution-wide televised sharing of their written work on “TCTV.” Corey* warned me to not to drink the orange drink in the carton they provided as post-ceremony refreshments as he giggled and walked away. “Man, don’t drink that Miss Wilson. We don’t even know what it is. You don’t drink these on the regular, you’re on the outside, you’ll get sick.” I looked at the carton. It read: orange drink. Not juice. Not from concentrate. Just drink. I politely placed it back on the table and opted for a bottle of water.
Writers Block was an OUT40 initiative that was just an extension of our purpose; providing a voice for the overlooked. And from the first day I walked in that room, I seen them. I wanted to offer them inspiration, motivation and encouragement. I wanted to show and remind them of other channels through which we can be freed, and in turn, free others, a keepsake they can have and carry forever as their own.
…And I hope I was successful.
“Our lives may be forgotten when we die, but the words we leave behind will live on forever.” – K, 2014
*Names have been changed to protect identities*
OUT40 Celebrates 5 Years: In celebration of our 5th year, we’re sharing memories of past work. #out40
Photo Credit: Trent Bell
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