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  • Writer's pictureSchai Schairer and Elizabeth Benton

Empowering Voice and Imagination with Incarcerated Women: A Creative Writing Microcredential

Authors: Schai Schairer and Elizabeth Benton

 

Schai Schairer is the Executive Director of Fighting Injustice Standing Together (F.I.S.T.), a nonprofit that teaches poetry and creative writing to incarcerated women. She writes, “The prison population captured my heart and attention when I was in college. I needed one credit to graduate and none of the internships being offered sparked my interest, so I folded my arms and hoped that I could graduate anyway. My Criminology of Women course professor, however, had been a warden at a local women’s prison. She took us on a tour, where we surveyed the incarcerated women to find out what they needed most. They needed rehabilitative services. With my talent for professional spoken word art, and knowing that it is healing and empowering, I petitioned the warden to become a volunteer. Within a few weeks, my internship was secured, graduation was in sight, and a new career path lay before me. After graduation, that single internship became my life’s work.”


Elizabeth Benton is the Dean of English and Reading at Montgomery College in Maryland. She writes, “Early in my high school career, the prison population and my own lived experience collided when my humanities teachers decided that a field trip to the local jail was a good idea. I still recall images of incarcerated individuals communing together around tables at an indoor basketball area, as well as isolated individuals banging on walls and peeping through small, windowed cells. Roughly 1,000 miles away, my uncle, who had been convicted of tax violations, defied his probation and landed in federal prison somewhere around the Gulf Coast of Florida. Likely during a summer or spring break vacation, my parents thought it would be good for us to visit my uncle. I don’t remember too much about the visit except the visitation room—tables, chairs, windows to the well-kept grounds; and his comments about how “nice” it was and his eagerness to “never come back” once released. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that my high school research paper focused on prison reform, specifically recidivism.”

 

Fighting Injustice Standing Together (F.I.S.T.) is a creative writing and poetry program that takes humanities and the arts curricula into prisons through in-person and correspondence activities. The program has continued to expand, with over 200 participants on its waitlist. Over the past year, Montgomery College (MC) and F.I.S.T. have partnered to support F.I.S.T.’s growing educational program at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW). The partnership between the nonprofit and the College emerged quickly; MC Professor Jarvis Slacks and Department Chair Teri Hurst offered to run college operations, and six faculty members were eager to volunteer. In the inaugural year, 30 incarcerated participants joined the MC/F.I.S.T. partnership. Eleven participants completed the humanities curriculum correspondence packet that culminates in a creative writing microcredential.

The microcredential requires approximately 10 weeks of course-related work. Participants analyze and annotate readings, exchange ideas and information through written responses, and author short works of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. Faculty members provide feedback to help participants meet the microcredential standards.

F.I.S.T. and MC can point to the microcredential as a tangible access and completion measure that (re)introduces participants to education. In addition, the program sparks interest in pursuits that can buoy participants while incarcerated and pave a path home upon release. By working with faculty—through a correspondence-based program—and knowing that someone from MC has read and appreciated their work, incarcerated individuals experience humanities and arts-related education that could also reduce their chances of recidivism.

According to Caroline Thouin, author of “The Impact of State and Federal Policies on Community College Correctional Education Programs,” providing incarcerated persons with “any form of education is associated with a 43% reduction in recidivism and increases the likelihood of employment by 13% compared to those who do not participate in educational programming” (70). Many programs consist of “basic skills training in mathematics, reading, and writing… and a curriculum to complete high school” (71). Using a humanities-related curriculum to teach reading, writing, and critical thinking can have a meaningful impact on incarcerated persons’ lived experience during prison, as well as reduce their chances of recidivism.

In an article about effects of educational programs on prisoners, Coticchia and Putnam explain, “the societal identity associated with being in prison comes to the detriment of an individual’s self-esteem, as they are likely to view themselves as occupying a lower rank than others” (82). More than 50% of the prison population is diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. According to Coticchia and Putman, “limited social contact, insufficient mental health resources, and lack of mental stimulation” exacerbate the conditions and contribute to new issues or diagnoses (81). However, when education, such as “unstructured arts based” and “individualized qualitative feedback from volunteer readers” comes from the “outside,” incarcerated individuals build up agency, empowerment, action, and hope (84).

MC faculty volunteer Sharon Anthony explains her experience with the program, highlighting the students’ impact on her ways of responding to, not only their craft, but their courage:

When I received the students’ writing, their words struck me with their rawness and vulnerability. Their writing provided a window into their world, their past and present which is now contained in a cell. How could I begin to comment on such writing? What I did comment on was the potency of their reflections, the skills they demonstrated, and the amazing bravery and honesty they illustrated.

Dr. Monica Mische of MC describes her reflections:

What has stood out for me as a reviewer is how the students’ artwork, poetry, and prose so often intersect, relaying themes that are at once personal and universal. Trauma, sorrow, injustice, regret—these experiences, embedded deeply in the human psyche, are explored by students in sometimes devastating accountings, but so too are expressions of acceptance, forgiveness, resilience, and hope.

The program’s creative prompts push the students to see themselves as part of a larger (geographical, historical, and indeed human) landscape. Responding to such luminaries as Frida Kahlo, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, and Sojourner Truth, students share how these past and present voices resonate within their own hearts and minds. Like these artists and writers, the students, too, have loved, lost, suffered, and endured, and over time, have come to new understandings. The students thereby join a long and rich literary history, whereby art and literature, whether created or received, can expand our hearts and minds but also can heal.

The program serves as a beacon of life and hope to participants and a reminder of love, light, and humanity for faculty volunteers. As Dr. Mische notes, despite students frequently being immersed in negative environments, they still sought to spread (as one student writes) “love instead of hate,” "praising instead of cursing” gifts of life and health and vitality, and to find ways to maintain an inner calm amid an outer storm.

In the past year, we have gained 30 new participants. It is no surprise that performing arts, visual arts, and music faculty members have joined our monthly meetings. We brainstorm ways to bring arts to the incarcerated women who seem to benefit from the curriculum and pedagogy that our faculty volunteers share. The MC/F.I.S.T. partnership exemplifies the community we can build when we allow our imaginations to create new experiences. With a firm foundation beneath us, we can embark upon a challenge—however big or small—that changes lives one poem, song, and even microcredential at a time.

 

Works Cited

Coticchia, Julie, and Samuel P. Putnam. “Effects of a Correspondence-Based Educational

Program on Prisoner Loneliness, Self-Esteem, and Depressive Symptoms.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, vol. 60, no. 2, 11 Jan. 2021, pp. 81–94, https://doi.org/10.1080/10509674.2020.1863300.

Thouin, Caroline. “The Impact of State and Federal Policies on Community College

Correctional Education Programs.” New Directions for Community Colleges, vol. 2021, no. 196, 17 Sept. 2021, pp. 69–79, https://doi.org/10.1002/cc.20484.

 

 

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