But prison is boring…

Posted: August 31, 2008 in prison, general, teaching

Prison is exciting and prisoners want to write about their experiences on the inside.

Consider the above statement my debunked myth #1 about what it would be like to work with prisoners. My first night at Monroe, as Gloria and I talked with the guys about incorporating writing into our program I assumed they would want to write about their journey to, from and in prison. I’ve read the collections of published prisoner writing, and I thought, if it were me and I’d been sent to prison, I would want to write about it. How else would I make sense of things?

But the guys’ reactions were strong and clear.

“I live this life everyday. I want to write about something else.”

“It’s boring in here.”

“No one out there is going to be interested in my story.”

On the ferry ride back to Whidbey I thought about my assumption that these men would want to write about being in prison. The truth was I wanted to know about their lives in prison. I wanted the details. I was interested and curious. Then the harder truth — there is something about prison that invites a certain type of voyeurism, and I was guilty. Perhaps I felt I had a right to their stories. As if now that they are “caged” they are something to be watched against their will. I realized that night on the ferry that this experience was going to be less about what I could teach these men about writing and more about what they were going to teach me about myself.

There are many reasons one might want to volunteer in prison. Ninety-nine percent of them are likely the right reasons. But a prison volunteer (more so than perhaps volunteers with other institutions) has to be constantly examing the one percent.  Why am I here? If you can’t answer it honestly (even if it changes from month to month) then eventually you are only going to get in your own way. Eventually you’ll realize you’re not doing the prisoners any good, and only taking from them what they haven’t given you permission to take.

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Comments
  1. “I realized that night on the ferry that this experience was going to be less about what I could teach these men about writing and more about what they were going to teach me about myself.”–This is SO true!

    I have run a poetry workshop with kids at Denney Juvenile Justice Center in Everett for three years now. (You may even run into some of these “kids” who have gone on to the Monroe Prison). I started the workshop in my third semester of my MFA work at Vermont College. And yes, it is true…the kids have taught me far more and given me far more depth to work with in my own writing for teens than I feel that I bring to them.

    We have been publishing a collection of their poetry funded by The Blanche Miller Trust Artist Exhibit Program. If you would like a copy of our last two books, e-mail me! I’d love to chat with you about the work you are doing!

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