About

In March 2008 I began an internship with the Hero’s Journey Workshop at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, WA. Twice a month I drive an hour and half one way to talk with a group of prisoners about how they might be able to see themselves as the hero of their own story. We talk and we write and together we grow. The questions these men ask of themselves and of life are the same questions those of us who are supposedly “free” ought to be asking. If, that is, we mean it when we say we want the world to be better. Here you’ll read mostly about my experiences behind the walls, what I’m learning about teaching the craft of writing, what the Hero’s Journey Workshop is all about and what I’m learning about myself. I will talk in little detail about the men I work with, though I do hope to get permission to publish some of their work and in that way you will get to know them. It is all too easy to forget that these men have a right to privacy just like the rest of us, so I will expose myself on these pages, but I will never expose them.

Thank you for visiting and being interested in this work. For those of you who are writers you know the real story is often in the shadows and you have to be brave enough to go toward it. For those of you who are not writers, may you find here a side of the story about prison that maybe you’ve never read before. May we all find our hearts a little more opened.

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Comments
  1. Karen says:

    I teach at a jail and stumbled upon this site…….I’ve read a few entries and am quite fascinated.

    Thanks

    • islandwriter says:

      Thanks for being in touch, and for taking a moment to read the blog. I hope you’ll pass it along to others. I just returned from the prison this evening, so it was nice to have a comment waiting letting me know that someone out there is reading about our work.
      All the best with your efforts as well.

    • cristie chamberland says:

      Erica,
      I was just Googling teaching literacy / reading in prison and stumbled upon your website. Thank you for what you do, and the heart and articulation you bring.

      I teach / have taught reading to kids and adults with disabilities as well as kids who are struggling readers. I was taught a system from a woman who mentored me on Maui several years ago. The system is multi-sensory and is very effective in teaching sustainable skills and tools. I really love what I do. I also love to teach writing, visual comprehension, and bring an element of creativity and play into what I do.

      I love myth and find that using the tool of rewriting our own myth as hero, can reap magical results. Ive recently been brainstorming and writing potential classes/curriculum on working with kids and adults on finding their own inner hero, and coaching them towards that.

      Unfortunately, I only teach reading a tiny amount now… hence my search for prison literacy programs. Mostly what I do in my days are to work 1:1 with adults with developmental disabilities and teach independent living skills / social skills and do engaging things out in the community – connecting them to various resources. I am looking to make some shifts.

      I have been steeped in the what’s next for me. Ive been looking into grad programs for creative writing. Im curious about what program you attended? Im going to be taking a theater / clowning / process and character workshop in Canada for three months this spring. I will be moving to, and commuting from, Bellingham, WA. Ive been researching places/ thoughts/ dreams / threads…. in and around Bellingham that I can tutor, teach, volunteer, create classes etc.

      If you are open to it, Id love to talk with you more about your project and any thoughts you might have in terms of collaboration, volunteer, etc.

      thank you!

      Cristie

      • Hi Cristie, so glad you’ve been in touch. Yes, let’s connect. Perhaps we could even do an in person coffee date somewhere half way between you and me. Email me at erikag.sanders@gmail.com and let’s go from there. Sounds like you have a lot going on and I know that can be overwhelming, but maybe there’s a way for you to even come to our group for an evening and present some of your ideas. Anyway, would love to explore with you.

        p.s. I had a friend who did clowning work–so cool!

  2. Paul Busby says:

    I facilitated Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in prisons for nearly 10 years. The insiders taught me wonderful lessons about creativity and humanity. Thanks for your work!

  3. Paul Busby says:

    New York Yearly Meeting of the Quakers published an article in May 2010 about an incarcerated person, written mostly by him and featuring one of his poems. See http://www.nyym.org/index.php?q=node/472#ps

  4. PJ, Minnesota says:

    Just found this blog by accident, but as a writer, I’m extremely interested in your progress, so I see I have a lot of reading to do. I wonder if you and the prisoners are familiar with The Sun magazine? Excellent writing, and probably a lot of great articles for discussion in there, too. Good luck to you.

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi PJ. Glad you stumbled upon the site. We talk about the Sun magazine all the time with our guys in the group. Sometimes we bring them the readers write topics as creative writing prompts. I’ve always admired the Sun for their inclusion of prisoners’ voices. Very important to include them in larger social conversations.

      Best to you.
      Erika

  5. Hi,

    I teach a writing program at the University of Phoenix in San Diego but have often wondered about teaching a class in prison. I fumbled upon your blog and find it fascinating. I hope to become more familiar with your blog entries and get back in touch. But I’m curious — how and why did you approach the prison in Monroe with a Hero’s Journey Workshop? Simply intriguing.

    Best of luck,
    Vince

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi Vince,
      Thanks for being in touch about our program at the Monroe Correctional Center. It’s always good to hear from folks who are interested in working with prisoners. You have no idea how much they appreciate volunteers from the “free” world coming in to spend time with them. And there are some great writers with some amazing stories behind bars for sure. I encourage you to teach a class in prison if you have the time. The rewards are many…and it’s not nearly as scary as you think it will be.

      I got involved in the program as a part of my master’s thesis in creative writing. My school is wonderfully progressive and allows students to do writing internships. I connected with a writer named Gloria Kempton who has been going into the prison for over a decade running various types of writing programs. It was really her idea to take the Hero’s Journey in to see if we could make a connection between the mythical journey of a hero and the lives of these men. It’s a hard leap for both the guys and some on the outside to make…prisoners on a hero’s journey, but we have had some amazing conversations because of the topic. We use “The Writer’s Journey” by Vogel, and of course, Joseph Campbell’s initial work on the subject. The prison experience actually mirrors many of the stages of the journey, so the guys relate believe it or not. Our goal is really to help them see themselves and their stories as more than their prison experience. That they, like all of us, our on a journey.

      Be in touch if you have more questions. Always happy to talk about this!

      Erika

  6. B. Willingham says:

    I just found this blog “by accident” and am excited to see it. I’m writing my dissertation on prison writing, so this will be great stuff to read.

    Thanks, and continued success.

    BW

    • islandwriter says:

      So glad you stumbled upon the blog! That’s seems to be how most folks find it. Best of luck with your dissertation. I wrote my master’s thesis on my work in the prison and prison writing programs. Would love to know more about your dissertation. Art inside prisons is a fascinating topic, and so powerful for both the inmates and the volunteers.

      Best of luck to you.
      Erika

  7. Bdrew says:

    Hi – found your blog on Google today. I’m writing an online training for a Christian organization on the topic if Teaching Prisoners. It is very hard to find anyone who writes about this topic, so I was very excited to find your blog!

    I have been teaching at a women’s prison for over 2 years – first in a medical unit with hospitalized inmates and then in general population. I never would have believed how sastisfying it is to work with prison inmates! If they come to a class, it is because they want to better their lives and not return to prison in the future. So they are very eager students, whether you are teaching Bible, life skills, or any self-help topic. And I do learn from them as well, just as you commented in one of your blogs.

    I would love to interview you as a resource for the volunteer training I am developing. Let me know if you are interested. Thanks!

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi,
      So good to hear from you. Thanks for stumbling on the blog and taking a second to write. It’s good to know that folks are not only reading it but finding it useful for their own work in prison–which is one of my goals. I’m always looking connect with others who are doing similar work. My colleague and I are actually working on turning our course into a correspondence course for inmates in prisons across the country. It’s a ways from launch, but we are excited about it. In the meantime, I love going up to the prison to meet with our guys. Yes, indeed, it is difficult to explain how satisfying it is to work with this particular population of people.

      I’d be interested in hearing more about your experiences in a women’s prison. I would like to have that experience as well some day.

      We can certainly talk further, and however I can help you with your training materials…I’d be happy to. You can email me directly at erikag.sanders@gmail.com if you like and we can go from there.

      Looking forward to it!
      Erika

  8. annaroxelana says:

    Hello,

    I thought you might be interested in a post about Riker’s Island prison in New York. I’m on the Granta magazine team (a literary publishing house based in NY and London) and we’ve recently published a memoir by David McConnell, who used to teach elementary maths in the prison.

    With your interest in teaching literature in prisons, I hope this might be something you could share with your readers.

    Here is the link: http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/On-Rikers-Island

    Best,

    Anna Ward

  9. Benito Ganzalez says:

    I stumbled on this site by accident and rather liked the topic on “good” and “evil”, having given this some thought myself. Of course, we are all capable of good or evil, since these are not static states, but based on behavior and actions. Truth is, I find some powerful people in the world to be far more evil and dangerous in both action and behavior than some of these people described who are behind bars. Of course, most powerful people certainly don’t think of their behavior as “evil” because their ability to see their actions and behavior is affected by their limited perspective of reality. Put a man in jail, condemned by society and the state and he will likely see his actions differently and may even consider himself “evil” when in fact he is not.

    Are there truly evil people in the world? Based on my limited experience, yes. There are people who don’t care what they do or who they hurt so long as they reap a reward from their actions and behavior. That is the essence of evil and the basis of all darkness. When one lives only for what one wants out of life regardless of how ones actions and behavior affect others that is true evil.

    Are there good people who do evil? Absolutely, and there are a number of reasons for this that may or may not have to do with any evil intentions. Some people simply cannot see any perspective other than their own, and cannot grasp they are doing anything wrong or bad. Even if you tell them their actions caused harm to others, they feel justified in their own minds that what they did was perfectly correct. Other people can see their actions or behavior were wrong in hindsight, but could not recognize it as such during the process of carrying it out for any number of reasons including life lessons learned. Other people, see an opportunity for themselves and ignore the negative and bad implications during the process of acting on that opportunity. For example, robbing a store or raping a woman. In other words, the reward is more important than the behavior or action is bad. The ability for someone to change and the difficulty in their moving forward to become law abiding citizens will depend on whether they are truly evil incarnate (only care about themselves), if they are unable to recognize how their actions affect or hurt others, or if they can truly understand how their actions and behavior were inappropriate and want to change it.

    Of course, the truly evil person who is intelligent enough to feign remorse and understanding is the most dangerous of all. They will use the sensitivity and desire of individuals to help them to gain advantage and exploit it to the detriment of others. If you think you can change these individuals, I suspect you are playing with fire. It is not lack of understanding about what must change that is their problem. It is in their very soul, deep down they just don’t care to change. When working with individuals in prison it is critical to recognize those basic differences and understand who has a soul and who does not. Who is capable of change, and who is not. Best of luck.

    Benito

  10. Bonnie says:

    I’m working on my Masters (possibly switching to MFA for creative writing) and am in a death penalty literature course right now. I feel such a strong pull to the issues and people in the prison system and am looking into getting involved with a writing program like this and eventually teaching at a prison. Any words of wisdom for getting started? Either way, it’s encouraging to come across something positive like this. Best to you and your students.

  11. Bill Herbert says:

    I don”s see any recent posts so I am concerned that you have moved on. I hope this is not the case since I find the prisoner’s writings and your commentary quite compelling. I want to thank you all for the effort that you and your students have gone to in order to share a different, and enlightening perspective. Keep up the good work. It helps those of us on the outside as well as your students “on the inside”.

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi Bill. Thanks for the note. I haven’t moved on from this blog or the work at the prison. Not in the least. I average probably 1-2 posts a month right now, and hope to increase that here in the new year. I hope you’ll keep checking back.
      All the best,
      Erika

  12. Agnszka Tusz says:

    I’m an educational volunteer at a prison in IL. I stumbled on your blog and now I’ll try to follow. It’s great to know about other people doing similar work, all over the country :).

    • Hi Agnszka. It’s always great for me too to learn about others out there working in prisons as volunteers and otherwise. I hope you’ll follow the blog and comment with your perspectives and insights when you can. It’s always interesting to me to hear what it is like for others working inside the walls.

      All the best,
      Erika

  13. Lisa Herbert says:

    Hi
    I was looking for help in creative writing ideas and have posted a question to your students – perhaps they can answer. I find so much material from the States and am feeling that our incarcerated offenders here in South Africa have yet to have creative writing as an opportunity to share their talents.

    While reading your blog, I have really appreciated the emotional excerpts that you have shared. I am always emotionally exhausted when we have finished a session – Somtimes its overwhelming to consider how much the ladies look forward to your coming; how frustrating it is for a session to be cancelled and the students are not told – they think we get too busy; how, but for the grace of god and parenting, I am the one going in to teach and not the one being taught.

    I cannot find representation for the Hero’s Journey in this region. Maybe I need to start at something a lot less sophisticated as I have not got the training to really teach creative writing. Our initiative has started just as a way to allow the ladies a way to communicate.

    I look forward to your posts and catching up (backwards) through all the rest of them.

    • Dear Lisa, thanks for leaving a comment and letting me know a little about your work. I would love to know more, and if you were ever interested in writing a piece that I could post on the blog that talks about your experience, please know I’d be interested in that as well. I think it’s important for there to be more than one voice talking about what it is like to do this work. If I can help you in anyway with your program, please just let me know. I have been interested in working with female inmates for a long time, but no opportunity to do so quite yet. I imagine there are many similarities, as well differences, between men and women experiencing incarceration. At a minimum, storytelling is a common language we all can speak.

      Best to you and your work (and your women).

      Remember to take care of yourself as much as you take care of them–this is a lesson I am constantly having to learn.

      Erika

  14. […] Teaching Writing from Inside is another website worth checking out. Many written stories here. The approach focuses on storytelling (no digital) but I believe storytelling is the basic building block to creating great digital stories. The goal of the talk, write and grow workshops help prisoners see “how they might be able to see themselves as the hero of their own story.” […]

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