Every once and a while a thick piece of my frontal lobe inexplicably shifts to the left.  When that happens it means that it is time for big girl serious pants.  Don’t worry.  It’ll only last a minute.
I would like to write about the impact writing can have on a very ignored minority population.  I don’t mean African Americans, I don’t mean homosexuals, and I don’t mean Jews.  I mean prisoners.  As part of an independent study for my Masters program I co-taught a memoir workshop to thirteen maximum security inmates at a womens correctional facility in New Jersey(http://inkarcerated.intrasun.tcnj.edu/about/origin.html).  The class was part womens group, part therapy, part writing circle, part reading circle, part salon.  The purpose of the class was to write and to heal through writing.
The first thing you have to do if you want to be a successful teacher in a prison is to just get over it.  Sounds too simple?  Well, it kind of is.  Truthfully it is very difficult to ignore the fact that I was wearing what I wanted and the women in my class all matched in white and tan.  It is just as difficult to push away the guilt that would come over me, like clock work, as my colleagues and I walked out through the gate (after gate, after gate), into our car, back to our safe campus.  The time that it was easiest to “get over” the differences between myself and my students was when they would read their original writing.
Every Tuesday for two months I, along with the other graduate student and our professor, would arrive at the check-in building, our arms filled with the materials for class.  We read e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Erica Jong, Audre Lord, Regina Barreca, Langston Hughs, and Native American spiritual poetry.  We also read from “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself”, a collection of essays of female inmates at York Correctional Facility in Connecticut.  The book was put together by the teacher of the creative writing class at the prison, the author Wally Lamb.  There was always a chance to write and share and the women began to gain confidence in their writing.  We read the poem, “Self Portrait” by Erica Jong, in which almost every line begins with the word “She”.  I asked the women to write a biographical poem in the same style.  One woman, a middle aged mother of two gave me her poem.  I noticed right away that while she began all of her lines with “She is”, each one began with a lower case “s”.  When I asked her why this was she was just as baffled as I was.  It appeared that unintentionally she had classified herself as a lower case “she”.  After some quick capitalization we both saw that the entire feeling of the poem changed.  She saw it in the tone she used to read it.  I saw it in her voice.
The main purpose of the class was to have each woman write her own memoir.  At the end of the class we handed each student her own typed, bound memoir with the cover she had designed as well as the class cover that the other grad student and I had put together.  Throughout the class we had heard poems about love, anger, hope, and so many other emotions that are too complicated to sum up in one meager noun.  However, it was not until all of these poems, prayers, and prose were put together in a very intentional order that I understood just how big it all was.  The poem about the young girls mother wasn’t special because it was about her mother.  It was special because she actually had the opportunity to write it.  In prison there are very few opportunities to remember who you are.  Most inmates who are incarcerated for a long period of time begin to believe that they don’t matter because they’re in there and we’re out here.  They become physically and emotionally seperated from their loved ones and their pasts start to fade as they fade out of sight out of mind.  It’s amazing how big of a deal being given a pen and a notebook is to a woman who has been told time and time again that she doesn’t matter and any thoughts that pop into her head aren’t worthy of our ears.  I truly believe, because I saw it happen, that writing has to power to allow people to reclaim not just their voices, but their identities.