Jailhouse write: Women inmates heal through poetry
They entered the Washington County jail as criminal offenders. They'll leave as published writers.
And in case anyone on the outside doesn't believe it, they can show them the anthology of their poems, titled "Our Makeup Hides It Well." Between its covers, seven female inmates raise their voices, petition the stars, sing their blues and suture their scars with words.
It's a cold Nov morning,
I remember the loud sound of dogs barking,
Glass breaking, shouting without knowing what's going on
I am on the ground with guns at my head hearing a light whisper of
— don't say a word.
"Addict," by Stephanie Gordon, 36
Gordon and six other inmates at the Washington jail created their poems in the Women's Writing Program, a two-week workshop taught by a pair of visiting professional writers.
On Jan. 4, they gave a reading of their work for an invited audience of fellow inmates and representatives from COMPAS, an arts education organization in St. Paul who run the program. The women stood behind a lectern that had been set up in a room with a cement floor and high barred windows.
Ann Marie Jessen-Ford, 53, nervously brushed back her curtain of dark hair as she read "To the C.O.'s," a poem in which she thanks the corrections officers for their help and patience:
Wow — I have seen my share of inmates who
Have tried to take their lives
Being locked up is crazy at times yes
It's my fault that I'm here,
No one else is to blame.
Sometimes when we get here our minds
Are not Right.
There are CO's that do their job making
Sure we are all good
My Hat Goes Off To You All...
With the help of COMPAS, sheriff's Cmdr. Bill Hoffman, the senior program coordinator, obtained a $10,000 grant from the the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council to fund the program. The grant covers the cost of the printing.
"It gives the girls a lot of self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment," Hoffman said. "Most important, it allows them to bond with each other. The fact is that a lot of these girls are victims. Maybe its sexual, maybe it's drugs. It really gives them an outlet to write about their experience and it's very therapeutic."
But therapy thrives on trust. And trust doesn't come easily for inmates who gather in a classroom with six other relative strangers.
"Jail isn't normally the place where you want people to know your deepest wounds," Elayna "Blue Eyes" Murphy told the audience after she read her poems, including one titled "lower case life."
That defensiveness is not lost on writing teachers Diego Vazquez Jr. and Marcie Rendon. As an ice-breaker, they assign a 3- to 5-minute "free write," where students jot or scribble whatever thoughts occur to them at that moment.
Many are thrown for a loop when they're then asked to read their words aloud.
"They're not expecting that," Vazquez said. "But they do it because they don't have time to think about it."
"They don't have time to second guess themselves, which is good," Rendon said.
In helping to design the course, Vazquez insisted that the women all receive a printed edition of their work. "Our Makeup Hides It Well" will be available at Washington County Libraries.
"I don't think of myself as a teacher," he said. "I'm a writer sharing my craft."
Vazquez, author of "Growing through the Ugly," alternated teaching duties at the jail with Rendon, a playwright, poet and novelist whose most recent work is "Murder on the Red River."
The reading was more uplifting than somber, however. At one point, inmate Lexana Pitzen removed her orange sandal and said, "This also doubles as an eraser."
The Women's Writing Program has been taught the Ramsey County Correctional Facility and at the Sherburne County jail. COMPAS took over the program in July. The Washington County jail will offer one more class in March.
The Women's Writing Program has produced 20 anthologies since it was launched in 2012 by the Minnesota Department of Corrections Advisory Task Force on Justice Involved Women and Girls.
"We're not looking for developing great writers," project chair Gwen Lerner said. "We are looking at ways for them to express themselves."
She cited a study by the University of Cincinnati's Criminal Justice Research Center. The report identified self-esteem and the successful completion of a goal as preventive factors against reincarceration among women inmates in Minnesota. The women also help with the editing. One of the writers in the anthology, Jess Leisher, also designed the cover art.
"They all want to write," Lerner said. "They all want to talk about their lives."