Volume 5, Issue C ::: February 2002
Struggles: Writing as Healing
A writing program in a prison addresses the violence in participants' lives
by Leslie Ridgway & Dale Griffith
York Correctional Institution (YCI), Connecticut's maximum-security (and only) female prison, is located in the shoreline community of Niantic. The majority of the approximately 1,300 residents are African-American or Hispanic who come largely from the state's cities. Most are incarcerated for crimes related to drug use. Their length of stay varies from one day to life.
Inside the walls of YCI is York School, where a 32-member staff offers adult education services in basic literacy, adult basic education (ABE), general educational development (GED), vocational training, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), special education, and college courses (available through local community colleges). In addition to the teachers, the school staff includes a librarian, four pupil service counselors, three administrators, two administrative assistants, two correctional officers, and two part-time transitional counselors.
The school, which operates year-round, serves about 400 students daily, ranging in age from 15 to 60, with classes running from 8 am to 11 am and 12:15 pm to 3 pm. College classes and other special programs are conducted in the evenings. Anyone who wants to attend school is eligible; the only requirement is to be discipline-free for 90 days. The school's mission states that York School "will provide a positive learning environment for all students that promotes lifelong learning through academic, vocational, life skills, and college programming." To a large degree, the school fulfills its mission.
In the past, Niantic's prison has served as a model for other women's institutions across the country interested in treatment leading to rehabilitation. Since the mid-1990s, however, the political tide has turned. In Connecticut, tougher views on the treatment of convicts have resulted in longer sentences and fewer treatment programs. Custody has become the primary concern, and new staff trainees follow a rigid military model, creating an "us versus them" mentality. Most women are not incarcerated for violent crimes, and, while the prison has always had its share of disruptive inmates, most residents are compliant. Still, under the new system, all YCI inmates receive harsh treatment and few privileges, even when their behavior is exemplary.
Within this climate, the inmates of YCI suffer more humiliation than under the old system. This often awakens old traumas. For example, inmates were once called by their given rather than their last names; now, they are referred to solely by last name. This may seem like a small change, but it symbolizes the increased distance of the present order. In a prison, the staff's authority cannot be questioned, so residents often bury feelings. Some inmates explode either by harming others or themselves. Mental health services, overcrowded and understaffed, provide little help; women dislike being sent there.
Learning had become difficult.
Many women had reached the limit
of their coping skills. At the school, educational staff worried about the women's mental and physical health and discussed ways to help them cope. A safe port in the emotional storm was needed.
Intervention Strategies: the Process
After a double suicide in the spring of 1999, educators joined forces with custody, medical, and mental health staff to form the Women's Health and Healing Committee. The committee brought in health-care providers and educators, who shared the latest in medical research and treatment options. Throughout the academic year, staff also recruited volunteers (writers, musicians, and artists) to conduct workshops with school students. Staff hoped to provide creative space wherein the students' grief might be expressed safely. As the health and arts programs ended their one-year commitment, it became obvious that the women needed continuing vehicles for expression.
We (Leslie Ridgway, school social worker, and Dale Griffith, teacher) both participated in activities that spring and summer that inspired us to join forces and form a healing-through-writing group for inmates. Physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological violence had impaired the inmates' academic progress prior to incarceration. In particular, many of the incarcerated women had literacy issues. Reading comprehension and writing skills were areas of real concern. Since trauma contributes to learning problems, would writing about trauma improve literacy (Horsman, 2000), we wondered? Might writing about trauma also heal deep emotional wounds and contribute to rehabilitation?
Writing deeply about painful personal experiences can heal the writers (DeSalvo, 1999). In addition, writing without fear of the red pen or criticism improves writers' basic skills and elevates self-esteem (Schneider, 1993). Yet fear of condemnation keeps many inexperienced writers from taking risks (DeSalvo, 1999; Schneider, 1993; Horsman, 2000). What might happen if students were encouraged to write freely and to talk about their feelings with each other?
remember a time when
As children we're taught to respect and obey our parents. Usually I covered with my hands up protecting my face and head. A reaction that I'm sure is a defense mechanism of survival. I didn't harm my mother, but my physically defensive behavior of pushing her away from me shocked her back into reality. The beatings finally stopped and I was left with the question as to why I hadn't reacted to her actions years earlier. Then again, respect for your parents and the physical abuse from them are a hard combination to explain to a child.
I could I would
hoped you wouldn't hurt me
In the healing-through-writing group, students would use writing as a way to understand how violence (or other trauma) had affected their ability to learn. We drew upon Pat Schneider's book, The Writer as an Artist: A New Approach to Writing Alone and with Others (1994), for suggestions on how to run the group. According to Schneider, each member of the group must write, but only those who want to share their writing do so. All work is treated as fictional (disguising nonfiction as fiction if desired), freeing women to write personal stories yet retain privacy. No one's work is criticized. Responses are limited to what worked well and what might be deepened. Confidentiality is of utmost importance.
For the experimental group, 15 African-American and white participants of all academic levels were selected, based on their interest and teacher recommendation (in subsequent groups, English-speaking Hispanic-Americans were included). Writing ability was not a factor in selection. One student suggested calling the group Struggles, and the name stuck. The workshop was originally slotted for an eight-week session, with Leslie and Dale acting as facilitators. Leslie would monitor the clinical process of the group and deal with crisis intervention. Dale would lead the group's writing exercises and record the group's progress.
In Jenny Horsman's groundbreaking book, Too Scared To Learn (2000), she indicates that learning difficulties are closely related to trauma. She also emphasizes the importance of creating a safe physical space where internal healing and learning can take place. With this in mind, coupled with suggestions Leslie brought back from the training provided by the Women, Violence, and Adult Education Institute, we decorated the classroom with lace tablecloths, pillows and quilts, and fresh flowers. All decorations had to be approved by custody officials. Later, we added a stuffed animal. Following Horsman's model, we arranged chairs in a circle, with one special chair placed outside the circle, in case a woman chose not to actively participate. We never had more than one participant at a time who "needed" the chair.
Our first meeting began with a cohesiveness-building exercise, including having the women establish their own guidelines, which were posted at subsequent meetings. Some of them were: no monopolizing, confidentiality, respect, one speaker at a time, and using "I" statements. We issued inexpensive "blue books" for their writing. At the third meeting, when membership had crystallized, cardboard composition books, a treasure in the prison, were distributed. The women decorated and personalized their Struggles' journals using fabric, lace and ribbon, and colored paper we provided.
We wrote along with the women and shared our writing. The format developed on a weekly basis, according to trial and error. Dale recorded weekly difficulties, exercises, and triumphs in a journal. In the beginning, we encouraged the women to write directly about violence. As a prompt, we suggested: Violence means... The women resisted, writing vague passages with little detail. However, when poems such as Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird" were offered, the women responded readily, identifying with authors' feelings. We decided to use a more indirect approach, using a variety of published work for prompts. The result was positive, as this quote indicates: "The poems were very meaningful - they prompted us to explore our feelings in depth; some of them stay in your mind for a long time."
The women decided to end each session by issuing a wish or a blessing to the person next to her. Mary might turn to Sarah and say, "I wish you peace and serenity for the next week" or "You are a child of God." Group members told us that the closing ritual was a powerful tool for building group cohesiveness. We encouraged the women to change seats weekly to build new relationships. We distributed note cards before the end of each week's session on which members could make private comments or request a session with Leslie. Before each woman left, she received a dab of scented hand lotion. The women looked forward to the lotion and said it made them feel special.
The women gradually shared more of themselves as trust grew. One woman wrote, "Writing about violence has given me the chance to talk about my family's darkest secrets. It allowed me to get over my fears. As a child growing up I was not allowed to tell anyone that I was being abused mentally and physically. I didn't like opening up to others. I now am able to open up a little because I was able to share my family's darkest secrets. This group has helped me a lot." As the workshop's end neared, the women voted to extend the group for eight more weeks, with the participants taking greater charge. We assumed less active roles, but continued to provide support.
Word of the workshop spread throughout the school, and requests for another session poured in. Group members from the original workshop were invited to become facilitators for a second session of Struggles. Four women, not all of whom had displayed leadership qualities during the course of the workshop, volunteered. Two new workshops were formed to run simultaneously. Using our notes and journal records, we created a curriculum guide and trained the new leaders, holding weekly meetings to provide support for the peer facilitators. Leslie continued to provide crisis intervention.
In a maximum-security prison, difficulties are inevitable. In Struggles, most of the difficulties were outside the group's control. Physical safety and security are always the prison's top priority, so if an emergency (such as a medical problem, a fight, or a miscount) occurred, the school would close. In addition, vacations, holidays, and staff obligations occasionally interfered with the group's schedule. Finding the physical space to meet also presented problems for our second session. Regular classroom space was juggled to accommodate the group, and, at times, privacy was interrupted. Student members were amazingly flexible.
Student group leaders had little planning time, so lack of communication caused some trouble. For example, as a group leader, Judy planned each session carefully, while Mary, her partner, preferred improvising. Yolanda had difficulty with reading aloud, so she needed extra support to feel comfortable in her leadership role.
Trust is an important issue in any group. For the women at YCI, trust may be the issue. While confidentially was a firm rule, and generally honored, one member shared another woman's business outside the group, but, rather than ignore the issue, the group managed to resolve the problem through group discussion - without staff intervention.
One year later, Struggles continues to evolve. In the second session, student facilitators selected their own opening and closing exercises, added poems, prose, and prompts - in short, each group built its own identity, establishing a culture specific to its participants. We became advisors, sitting outside the circle, taking attendance, handling any disciplinary problem, and distributing materials.
An advanced Struggles group (for those who completed the first workshop and wished to continue) is now in session. According to the students' evaluations and feedback, the group has been a great success. Poor attendance and high drop out rates are chronic problems at York, yet Struggles' workshops have claimed near perfect attendance and program completion. Teachers have observed increased confidence and expertise in oral reading, writing, and general literacy from students who have completed Struggles. Beyond academics, Struggles graduates demonstrate an improved attitude toward school, better coping skills, and elevated self-esteem.
The women from the Struggles' group testify to its success: "Seeing our violent experiences in writing is more personal and real - especially when we read them aloud. When I hear myself aloud, I'm relating my experience to someone else, and the emotional feelings, which have often been repressed, hit me." Struggles is establishing itself as a regular part of the school's literacy curriculum and adding further evidence to the growing body of research about the healing properties of creative expression.
"Writing helps me to bring out what was inside."
"I think it's a lot easier to express yourself in writing because you don't seem to stumble over the words as much. The pen just flows..."
DeSalvo, L. (1999) Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Stories Transforms our Lives. San Francisco: Harper.
Horsman, J. (2000). Too Scared To Learn: Women, Violence, and Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Schneider, P. (ed.) (1989). In Our Own Voices. Amherst, MA: Amherst Writers and Artists Press.
Schneider, P. (1994). The Writer as an Artist: A New Approach to Writing Alone and with Others. Amherst, MA: Amherst Writers and Artists Press.
About the Authors
Leslie Ridgway, a clinical social worker, has worked at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut for about four years. Ms. Ridgway was a public school social worker in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In her 16 years as a clinician, she has also worked in community mental health and private practice.
Dale Griffith, a state school teacher, has taught at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut, for more than seven years; she has also taught English courses at Middlesex Community College, Middletown, CT.