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Writing at the House

Bunker Hill Community College’s Offender Re-Entry Program at the Suffolk County House of Correction

by Bob Flynn
William sat at the head of the large, gray rectangular table and passed out typed copies of his autobiographical piece, My Own Prison, to his eight classmates and their teacher.

“What do you want us to look for?” Manuel asked.

“Descriptive language is the main thing. I mean, can you really see what I’m writing about? Let me know about that,” William replied as he quickly shuffled his copy in his hands and began reading My Own Prison. His audience listened intently as he recounted his search for a place to live when he was homeless, with several students underlining sentences and scrawling notes on their copies. William finished reading and looked from his piece to the class.

“That’s great, man,” Damon said. “I could really see what’s happenin’. Like when you describe the place your friend showed you.” Damon flipped the pages of his copy to find the exact part. He read it aloud. “‘It was a drab looking building made of yellow brick and covered with dirt and grime. We walked up the stairs of this morbid looking building and we stepped inside. The hallways were dark and dank. The smell of urine bouncing of the walls made it hard to breathe.’ I could see that, man. I could smell that.”

William smiled.

This scene occurred in the Writing Workshop at Bunker Hill Community College’s Offender Re-Entry Program (ORP). ORP is a collaboration of four nonprofit social service agencies in Boston, MA: Bunker Hill Community College, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, Community Resources for Justice, and the Work Place. Originally funded in 2000 as a federal Department of Education re-entry grant (and now funded entirely by the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department), ORP provides offenders at the Suffolk County House of Corrections with comprehensive services that prepare them for a successful and sustained transition to society.

One of the principal tenets of ORP is that education is an essential element in reducing recidivism. A study conducted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1990-1991 showed that the recidivism rate for offenders without a college degree was 60 percent compared to 13.7 percent for those with an associate’s degree, 5.6 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree, and 0 percent for those a master’s degree. In similar studies conducted in Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York, offenders enrolled in higher education programs had average rearrest rates between 1 and 15 percent, compared to the national average of 60 percent (Open Society Institute, Criminal Justice Initiative, p. 5).

Two Stages

ORP operates in two stages. Stage One is an intensive eight-week program at the Suffolk County House of Correction comprised of the Writing Workshop, a computer course, a job skills course, and a life skills course. Although each course demands complete commitment

and effort from each offender, the educational component — the Writing Workshop — is the most rigorous and has become the foundation of ORP. In addition, offenders create a portfolio of their principal work for each course and workshop, which they present to a panel of staff, peers, and representatives from the collaborating agencies. Offenders also work individually with a case manager to create a detailed plan in preparation for their return to their communities.

Stage Two of ORP involves a systematic approach to connecting with the now ex-offenders while they are in the community. Upon release, ex-offenders are contacted by ORP staff (either by phone or in person) once a week for the first month and once a month for the following five months. The goal is to reinforce ex-offenders’ discharge plans and to offer any necessary assistance (including employment assistance, housing assistance, academic counseling, and counseling referrals). In addition, ex-offenders are encouraged to contact ORP staff at any time if they need assistance. Although ex-offenders are under no mandate to remain connected to staff, 90 percent of offenders do remain in contact with at least one ORP staff member after they re-enter the community.

Writing Workshop Philosophy and Format

The Writing Workshop is influenced by the work of Nancy Atwell (1998), Anne Lamott (1994), Donald Murray, Donald Graves, Ralph Fletcher, and Natalie Goldberg (1995) and operates from the philosophy that writing instruction is about the process of writing rather than the product of writing. Throughout the Workshop, students work toward completing an autobiographical piece that involves a clear writing process and incorporates specific writing techniques and conventions. Students draft their autobiographical piece throughout the session while working on separate mini-assignments, including dialogue and complete sentences (between the autobiographical piece and the mini-assignments, offenders have between one and one-and-a-half hours of nightly homework). “They are learning to unlearn a lot of what they believe writing means — that their story is ok to write about,” says Amy Carpineto, one of the two Writing Workshop teachers.

Students read Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand (2001), which is about Baca’s struggles both in and out of prison. Baca’s autobiography provides students an opportunity to read and discuss the themes of an exceptional and relevant piece of literature, in addition to providing a context in which to study the conventions of writing (e.g., paragraphing and punctuation) and the elements of a memoir (e.g., character development and plot development). Students read two to three chapters each week. Mary Beth Cahill, the second Writing Workshop teacher, says that Baca’s memoir is important for offenders because “the theme of the book is language — that gaining control of language allowed him to overcome his environment and change his life.”

In the Writing Workshop component of their ORP portfolio, students include the final draft of their autobiographical piece as well as an earlier draft of their choice. During their Portfolio Presentation, students discuss specific revisions they made in the earlier draft and how these revisions were incorporated in their final draft. “The portfolio is so important because it is something concrete,” Carpineto says. “This is a time for them to shine and show they didn’t sleep their sentence away. It says to an employer or a school, ‘Yeah I was in jail but look what I did.’ Anybody can say they did something, but these guys can show it.”

The box below shows an example of one offender’s first and final drafts. The selected piece captures a moment when Michael, staring out his cell window, looks upon the Boston University Medical Center. Michael’s piece is impressive not only because the final draft reflects significant revisions from the first draft, including improved descriptive language and the addition of internal dialogue, but also because it includes important reflections on his previous life and the consequences of his crime. The ability to reflect — especially in writing, because of the clarity that is expected — is critical for offenders if they are to make a successful transition to the community.


The impact of the Writing Workshop, both during the eight-week class and when offenders return to the community, has made it the pivotal element of ORP. During the eight-week class, the concepts, strategies, and skills offenders acquire are integrated into every other course. In the job skills class, students employ their knowledge of active voice, descriptive language, and basic grammatical rules when writing their resumes and cover letters. Kamilah Drummond, the job skills instructor from 2001 through 2004, states that the Writing Workshop “allowed me to use class time more efficiently on job skills areas rather than having to spend time on writing areas.” In the computer course, a component of the curriculum involves learning Microsoft Word’s formatting and style functions. Since the majority of offenders are not computer literate and need to practice their computer skills frequently, the Writing Workshop assignments provide a relevant and important context in which offenders can apply their Microsoft Word skills. Lastly, as part of the life skills class, offenders record minutes of each session. The ability to write clearly, accurately, and succinctly is essential to this task.

The impact of the Writing Workshop transcends the classroom: it is evident when the offenders return to the community. The most obvious effect is the confidence it instills. Many offenders view obtaining a job and completing a college course in the same way they initially viewed reading a novel or writing a polished paper — as an impossibility. “A lot of our guys have a history of not completing things. Their writing is something tangible they have completed,” says Carpineto. When students complete the intensive Writing Workshop curriculum, they realize that they are capable of success in areas where they once believed it was unattainable. Carpineto cites as an example an ORP graduate, Marcus, who returned to the community and is enrolled in a demanding one-year massage therapy certificate program. He not only successfully managed the rigors of the massage program — which include class four days per week and nightly homework — but also continued with the program despite spending a week in the hospital after being shot in the abdomen.

The writing of a required autobiographical piece plays a significant role in establishing meaningful relationships between offenders and ORP staff. Offenders often write about profound personal experiences and feelings, allowing the teachers and staff a means to understand them and build trusting relationships. “The Writing Workshop is based on having students make themselves vulnerable and telling the truth. This allows the teachers to get to know students at an accelerated speed,” Carpineto says. This relationship is invaluable to remaining connected with students when they return to the community: they’re not just remaining connected with a program, they’re remaining connected with people who care about them and are committed to helping them succeed. Karen Bacon, the program’s former case manager and current director, cites the example of Michael. “The first time I met Michael was to complete the program’s assessment paperwork. When he got to the writing sample, he froze. ‘I can’t do this. Do I have to write?’ I explained to him that the program’s writing workshop involves a great deal of writing throughout the eight weeks. He responded with, ‘Thank you for this opportunity, but then I don’t want to do the program. I’m sure it’s a good program and I could use it, but I’ll fail the writing.’ For 20 minutes, Michael carried on about being a bad writer: he felt anxious and self-conscious with even talking about writing. After a lot of coaxing on my part, Michael finally agreed to participate.

“I then asked him to do our standard writing sample. The sample he produced was only a couple of sentences and as he passed it to me he commented, ‘This is all I can do. It sucks. I’ll try the program, but don’t expect much from me because I really can’t write.’ For eight weeks, Michael worked on an autobiographical story. He solicited feedback from staff and classmates, despite how nervous he was that his story was going to be ‘bad’ and people wouldn’t like it. At the end of the cycle, Michael had completed a typed, two-and-a-half-page autobiographical piece that I felt was outstanding. It was thoughtful, had characters that were developed, and he incorporated dialogue. Michael said to me, ‘I can’t believe that I wrote this. Remember, I couldn’t even do the writing sample. I didn’t think I was gonna make it, but look at what I actually wrote.’”

Michael’s Draft

First Draft
Every three to five seconds, another vehicle found its temporary residence as the lot filled up to capacity as fast as Fenway Park on Opening Day filled itself with Red Sox fans from all over. However, in this picture, the fans were the many doctors, medical residents, students, interns, and others who were not coming to see a baseball game but were all arriving no doubt with a common purpose in mind. They were coming to be productive members of Boston University Medical Center’s community. They’re coming because, somewhere in each of their individual lives, they had learned that they should work hard to earn a living. They were coming because, unlike a Red Sox game, life itself was no game at all. They knew that productivity, consistency, and labor were the keys to survival and true prosperity.

Final Draft
I’d notice how, every three to five seconds, another vehicle found its temporary residence for the day. The parking lot filled to capacity as quickly as Fenway Park had filled itself with Red Sox fans on Opening Day. However, in this picture, I thought to myself, the fans were the many doctors, nurses, medical residents, students, interns, and others who were not coming to see a baseball game, but were all arriving, no doubt, with a common purpose in mind.

I knew this on account of my personal interactions with many of the people I was observing. I knew that they were coming to be members of Boston University Medical Center’s flourishing community. How? Because it was the same community that I was once a part of, not too long ago. Seeing this happening had a profound effect on my inner conscious. I wondered whether the judge knew, when he sentenced me, that I would be confronted with such “smack in the face”. In this way, I thought to myself, the system seemed heartless and cold, yet it was I who had done myself the injustice and placed myself in this position. I committed the crime of Breaking and Entering and had, therefore, rendered myself powerless to these circumstances. I had no choice but to watch life go on without me. I thought to myself, These people are showing up because, somewhere in each of their individual lives, they had learned that they should work hard to earn a living. They were coming because, unlike a Red Sox game, life itself is no game at all. These people knew that productivity, consistency, and labor were all key to survival and true prosperity in the capitalistic society we are living in today. I, on the other hand, had lost touch with this reality and became somewhat of an outcast.

The Challenges

There are two primary challenges in running a Writing Workshop in a correctional facility. The first is operating a closed-enrollment eight-week program. ORP operates out of the Community Corrections Unit and, although it recruits offenders from the entire institution, offenders must reside in this unit in order to participate. As result, recruitment for the program can difficult because:

The Suffolk County House of Correction’s Classification Department, which approves and coordinates all offender movement and programming, has been instrumental in helping ORP navigate these challenges successfully. Without its cooperation, ORP would not be able consistently to enroll a full class each session.

The second challenge is the offenders’ educational experience. The vast majority of offenders enter ORP with low academic levels (ORP graduates read on average at a 7.93 reading level based on the Test for Adult Basic Education) and, because of negative experiences in formal schooling, perceive any educational activity in a negative light. As a result, teachers consistently find that offenders begin the Writing Workshop with an unequivocal belief that they are not capable of success as writers and readers. “You can make absolutely no assumptions about what skills they have,” Carpineto says. “Most students simply don’t use language as a means to get them through the world. We not only teach students concepts but how to learn concepts, and we must balance between giving students what they need without overwhelming them.”

Measuring Effectiveness

ORP’s model has proved highly effective. An independent evaluation of ORP conducted by Anne M. Piehl, Stefan F. LoBuglio, and Richard B. Freeman (2003) of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government showed that offenders who graduated from the program had a 12.63 percent lower recidivism rate than a control group who had not participated in ORP. In addition, their results showed that the longer an ORP graduate remains in the community, the greater the likelihood he will not return to prison: 500 days after release, ORP graduates are 20 percent more likely not to have returned to prison than offenders who did not participate in ORP. Many factors contribute to an offender’s successful transition into the community. The Offender Re-Entry Program demonstrates that education is one of them.

Offenders’ names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

Atwell, N. (1998). In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Baca, J. S. (2001). A Place to Stand. New York, NY: Grove/Atlantic Publishing.

Goldberg, N. (1995). Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Anchor Publishing.

Lamott, A. ( 1994). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon.

Open Society Institute, Criminal Justice Initiative. (N.D.). Retrieved December 31, 2002, from

Piehl, A. M., LoBuglio, S., & Freeman, R. (2003). Prospects for Re-Entry. Working Paper No. 125, Economic Policy Institute.

About the Author
Bob Flynn’s professional experience includes seven years as a GED and Writing Workshop instructor at the Log School Settlement House in Dorchester, MA, and three years as the Director of the Offender Re-Entry Program in Boston, MA. He is now the Acting Dean of Developmental Learning and Academic Support at Bunker Hill Community College, Boston, MA.