Writer teaches female inmates how to express their fears and frustrations, hopes and hearts
JEANNE PENGELLY – Peterborough Examiner
Saturday, June 23, 2007 the up to 60 women living in the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, there is no such thing as privacy. There is little in the way of compassion, sympathy, fellowship or empathy. The simplest things, often taken for granted on the outside, take on extraordinary significance on the inside.
“In prison, you look forward to evening lockdown as it means one more day can be X’d off the calendar,” writes one female inmate. “In prison our pencils are cut in half. We have to eat our food from worn plastic trays and receive it through a slot in the door. There is no such thing as privacy.”
But one woman has planted the seeds of hope. Sue Reynolds goes into the women’s wing at the Central East Correctional Centre each Friday afternoon, gives the women a pencil and paper, and teaches them to write. The 50-year-old Trent University graduate student still isn’t sure what made her think of teaching creative writing to women in jail; it just came to her one day during a road trip, she said.”I had no experience with jails. Didn’t know anyone who’d been in one; I’d never been in one. Just what I saw on TV,” Reynolds said. She was already in her 40s, having already had a career as a self-made graphic artist, and another in retail clothing. She had two broken marriages, one son, and she’d penned an award-winning young adult novel, Strandia.
All that after having run away from home at 16. “I saw some dark days,” Reynolds recalls now. “Maybe that’s it – there but for the grace of God.”
She originally started teaching creative writing just so she’d have someone to write with, she said. Then she read a book, and the book led to a certification course in therapeutic writing, and the course made room for a new idea.
She took that idea to the closest jail – the Central East Correctional Centre. That was 2004. Since then, between 300 and 400 women have taken part in the writing workshops.
Recently, Reynolds added a second session to accommodate the demand. She was one of 14 recognized provincially with the June Callwood Award for Outstanding Volunteerism. She was also recently awarded a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a Master’s program at Trent University that will incorporate her work in the jail.
“I’ve been under the water and I’m caught on a piece of seaweed. I need air. I see the surface, the light. But I can only feel the darkness, the cold.” – S.P., a female inmate at CECC in Lindsay.
It’s not easy work, writing on the range. “It’s all glass and concrete and linoleum,” Reynolds said. “Physically it’s an environment that’s hostile to the creative process.”
“There are two three-foot wide single beds on each side,” writes one inmate. “They are each six feet long. There is not quite three feet distance between each. At the end of one of the beds, there is an open toilet, meaning no privacy. This takes up another three feet by four feet. Then you have a sink and a metal mirror at the cell door. We haven’t even added clothes, personal effects, books etc. yet. You know why? Because we have to make room for a third person. She’s new in the cell, so she gets the floor. So we have to find room for another mattress which is three feet wide, three inches thick and six feet long.”
There’s more. “There’s a culture on the range. A moral and behaviour code. There’s a whole language. It’s really a macho environment,” Reynolds says.
But there’s something underneath that, she says. Most have lost their children to social services. “You want to see broken-hearted? There’s a gaping hole inside where their children were. It’s eating them alive,” Reynolds said.
Women do not cry on the range – the only safe place to cry is the shower, they say. Yet as the drugs leave their system, and they become clean and sober, these women need to talk, share and sometimes cry, Reynolds says.
One wrote: “I come to this class thinking I’m not going to write and all this (stuff) comes out … I’ve never done this before, not even in school. Especially reading my work in front of a group of people. It’s a risk I take, people laughing. Nobody does.” They risk their reputations, their self-esteem, their identities to attend a therapeutic writing workshop.
“You can have the ‘biggest baddest bitch on the range,’ as one inmate said, ” Reynolds quotes. “Suddenly all the ones who were in fear of her are helping her.”
A mother of five, living again with her children, had this to say: ” ‘All my life I’ve been told I’m stupid and I should shut up. This writing class has told me I have something worth saying,’” Reynolds said.
Many, like Grace King, had to see it to believe it. “I was absolutely blown away,” said the manager of volunteer programs on the female unit at the Lindsay jail. King, manager since 2003, has co-ordinated various therapeutic programs, from yoga to alcoholics anonymous. None have had the impact the writing program has, she said.
One woman was “almost illiterate,” King said. Yet she wrote about her garden. Another, heavily drug-addicted prior to jail, came clean and sober and wrote to her family. Soon after her release, she died and the writings became her eulogy. “I’ve been 21 years in corrections,” King said. “I’ve never seen anything with such a dramatic effect.”
Even the toughest girls cry; even the toughest girls reach out to help when another cries, she said.
Administrators who take part feel the barriers between them and the inmates melt away, she said. “We’re all judgment impaired from time to time,” King said. “The writing takes away the bars.”
“Please, no more dark.” – M.N., a female inmate at CECC
There are more bars to deal with outside jail. When a woman is released she may feel she has no choice but to return to a life of crime, one that often includes drugs and prostitution. Four of the women in Reynolds’ course have died since their release. Others are caught breaking probation orders. Too few make the transition and stay clean, she said. Reynolds hopes to address that gap with a community-based group, set to start next month. “Sooner or later they’re going to fall through the cracks if we don’t catch them,” she said.
Luke4, a local funding agency, thinks writing might just stop the gap, and gave a grant to fund Reynolds’ program. She has worked out a partnership with the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre. Participants will be women on parole or serving sentences in the community. Reynolds dreams of expanding to include any woman in danger of breaking the law – victims of abuse, addicts, others.
Elizabeth Fry interim executive director Lesley Hamilton said women fall through the cracks in social service agencies, even in Peterborough where she says support is strong. “When women are released back into the community, they get off the bus, and have to start over,” Hamilton said. “How would you feel if you had no safety net, no emotional safety net, financial safety net, no one to go to figure any of those things out? It would be devastating.”
“If you’ll give me a chance, I’ll try.” C.C., a female inmate at CECC
Reynolds knows how big a challenge she has taken on in pledging to help women stay out of jail. “Maybe I’m dreaming in Technicolor; I don’t know,” Reynolds says.
King, who knows incarcerated women face demons they may never be willing to share – on paper or any way else – persists in saying hope is the answer. “I don’t mean to sound Polly-annish, but we have to have hope in humanity.
“We’re always planting seeds of hope and seeds of change,” she said. “We know we can’t help everyone, but if we can help someone – ‘Someone’ is worth it.”
The writings of these women and more are published and available for purchase by contacting: Elizabeth Fry Society, 705-749-6809. A second volume is expected soon.
Classes in jail:
Each class begins with a short guided breathing meditation. A trigger is offered to use as a prompt for writing, but the prompt is optional. Participants can write on any topic, such as “At this point in my life . . .” or “This is what it’s like to be me.”
- Four of five adults involved with correctional services in 2004-2005 were being supervised in the community. Most, 90 per cent, were on probation or parole.
- Women represented one in 10 admissions to provincial custody facility, 11 per cent of admissions to remand, and 17 per cent of probation sentences.
- Aboriginal women represented nearly one-third of all women sentenced to provincial custody in 2004/2005