by Debra Des Vignes
They notice birds that sing prison songs in plantation fields to condemned men with hopeless dreams. In 2017, I founded Indiana Prison Writers Workshop, a creative writing program for those living in Indiana correctional facilities, where I lead a group of inmates through different writing prompts. The questions they ask: “How have our lives come to this and what will we find waiting for us on the other side?”
As I meet these men in their brown jumpsuits each Sunday, their lives intersecting with mine, I am struck by their poise, candor, and eagerness to express their vulnerabilities. It’s true, the sliver of light that appears through a window in an airless room, gives one an odd perspective of the world, and I no longer observe them through my narrowing eyes. We write about crime, the lives that stretch ahead of them, and the intersections we all face each day. At times, the walls around us feel heavy, but we persevere – unearthing deep emotional issues that were once too painful to let out. At times we jump back into our shells and silence settles among us like the weight of the sweltering sun on a muggy day, until we feel light again.
There’s a reason why so many inmates use storytelling as a coping mechanism, a tool to get through the day, the weeks, the months, the years. Being in prison strips one of their “self” where each day, from morning until bedtime, there is a fight to maintain one’s sanity. At times, Chris’ eyes go wide. “Oh, man, is this class for me?” He describes the writing program in this way: “We were immediately given permission to see ourselves as majestic creatures who are allowed to come and go as we please, fly free, and feel the wind beneath our wings. As caged birds we sing our little hearts out!” he proclaims in awe of the freedom he was given. “Now I’m writing a novel.”
These men are not numbers assigned by the Department of Corrections, but true artists. Writing builds confidence. It gives them hope at a time when hope is the one thing keeping them alive. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a new life, where fast-paced tempos once matched a hectic pace of a life, gives way to a calming melody of self-reflection. And where birds, once invisible in some trees, are now squawking. We’re all at an impasse.
In 1950, there were 265,000 prisoners in the U.S. Today, more than 2.3 million inmates sit behind bars in federal, state, and county prisons and jails around the country.