Wendy Brown-Baez

Columbia Heights

smokin out the shadows.jpg

Book cover of smoke rising in the air.

The cover of a chapbbook by writers in MFC-Stillwater. Photo by Wendy Brown-Baez, courtesy of MPWW

The writer's collective at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater invited me to teach a writing workshop on the topic of remorse for an in-house reading to be held during Victim Awareness week. I am a member of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW), a nonprofit organization. We received Minnesota State Arts Board grants and held readings open to the public on behalf of our incarcerated students. However, their work has to be approved by victim's services, often is rejected, and we cannot use their real names. Obviously they cannot write about their crimes.

My lesson plan was that first we would write about times we felt intimidated, then the impact of their crimes on their families, their victims’ families, and their victims, ending with their healing story. My teaching style is to use poetry as a jump start, free-write in class, and assign homework. We critiqued and revised as we went along. It was hard to find relevant poems—most seem to be from the victim’s point of view. I used Gregory Orr’s poem "Gathering the Bones Together" to write about the violence of their crimes and David Whyte’s poems to write about their inner journey of transformation.

For the reading, they were each allowed to invite two inmates. Victims’ Services, Restorative Justice staff, the warden, the commissioner were invited. Nine members of MPWW attended.

We titled our program Unchained Voices. We began with a funny but poignant story of being bullied by a girl in school. But by the second section, the readers began to tear up. Kleenex was passed up and down among us. Soon, the audience was in tears. They insisted I read something. I was part of the team, so I shared a piece I had written in the class called "My Voice" to kick off this section of our inner transformation.

The evening was profoundly moving and cathartic as audience members wiped away tears and gave handshakes. The effects rippled through the cell blocks and through administration. We were seeing these men, most in prison for murder, as human beings. Their remorse can never be put to rest, the desire for forgiveness and absolution and redemption is intense and constant, but they have worked hard to change.

In the next week, we debriefed. One writer said that he was surprised by his tears. He had read his pieces over and over, revising, but in reading them aloud to an audience, he actually heard his own words. One commented on how the class helped him to stop judging others, the outward façade, and be more compassionate. Another said he thought others would see him as weak but he was surprised that they wanted to hug him. And later, in our monthly forum, one mentioned that instead of acting in anger after an incident, he had gone back to his cell to write.

To me, this is what writing is all about. To change, to be changed, to have a voice, to be heard, to be visible. to reach out to someone’s heart and touch it in ways that are irrevocable. People were calling it a once in a lifetime experience. This was beyond the inmate who told us that now he and his family recite poems to each other over the phone after taking one of our classes. This was an experience that altered our lives forever.