For the last report on the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the Dresser presents highlights from the panel discussion "Unchained Voices: Giving Incarcerated Writers a Voice." Wendy Brown-Báez and Nell Morningstar Ubbelohde are two members of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop which offers writing workshops to inmates in and around the Twin Cities and these are some of their insights about teaching prison inmates.
"The purpose of writing is to have a reader." Wendy Brown-Báez
In Minnesota, here is what limits the incarcerated working alone:
• No Internet access.
• No permission to form a writer's group.
• No ability to clear your head by taking a walk or moving to another venue.
• No ability to orally present work in front of an audience.
• Censorship that prohibits using any detail associated with the crime committed.
• No permission to use the writer's real name in works published for outside readership.
• Limited use of the computer to type up one's work.
A big part of what the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop had to do was gain the trust of the prison officials who were leery about people coming in because they disrupt the regimented order, especially if they are erratic in showing up. This kind of work is emotionally difficult and the teachers need to be constantly in control of what they say and how they conduct themselves, even to facial expressions. After all as Brown- Báez said, "Writing poetry is an act of subversion."
When the Dresser asked why they are still doing going into the prisons, both agreed that they feel they are making a difference, that the inmates change. For example, when they call their families , they share poems; when they get angry, they check that anger by going back to their cells to write.
Since the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop started in 2012, here are their accomplishments:
• 75 classes
• 18 instructors working for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop
• 500+ students
• 15 internal readings
• 35 male mentors critiquing work
• 4 public readings attended by 200+ people
• 7 men's prisons & 1 women's prison.
Public readings do not include inmates. It is only their work which must approved by a prison reviewing board. Public readings have been mandated by some of the grants the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop has received. To give the writer inmates feedback, they use postcards handed out to the audience to write comments. Then those comments, after going through prison review, are given to the inmates.
They have created chapbooks based on individual workshops and more recently a publication based on a year's work. Many organizations, like Red Bird Chapbooks, have donated services and resources. None of the books shown during the panel were for sale because these books were created for in-prison use only.
Check out their website to see details and a short film on the work by the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop: http://www.mnprisonwriting.org.