The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Even though the rate of crime is dropping, incarceration rates remain fairly steady. What’s more, recidivism (i.e., re-offending after conviction for other crimes) is also very high in the US. If offenders continue to offend, even after completing their sentences in a correctional system designed to address their underlying criminal activity, what is the point of having such a system? Can the system be made more accountable and better? Have we considered all the options for criminal reform? This article explores these questions using effective rehabilitation principles to inquire into writing programs in prison. The need for more reflective, collaborative writing programs in prisons is stressed, where a strong alignment between the outcomes of these writing programs and the purported goals of prison rehabilitation is found and emphasized.
In the fall of 2020, Sandeep intends to begin his junior year at the University of Richmond. He is double majoring in Political Science and Economics.
The inspiration for the following essay came from one of my First Year Seminar courses at the University of Richmond. Part of the course experience involved participating in a peer storytelling project with the incarcerated youth of the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, VA. This experience was the first time I really began to immerse myself into the lives of those who live behind bars. Driven by the power of these stories and the relationships I built there, I decided to conduct a review of prison literature and rehabilitation programs in the country. As I delved deeper into the literature, I began to find gaps and other realities of the U.S incarceration system. As part of my course, I was also introduced to the work of David Coogan and the prison writers that he worked with in his writing project. Drawing connections between his work, my own experience, and prison rehabilitation literature, the initial versions of this essay came into being. The goal at that time was to show how writing programs in prison help transform prisoners and are an effective new model for our corrections system.
However, after months of re-thinking, peer reviews and editing, the purpose of this essay has evolved beyond suggesting writing programs as a solution to our corrections dilemma. I’ve come to realize the complexities of the corrections system where instead of just trying to “change” the people on the inside, I’ve found that more focus needs to be given in making their voices heard. In this final version of my essay, I stress that we need to give more control and autonomy to those on the inside, allowing them to shape their own narratives and write their own stories. In emphasizing this need, my essay attempts to show how creative expression frameworks like writing programs work to help address exactly that. Over the course of writing this essay, I’ve also learnt the importance of language when addressing those on the inside and the othering effect that words like inmate and prisoner have. These words in of itself have a negative connotation attached to them and I’ve realized that one cannot begin to make lives on the inside better without actually humanizing their lives first. Thus, in the second half of the essay where I discuss the empowering nature of the reflective writing model like Coogan’s and the one I propose, I’ve made an active effort to shift the terminology from the word inmate to people, participants, and writers to illustrate this point. My hope is that this essay begins to start the much-needed conversation in these areas.
Lastly, I would like to express my thanks and gratitude to Dr. Sylvia Gale at the University of Richmond without whose mentorship and encouragement, this essay would have not been possible. I would also like to thank David Coogan and the other authors of Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail for inspiring me through their work and testimonies to make this essay a reality.
"Reflective writing in prisons: Rehabilitation and the power of stories and connections,"
VA Engage Journal: Vol. 8, Article 5.
Available at: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/vaej/vol8/iss1/5