Helping Inmates Find Their Voices

03/05/2013

Teen writing coach lends 'an attentive ear' to an isolated community

Patrick Dowd stands outside the Franklin County House of Correction on Elm Street in Greenfield, where he leads writing classes for inmates as his senior year community service project. (Recorder photo/Paul Franz)

For the past fourteen weeks, I've been spending Thursday evenings at the Franklin County Jail alongside a group of inmates who share my interest in writing and storytelling.  When I first started the project, I suspected that I would find writers with some amazing stories to tell and some unique perspectives to offer, and they have proven that suspicion to be true each and every week since.  On the very first night, I was struck by just how willing they were to participate.  I presented them with a prompt, we wrote for about 20 minutes, and when it came time to share our work, I expected an uncomfortable 15 seconds of silence before someone felt obligated to read.  There was no silence at all, though, and instead they jumped right in and all nine members of the group enthusiastically read their work.  Even though I originally planned to organize three six-week workshops to allow for alternating membership, three of the writers have elected to continue for the entire duration of the project.  For them, that same eagerness from the first night is still very present.

Incarceration provides such an immense amount of time for reflection, and I think it's only natural to seek a method of getting some of those thoughts out in the open.  Some of the inmates, whether they have been in prison for two months or three years, have been using writing as entertainment or expression since the initial days of their sentences, and their great observational skills really show in their work.

Sometimes someone reads a story about an awful date they had in high school or a bike stunt gone wrong, and they'll have the entire group laughing uncontrollably.  But then the next person might read a piece about a loved one that they miss or a mistake that they wish they could take back, and the room will be almost silent.  I think that the chemistry works best in our group when we recognize that both of those reactions are equally valuable, and that both are signs of vivid, powerful writing.

I went into the project knowing full well that I am not a teacher.  Many of the inmates have completed higher levels of education than I have, and my goal was to be a guiding member of the group rather than an instructor.  They have made that part very easy for me, and I often feel more comfortable showing my work to these men that I do with people I've known for years.

The faculty members at the jail have been truly amazing.  They went well out of their way to hear my proposal, and they've given me a great amount of freedom at every step.  Tammy Balestracci, Candace Angier and David Lanoie have each been very helpful and supportive throughout my project.

This is my sixth year at The Academy of Charlemont, and every year I've loved seeing what the seniors choose to pursue as their senior projects.  Now that I'm a senior, it's exciting to watch all of my classmates working hard on some really fantastic projects.  I designed my particular project because I believe that every group of people wants and deserves to have their voices heard, and the portion of the population behind bars historically hasn't always had that need met.  As far as I know, the best way that I can help is by being an attentive ear.  The people inside are in an isolated community, but it is still very much a community, and in the future I would really like to continue helping with programs in some capacity.

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