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A writing program opens up new possibilities behind bars

It's 8:30 on a Friday morning, in a 12-by-12-foot cinder-block room in the basement of the Allegheny County Jail. And Theo is here to testify.

Sarah Shotland has just asked him and the other 14 men here if they have anything they want to share. Theo (not his real name) certainly does. He's a drug dealer, Theo says, and he's angry about it. Angry because when he leaves County, he's still going to be a drug dealer. Angry because he wants to provide for his family and doesn't know any other way to do it. Angry because he misses his kids — and because he's afraid that they'll do the same things he did, and end up here too.

The other men, all dressed in red scrubs and sitting in a circle, murmur assent.

"That's so real," one says. The others nod.

Shotland seizes the moment: "Who else is a dad?"

All 14 hands go up.

"Why not write a letter to your kids?" she prompts.

Assiduously, and painstakingly, the men write for 15 minutes.

As coordinator of Words Without Walls, a writing program created by Chatham University's MFA in Creative Writing Program, Shotland leads these gender-segregated seminars, and also supervises the graduate students who serve as teachers. She knows the drill well, having begun when she was a graduate student. 

"That's perfect," she remembers thinking when she learned of the program: "A captive audience."

They're a captive audience, all right. County is a decidedly mixed bag, housing everyone from petty offenders to arch-criminals. Many are here waiting — for local, state or federal systems to process their cases. They're waiting for transfers, waiting for trials. Tax cheats and torturers, drug pushers and price-fixers, all are chucked in together, at least for a bit. Some for a bigger bit.

Inmates with no history of violence can take the semester-long Words Without Walls course, as often as they desire. (One woman signed up a record eight times.) The program is entirely voluntary: Given the transient nature of the population, some don't last the semester.

When the 15 minutes are up, an older man, doing time for retail theft, reads his letter. It's a harrowing tale of addiction, and everything he's lost to it. What he misses most, he says, is his neighborhood — Bloomfield, its bakeries and churches. His is a tale of loss on top of loss. Although all his crimes have been petty, he's a lifer of sorts, because he keeps rotating back in.

Around the room, Shotland's students run the gamut, a rainbow coalition of colors and ages ranging from 18 to 65. While some of their writing is pretty good — the program has produced a brace of national prison-writing award-winners — much is little more than doggerel or therapy. Which is just fine with Shotland. 

"It's about self-healing," she says, "or channeling their anger. That's great. Because this is one way to express themselves."

All these hard cases — people who've spent their lives concealing, hiding, covering up — are now opening up, freely discussing emotions, hurts and hopes. Emboldened by the letters home, Shotland's next exercise is a sonnet, of all things.

The participants hunker down, then emerge. It ain't Shakespeare, or Spenser, or Milton. It's down-and-outers writing about drugs, about the detritus of their lives. But clearly they're trying to take the next step.

"I tell my students that even if they've never written a word, they have richer material than most people," Shotland says. "They grapple with Big Ideas every day — freedom and consequence, redemption and truth. I ask them to mine their lives for experiences to bring to the page."

And it works. "I get a lot of memory," she says, "and a lot of poetry. Some of it is very good. Some of it sets the bar very high.

"Plus," she adds, "they're so attentive. They love sharing their work with each other."

That's the pull, she thinks: that touch of self, of sharing, of humanity in a closed, rigid environment. In the only home that some of them have ever known.

It's been three hours. A guard — big, burly, Central Casting — comes in the room. "We gotta go," he commands, and the men all stand.

They thank her as they file out. Shotland watches their red backs and sighs. "It's the most important thing I do," she says. "It makes me think more deeply about how we're all connected. And how these people got to be human beings for a while."

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