Poetic justice: female inmates empowered by poetry

Natalie Wood: Ellen, how was the program started and what was your initial motivation for joining it?

Ellen Stackable: Dan Hahn (a fellow teacher at TSAS) came to school one day and told me about this poetry program at the jail. I thought “What! I’ve been trying to do something at the jail for several years!” I don’t know what motivated me exactly. I think when I was working on my Master’s and looking for a topic, I just went down a rabbit trail one day and began looking at the state of incarcerated women in Oklahoma.

The more I found out the more upset I got. I had no idea of the medieval nature of some of the practices here, and that Oklahoma incarcerates more women than anyone in the world. So, I started looking for a place where I could teach writing. I tried several different places, and prisons are kind of a labyrinth of a system to figure out. I ended up teaching one summer at a privately run Christian place that allowed women to go there instead of prison, but it was just a really weird place, so I quit doing it.

So when Dan told me about his program, I went to visit with the class that had both men and women teaching it. I asked him if there was anything just for the women and he told me no. That’s when I met Claire Collins and she and I just decided to start it. We had a contact through another woman that allowed us to go to the prison, and it wasn’t long after that that I met Maggie.

NW: So Maggie, what made you interested in the program? How did Ellen approach you about it?

Maggie Lane: Well, it’s really funny how I got involved because there’s no backstory. Ellen had some of my siblings in school but I don’t know that I had ever been acquainted with her. I didn’t go to TSAS, but she knew some of my sisters.

So she was at the farmer’s market while I was working and just told me, “I’m going to start teaching this poetry class at the jail. Is that something that you want to do? Because I feel like it is something you want to do.” And the year before, I had written a thesis about incarceration and restorative justice.

I had been meditating on the issues in our system for about a year, and that carried over to something that I still thought about. I told her, “Yes, yes! Of course I want to!” I just thought it was really weird how that played out, because it just kind of happened.

NW: Ellen, how did you know that was something Maggie would be interested in?

ES: Honestly — and I do not say this lightly, and I don’t say it often — I felt like God wanted me to ask her. I really don’t have any other explanation. I had said something to Caitlin [Maggie’s coworker] and I just felt like I was supposed to ask Maggie. I thought that she was supposed to do this.

The look on her face when I asked her was “did you know? Did you know that I did my entire senior thesis on this?” She had to wait a few months because she wasn’t of legal age to help in the jail. She’s the only person they’ve ever had in the jail that went through the training classes.

NW: What were the training classes? What did they entail?

ML: They’re pretty simple. They just talk about issues that people typically have in the jail between the inmates and the detention officers, as well as how to not be taken advantage of. So it primes you to have a certain perspective about the inmates, because you’re told beforehand that you need to be on guard. It’s just interesting to see the perspective and the culture about the inmates that is being handed to you from the training.

NW: Even though you had both done research on the American prison system beforehand, has this experience changed your perspective at all?

ML: Oh, absolutely…I think that the most amazing part about it is how little security there is. It’s kind of amazing how surreal it feels to come from the outside and walk through all these layers of the prison — Ellen calls them the “seven layers of hell” — on the way to the heart of the jail. But, to go through door after door with a guy behind a window that you can’t see through who’s pushing a button so that you can enter this place is just a surreal experience.

ES: But nobody’s checking! Nobody checks your bags, there is no metal detector, nothing!

ML: And they only view your ID. It’s just very strange. Essentially, we could bring someone with us, just drop their license off, and bring them in the back and nobody would ask another question.

NW: It’s interesting then, with how many women they incarcerate, that they have such minimal security as to who comes in.

ES: I would have to say that is the case mostly if you are teaching, or if you’re with a religious ministry. You’re in a different category than the other people that come in.

ML: And they trust us a lot. They’ve told us repeatedly about the impact that our classes have. I think the image that I always go back to is the one of the very first class that I went to. I walked in and the guy sitting at the desk asked me, “Does it matter that you guys even teach this class? Poetry? What’s the point?”

I told him “Yes, absolutely it matters. Giving these women a way to express themselves is very important.” He said, “Well, I think after their second offense we should put them on a helicopter and drop them over Afghanistan!” I just thought “What?! What are you talking about?” That was a moment when I thought that everything that Orange Is the New Black taught us is true. But then you meet people like some of the officers that we’ve met who are there for reasons that you know are much more complicated, and are there to speak into the lives of these women just as much as we want to. There’s a great variety.

ES: We were walking down one of the last halls one day after class, and these two guys in front of us, who were probably no more than eighteen or nineteen, were talking, laughing about how they beat the crap out of somebody earlier that day. It was just so hard. I looked at them and thought “These are just boys.”

ML: And I think it’s really easy to frame a situation of incarceration as a situation of compassion — and it should be this way — on the person being incarcerated, not necessarily on the person that’s in charge of that situation. But typically, I feel just as emotional about what those men would have said, or just how calloused some of these people are, as I would about these people behind the bars.

I know that their mistreatment of the inmates is really detrimental to them, even if that’s not something that they realize. So it’s pretty difficult all around, but then there are also really good moments. There are some really wonderful people who work there. But it’s not glamorous.

Whenever I bring this up to people they always ask me “so it’s like Orange Is the New Black?” And I think that one of the main things about it is that it is not glamorous at all. There are no parts of it that are like a television drama that you would want to watch.

It’s all either painful or emotional or difficult or sad — or funny — but the way that the women care about one another is never captured. We asked them what they were grateful for, which is a pretty hard question considering their situation, but one woman said “I am grateful to be in jail because I’ve learned that the women here love me more and treat me better than my husband does.” And a lot of those women are realizing that about their relationships.

ES: Well, they estimate that 90 plus percent of women in jail have either been sexually or physically abused. And we hear some of those stories. One woman talked about her dad who had abused her, which was really terrible to hear.

NW: So then what is the most powerful or memorable interaction you’ve had with one of the women? There seems to be a lot to pull from.

ML: There’s one student that we’ve sustained a relationship with that’s more long-term than anything we’ve done with our other students. She was in our class two or three times, and she was incarcerated because she stabbed her neighbor. She came to our class and is just a phenomenal, brilliant writer and is a brilliant performer of poetry. She went to prison after she moved to Eddie Warrior [Correctional Center] and so we went and visited her there, and we followed her from there to Turley. Her name is Olympia, and she’s just incredible.

The thing that I try to stress the most, and to remind myself of, and on occasion our fellow teachers, and anybody that gets involved with us, is that the focus of everything that we’re doing is speaking into the lives of the women. When they write a poem that probably no one is going to find pleasing when they read, it’s just for them to have an experience of empowerment. And I think that with Olympia, there’s been this really beautiful experience of friendship between us.

It’s something that looks a lot less like an instructor and a student, and a lot more like women coming together and reclaiming a lot of lost ground. Because Olympia is black and came from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and I’m white and have infinitely more privilege than she does by default. She’s incarcerated and I’m not, and for us to just get together and talk, share our lives, write letters, and share a birthday… that never would have happened any other way.

For us to just share things like this feels like this huge triumph, really. A triumph over the way our society has been divided, especially for women to do that because there’s so much division that’s built into relationships that women have. It’s just been really awesome. It feels like a great victory.

ES: Sometimes I feel daunted and kind of overwhelmed by the negative effect of prison on these women. You know, I was thinking about this when I visited Olympia this week, and I feel like there’s a toll that prison is taking on her that will make it hard for her to go back into society. It’s almost like it dooms her to repeat unless she just rises above it.

That is discouraging and daunting to me in our role with these women, because we have a limited amount of time to spend with them. We have five weeks, at most, and sometimes it’s just once. So early on when we were putting this together we had to realized that we can’t change everything for them.

But if we can be a spark that gives them a sense of self-worth and empowerment, a sense that their voice matters, then maybe even when they meet us it’ll make a difference. But it is a disheartening system in America. It’s disheartening to see that if you are poor, your chances of negotiating your way through this are minimal at best.

ML: The outcome for the women who get in the system is pretty horrendous.

ES: I’d say most of the women we work with are nonviolent offenders. In the pod we’re in now, it’s more the violent offenders, and sometimes that’s hard for us to work through.

ML: I will say that I’ve never had trouble with interacting with a woman and having knowledge of her offense. I’ve also never been one to seek that knowledge out. Typically other people will mention it to me and it’s another one of those surreal experiences.

Sometimes you’re talking to someone and it just comes up that they killed someone. And your reaction is “Oh! Okay, I didn’t know that!” You know, you don’t have that when you’re just sitting down having coffee with someone, but I regularly have that experience. It’s as if one of your friends that you didn’t know was adopted told you, “By the way, I’m adopted” and you say, “Oh, I didn’t know that!”

It’s amazing how when you actually build relationships with these women you tend to see the person rather than the action. But there are a few students, one in particular, that have been really troublesome for me and other people in authority.

ES: I’d say she is a sociopath, not a psychopath, but very close.

ML: The thing that this student does that bothers me is that she is just not respectful. She’s not respectful of any boundaries that we set up for the comfort or safety of everyone in the room. She’s disrespected boundaries between teachers and students, and between students and students.

So it leaves us with a lot to process because you want to allow these women to express themselves and to be involved in a community that’s safe and healthy, but you also don’t want to try and force them into a box of how poetry is “supposed” to be written. Sometimes how I think about it is if you were to walk into a classroom in Jenks High School — something predominantly white, predominantly middle upper-class — you’re going to go into that class and teach these students exactly how to write a good poem.

I think working with these women is difficult because you don’t want to give them too many rules because you don’t want to seem oppressive, but you also don’t want to forego the opportunity of criticism that will enhance their capabilities as writers. So there’s always this tension of respecting them and building them up and enabling them. It really is like a tightrope that you’re walking.

ES: We’ve changed the classes over time as we’ve come to different realizations, and one of them is this whole idea of establishing a safe space. It’s huge. If we can, in a classroom with such a limited size, have established a sense of safety, and they can extend it beyond that room into their pod and ultimately into their lives, then we’ll have done our job.

You know, there’s a huge neurological effect to sensory deprivation. They’ve done studies on it, and they’ve shown that it’s really hard for people’s brains to recover from a sensory deprivation experience when they’re in jail or prison. The thing about the Tulsa jail is that it’s supposed to be, on average, a ten day stay there. They go on to trial, and they go either to prison or they leave. But it’s not true. There are women who’ve been there over a year.

So we’ve started doing things to include sensory restoration underlying the idea of restorative justice. So we tried music, we tried fabric — which was fun, but pretty distracting — but the one that is just unbelievable is the essential oils that we bring.

ML: Which is also the most upsetting factor for us when we visit. I mean the smell of the prison is the most assaulting part of being there because we come right after dinner. And dinner does not smell good. It’s pretty awful.

ES: So we start off with a meditation and deep breathing to center everyone in and focus them, and we ask them what it means to have a safe space. As they’re doing the meditation, we go through and we use lavender oil…and we use rosemary…And as they leave they ask, “can we have more oil?”

ML: They’ll bring in shampoo bottles, asking if we can pour some in. Or they’ll bring in cotton balls and ask us to fill them up and they’ll take it to their bunkie. They really love the essential oils.

ES: And in a way, I think it extends that sense of safety beyond the classroom while we’re there. They say that the sense of smell is the most evocative of all the senses.

ML: Oh yeah. It’s the one that conjures up memory and feeling, you know?

ES: So imagine being able to have that positive response when you leave.

ML: It’s like if you visit your parents’ home and you wear your mom’s sweater or something, and you’re carrying that around with you all day. That’s what this is like for these women. There’s this safe place that they then get to take out with them. And that’s what they tell us; that’s the most amazing part.

Sometimes it can feel like guesswork. But last week we got a letter from one of our students, and I am floored by the way that these women make room in their lives for my story. I mean, they’re in prison and a lot of them are going back to situations that don’t necessarily look much better than going to prison. Sometimes even worse.

And they remember what I’m doing with my weekend and what classes I’m taking, and they want to know about my life. And it’s not in a way that they’re living vicariously through me, it’s in a way that’s of genuine concern and love for me. It’s also in a really bittersweet way of a woman who, because of an abusive relationship that she had with a man in her life, her opportunities to go to college were stolen from her, so she’s asking me about that part of my life. And they’re so encouraging and delighted that I have that opportunity, instead of being resentful, and it’s just incredible.

And the thing is, some of them are women I would not want to hang out with, but some of them are women I wish I had been raised by, that I wish I had known my whole life. So by no means am I painting them all as victims or as martyrs or as wonderful people because it’s just the same way in my regular life, where I sometimes meet people that I wouldn’t necessarily like to spend any time with.

ES: I think most of them feel like their lives are kind of doomed. And we are there to restore hope, we’re saying, “No you can do something with your life.” I tell Olympia that every time I see her and she lists off the possibilities. She finished three years of college at an Ivy league school, and she thought it was just all lost ground. I keep telling her that she can finish her degree, that there are a multitude of opportunities for her.

NW: So how do you think the topic of incarceration appeals to the public? You two have seen these women and heard their stories first hand, but why is it important for the people who don’t know as much about it?

ES: That’s interesting because I think the issue of incarceration is a hot button issue for both conservatives and liberals. Liberals because of social justice, and conservatives because of the immense cost and the economic effects it has on the state. You combine those two and I think we’re kind of at a perfect opportunity to see our classes expand.

ML: But I have to admit that being in the space that we create is just so unique and wonderful that when I talk about it it’s hard to communicate what’s at the core of what happens there. But I never am prepared for people’s responses. Some of them look at me like they are totally confused about why on earth I would want to go into the jail and teach poetry.

The Tulsa World published an article about us, and my mom sent a clipping to my grandma thinking she would be excited to see that I’m involved in something at the jail. My grandma asked “Why the hell would she want to do that?!” And that’s this reaction that I’m never prepared to get, and thankfully that’s not what I get a majority of the time.

ES: I feel more like it’s a religious experience when I go to the jail, like when I take my freshman class to the monastery every year. I’m in a cloistered environment and I feel an ability to be present in the moment that I don’t feel anywhere else. And it allows me to backtrack and feel that way more than I have ever felt in my life.

ML: I think it’s funny, because all throughout high school I went to a youth group every Wednesday, and it was this experience that grounded me. Then I graduated from high school and I started going to the jail every Wednesday for the same length of time, it was the same commitment, and it’s this other place where I feel totally safe and I feel like I’m grounded there.

There is this foundation in my life that I find there in that space, which is typically a pretty terrible space. And that’s hard to say too, because that’s the trouble that altruistic people have with it. It’s the paradox of doing something to help people while you are also being helped by it. It’s a question that I have to struggle with.

Yet, of course if you’re doing something that restores wholeness to the world you are going to be benefitted by it. And I think that can be hard for some people to think about because a lot of the time we think of benefits as being financial or economic, you know? But the amount of humility that I am forced to encounter because of this, and the changes in my everyday interactions with strangers is something that is obviously going to come out of me doing something like this. Where, because I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there are certain biases that you can’t help being bred into.

NW: Especially with being white, there are inherent differences that we notice right away.

ML: Right. For example, if you’re out late at night in downtown are you going to lock your car door if you see someone walk past you on the street? And it’s those little moments where you make tiny little judgments about people that you see every day.

ES: And early on when I started at the jail I realized that a lot of women that I saw there, if I had seen them anywhere but the jail I would have judged them or categorized them as a meth person, or a homeless person and I would have already dismissed them in my consciousness instead of seeing them as human beings that are worthy of my time and respect.

ML: And you hear these stories about their kids, or you listen to them tell jokes, and you realize how normal they are. And I definitely wouldn’t have thought they would want to know so much about me and my life. It really is unbelievable how much these women care about us. I mean, we love them… but they love us.

NW: I think that’s because they recognize that you guys care about them, and they understand the sacrifice you make by coming each week and spending time with them and teaching them.

ES: And we’re not your typical people that go to visit prisoners in jail. So I think we’re all pretty conscious of what we wear realizing that they don’t ever see any other color other than orange in their lives. The odd part about the women in the Tulsa jail is that 24/7 they are in these pods.

ML: Yeah, it’s about as crowded as the three of us in this bedroom, and yet they never get to leave unless they’re going to trial or being released. This is where you eat and you sleep and use the restroom. There’s one little recreation area that’s kind of like a cement block with a screen on the top so that you can see the sky.

NW: So if you two could say something to the public, having now experienced this, what would it be?

ES: I would just say that these are human beings. These are women of worth, women who have kids; these are women who have been hurt, and these are women whose lives are basically a shitstorm and they’re still trying to hang on. Don’t ever, ever reduce them to something like “Orange Is the New Black,” because they are so much more than that.

ML: There’s this word “sonder,” which is the realization that everyone, every other person in the world, has an interior life just as complex, strange, and particular as your own. That’s the word that comes to mind, “sonder.” It’s almost like “wonder.” Wonder at the unique, strange, complicated lives that these people have, and give them the benefit of having a story that’s just as wonderful and terrible and singularly incomparable as your own.

Post Author: tucollegian

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *