Once a week for the past five years, Peter Blau has stepped away from his paid job as a writing instructor to teach a creative writing class to a group of women at the Volunteers of America Residential Correction Center in Roseville. The women gather in a classroom anxiously awaiting his arrival. They want to share their stories…in their own words.
The VOA houses female offenders under the jurisdiction of county, state and federal correctional authorities. Their convictions run the gamut from misdemeanor to felony offenses. Blau however, prefers not to know the exact crime that led to a participant’s incarceration. “I look at them differently…I see the dignity of them,” Blau says. “I don’t see criminals, I see writers.”
Blau’s class, “Writing for Understanding and Change,” is far more labor-intensive than the creative writing classes he teaches in the community. He uses guided writing exercises to help the women discover their voice and at the same time gain insight into the issues contributing to their incarceration. Unlike his other classes, taboo topics such as physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction, homelessness and abandonment are common themes in the stories and poems the women write in this group. “I push the boundaries more in this group and they are like…bring it on.”
The women are eager to share their writing and in the process receive validation within the group. Some of the women may start the class as enemies; however, while listening to each other’s stories, they often discover they are more alike than different. By the end of the nine-week writing course, they no longer view themselves as outcasts and are ready to shed the labels stamped on them by society. Blau recalls one student’s response to a police officer referring to her as a prostitute. “I may have been doing that, but I’m not a prostitute.”
Oddly, being behind bars grants the women a freedom to be more creative with their words. Not bound by rules regarding sentence structure and poem format, the women develop their own form of written expression. Blau finds their “raw” yet creative writing methods inspiring. “As a writer, it is interesting to see where they will take language,” he says. “Sometimes I get more out of the class than they do.”
Prior to working with female inmates, Blau taught a writing class in the Men’s Correctional Facility in Stillwater. Although he found their writings equally gripping, he noticed it took longer for the men to trust one another. The women are more willing to open up sooner, often as early as the first class. They are also more likely to use their writing as a tool for conflict resolution. While openly discussing her anger toward another inmate, one woman told the class, “I was gonna pound that b**** but then I went and wrote about it.”
At age 60, Blau believes his male presence in the group is a positive influence on the women, adding that some view him as a father figure. Many of the women are victims of domestic and sexual abuse, which has led them to distrust men in general. “I show them not all men are bad by appreciating them for their talent and mind. In some cases, I am the first man who has treated them with respect and dignity”
Likewise, the women have had a positive effect on him. They have broadened Blau’s perceptions as well as his vocabulary. He recalled being confused once when the women laughed at the idea of “tweaking” their writing. He soon learned the same word writers used to describe minor editing changes also described the jittery behavior exhibited by methamphetamine or meth addicts.
Although humorous, this anecdote reveals the harsh realities many of the incarcerated women experience on the streets. “A 40-year-old woman who has been addicted to drugs for the past 25 years will think like a teenager,” Blau says. He agonizes over the limited resources available for the women once they leave the protected environment of the institution. Many have wanted to join one of his community based writing groups, but Blau knows transitioning from the institution to a group filled with 9 to 5 workers and stay-at-home-moms would be challenging.
For this reason, Blau would like to see his writing program extended beyond the VOA and into the community, offering a safe haven for the women after their release. He believes his writing program could be vital to the rehabilitation process if part of a restorative justice program. “They [the women] need to understand how important their stories can be to help others and how their own experiences can lead to change in themselves as well as other people.”
Unfortunately, as the female jail population steadily rises, Blau sees more money poured into new jails and less into preventative programs such as education, job training treatment programs and even mentoring. He hopes one day, people will realize releasing people from custody without a viable, long-term plan sets them up to fail. However until such time, Blau will continue to help the women gain a voice through their writing and, at the same time, gain a little dignity.
Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.