Ex-convicts find their voice — with the help of writing workshops

First of a two-part report (read Part 2 online).

“The Hole. The Hole has nothing to do with movies or TV. It’s so much less and so much more at the same time. It’s one of the most boring places on the planet. You’re in a small cell and in solitary confinement with absolutely nothing to do. And 24 hours a day you can hear the screams, screams, moans and swearing from those around you who are slowly going mad. In other words, until the sounds become so familiar, they are just background noise My only protection was to go inside myself and deep within my own mind.

On a Saturday night in October, The Francisco Homes, a social justice nonprofit that supports ex-convicts, held its annual Night of Appreciation event.

Standing in front of a room full of donors and friends of the organization, Paul Harrison read intently from a page in his hands as writing teacher Ben Pack MPW ’12 held the microphone for him.

Harrison’s piece is a candid reflection on his experiences in and now out of prison – written work he had honed over the past six weeks.

“I’ve never written anything in my life before,” Harrison insisted.

And he never would have, he added, without the creative writing workshops he attended at Francisco Homes. Classes are taught on a voluntary basis by Pack and several faculty members from The writing program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

For the past decade, associate professors Stephanie Bower and John Murray have worked with the Catholic faith-based organization, located just a mile from University Park Campus. It provides holistic support, a place to live and a sense of community for formerly incarcerated people trying to reintegrate into society after long prison sentences.

Courses such as “Writing in the Community,” co-taught by Bower and Murray, unite students from across USC with community organizations like The Francisco Homes, allowing undergraduates to work directly with community partners to tell the important stories coming out of their organizations.

Each spring, the teachers bring a few men from the Francisco Homes into their classes to talk about their experiences. Bower said it had “a huge impact on the students.”

“It’s still one of the best courses of the semester,” agreed Murray. “The men are very generous with our students and have always made such an effort towards them and us.”

That, he said, is why he and his fellow faculty members wanted to volunteer their time and expertise to do something for men.

Get out in the community

Volunteer instructors from USC Dornsife’s writing program meet with men at the Francisco Homes each week for six-week sessions. (Photo/Mike Glier)

Bower and Murray were recently inspired after hearing about a pop-up writing workshop for underserved populations at a community writing conference in Denver. They were eager to institute something similar in Los Angeles.

“It seemed like something we’d like USC to do more of — get out into the community and bring the community in,” Bower said.

In March, Bower and Murray teamed up with fellow Writing Program instructors Pack and Emily Artiano to teach weekly creative writing sessions to residents of the Francisco Homes as a team. They recently refined the format into a six-week workshop where participants read their plays, get notes from instructors and others, and bring in a revised version the following week.

“The men became wonderful critics for each other – and in that way it became a real writing workshop rather than just us being the teachers,” Bower said. “But I think being listened to by USC professors validates them.”

Eventually, the instructors hope to create a printed publication to compile the men’s written work.

A night of appreciation…and then some

The culmination of the six-week workshop with a live reading at Appreciation Night was, by all accounts, a successful innovation.

“We recognized that what men were really interested in was telling their story to an audience,” Bower said. “It meant a lot to them to be able to imagine that their words could make a difference to other people making decisions in their lives.

“They talk a lot about the process of ‘rehumanizing,’ so telling their stories gives them the opportunity to see themselves in a different light that isn’t defined by prison identity.”

Murray agreed.

“These guys all have really unique stories,” he said. “And I think that’s a population that’s totally demonized in the general population, so bringing out the humanity behind their stories is really interesting.”

Several workshop participants read their scripts aloud in front of an audience that for some included family members and for others it was the first time they had shared their writings outside of the workshop. David “Smitty” Smith was among those.

Smith, who served “28 years, three months and 13 days” in state prison, began attending creative writing sessions early. It was his first time trying to write anything other than a letter, he said, and he enjoyed the ideas the workshops gave him on how to transfer some of his feelings into the language.

“I took the opportunity to release or put words to things that usually go through my head,” he said, “and the opportunity to release and clarify thought through the written word. Most important is the ability to learn and use the lessons to refine a writing process.

Murray reflected on the value of the act of writing.

“I think [working with these men] is a great reminder of the luxury of writing, of being able to articulate and process your experience and understand yourself better through writing.

“They have such gratitude for us being there and it’s been kind of a surprise because it’s easy to forget what a great privilege it is to learn and share your life experiences.”

The second part explores the process of construction of a new identity by former prisoners.

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