August 20, 2009 in Washington Voices

Grad students teach Airway Heights inmates creative writing

Ryan Lancaster

Students sit in folding chairs, listening in respectful silence to the reading of a short story written by one of their peers. Then a discussion, helped along by two instructors, explores where the story works and what needs some work.

It could be any college-level writing workshop, except here the students are inmates, the instructors are students and the classroom is surrounded by prison walls.

For nearly a decade, graduate students of Eastern Washington University’s Writers in the Community program have been visiting the Airway Heights Corrections Center once a week to teach creative writing to groups of 10 to 25 offenders.

The course is one of several programs through WITC that send students to public institutions, schools and nonprofit organizations like Crosswalk, a center for homeless teens in downtown Spokane. Student writers then get the chance to teach the basics of their craft to diverse groups while earning college credits and experience.

Luke Hammons taught at the prison for two years in the WITC program before graduating with a master’s of fine arts degree last spring. His initial class was “a little intimidating,” said Hammons, as it was the first time he’d been to a prison.

“Up to that point my relationship to jails and prisons was probably like most people’s – it’s something to be avoided,” said Hammons. “It’s almost like you don’t want to dirty your hands by getting involved with it.”

But after an ice-breaker writing exercise, Hammons immediately saw the potential of those in the class. “Here are these guys coming up with this really original stuff. It was freeing for me as someone on the outside to see someone on the inside whose mind is still free, still creative.”

EWU graduate student Wayne Spitzer has taught at the prison for the past five years along with workshops elsewhere. At first he said it was hard to remove the barrier between students and their inborn creativity. “One of the biggest obstacles is alienation,” he said. “Whether it’s a prisoner or somebody taking a community college writing class, they often come in not realizing their own thoughts and experiences are equally as valuable and as valid as anyone else’s.”

Hammons said whether they were working on science fiction short stories or a hardboiled detective novel, all of his students had one thing in common – they rarely wrote about their experience as prisoners.

“Part of that is probably them thinking, ‘I don’t like being here, it’s boring and awful. Why would anyone else want to read about it?’ ” he said. “I spent a lot of time trying to encourage them that theirs is an experience the general population isn’t privy to and might like to find out about.”

Andrew “Marcus” Corder and EWU classmate Paul Merchant have been team-teaching at the prison over the summer. Corder said he’s seen a wider range of experiences and viewpoints there than in any college classroom, where most students come from relatively similar backgrounds. “The only thing tying these guys together is that they’re in prison,” he said. “It’s interesting to see all those different views try and work together.”

Merchant talked about one student whom he initially underestimated, only later to discover a budding novelist with unique storytelling ability. He and the rest of the students “sit on the edge of our seats” whenever the novelist arrives with a new chapter. “Even if his book never gets published, writing it will change this student’s life.”

Rachel Toor, EWU faculty director of WITC, said many of the inmates have been enrolled in the course for years and have seen numerous student teachers come and go. “These guys are not naïve; many of them are producing quality, publishable work.” She said although a few are on track to getting published, many just want to write better letters.

Risa Klemme, corrections center administrative program manager, said writing is often an offender’s only means of communicating with family or prison administration. Being able to pen a letter without the use of “colorful language” makes contact with officials or loved ones more meaningful. “Wouldn’t it be nice if their kid was proud of the letter dad wrote to them?” she said.

The WITC program is one of about 35 volunteer-run courses available at Airway Heights, all of which Klemme said are highly valued and vital to the prison’s mission of rehabilitation. “Not only do these programs keep offenders from sitting in their cell angry, but 95 percent of these folks will re-enter society at some point. I’d rather see them have skills like writing and be interested in pro-social activities than go back to being drug addicts or people that are not pro-social.”

For instructors like Spitzer, teaching at the prison is essentially about introducing inmates to the simple idea of writing for its own sake. “This imaginative, creative artistic world can become a haven or a release for whatever problems may come at us in this life,” he said. “Lord knows what trouble I would have gotten into when I was younger had I not had an artistic venue to work things through in.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email