“The misperception about those who are in jail—although many have done horrible things— is that that is all they are. Treating them as writers, working with them on their writing—blows away perceptions. There is sadness, regret, remorse. Women are ashamed and miss their children.”
So says Sheryl St. Germain, whose brother and son have both spent time in the prison system and is one of the leaders of Words Without Walls. She agrees with many articles that seek to break pop culture perceptions and the stigma of incarceration. “Imagine the worst thing you ever did in your life and you get caught and put in prison—that is the thing you will be remembered for all of your life.”
Words Without Walls is one of three Pittsburgh projects that humanizes those who are incarcerated through art and words. The project from Chatham University teaches creative writing inside the Allegheny County Jail, State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children.
“I saw women and men who previously identified as inmates or addicts—we begin to treat them as writers and they begin to tell stories,” says St. Germain.
Chatham University graduate students teach the Words Without Walls program and St. Germain says the program also transforms the teachers. “I watch the students go into the jail, some of them afraid—and see how dedicated they become. I see them bloom as teachers in ways they may not have. Some of them, after graduating, have started programs themselves in New Orleans and North Carolina.”
The group has published an anthology of the same name with work from writers and inmates that reflects on addiction, violence and incarceration.
Another Pittsburgh project works with the written word in a different way. Book ‘Em, a project of the Thomas Merton Center, sends books to prisoners throughout the United States. The all-volunteer group that has been working for over a decade sent almost 2,000 books to inmates last year. The group meets for two hours on the first three Sundays of the month at the basement of the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield and responds to inmates’ requests.
The letters from prisoners are a window into our shared humanity.
One inmate writes a request: “I was just recently introduced to your organization after being in here for over a decade. I’m currently in solitary confinement for a year and desire reading material. My friend seemed to have a lot of the Penguin Classic Series and I started to read some and was struck by authors of the Age of Reason and metaphysics such as Voltaire and Rousseau and Goethe and Hume. If you have any of those authors, or Francis Bacon, George Berkeley, Thomas Aquinas, Plutarch or Tacitus, I would appreciate it.”
And another, a note of gratitude. “Thank you for your important help. This is the 17th year I’ve been at the penitentiary. Were it not for books I’m pretty sure I’d be hopelessly insane or dead.”
Art Behind Bars
A third project, from Duquesne University is Art Behind Bars—an exhibit of 20 pieces of multimedia work by inmates from State Correctional Institute Pittsburgh.
Dr. Norman Conti, associate professor of sociology and Dr. Elaine Parsons, associate professor of history, lead the project. Both developed The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program—a program that holds classes inside jails and prisons, with class members that include Duquesne students (outside) and those who are incarcerated (inside).
Through this work, Parsons discovered that many of the incarcerated men expressed themselves through art. “It is too easy for us to forget that there are many incarcerated people who are our neighbors,” Parsons says. “They are physically walled off from us. But taking the time to look at their art helps us to remember them and ways in which we are connected to them.”
Art Behind Bars opened yesterday and runs until April 30 at the Les Idees Gallery in the Duquesne Union.