Writing offers inmates outlet

Program aims to help women explore behavior and change


Standing behind a wooden lectern in a classroom at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, Carole Quillen races through a poem she has written, eyes glued to her paper, rarely taking a moment to catch her breath.

"Slow down," says her teacher, Debra Williams-Garner, "and read it again."

Quillen - dressed in a Division of Correction denim shirt and looking about a decade older than her 37 years - takes a deep breath and begins: "Oh, what a wonderful day has become the saddest day ever. ... The tears fall like a waterfall. ... One face there no more."

Her classmates listen intently to Quillen, attempting to decipher the root of her sad words. It is clear that the former Salisbury resident has written about losing her daughter and having to endure a Christmas without her. But she does not explain how that happened. She says she is not ready to delve into the details.

However, in the writing club at the prison in Jessup, Quillen is working through that pain and the shame she feels as she is serving a seven-year sentence in connection with the death of her 2-year-old daughter in 2002.

Each Monday night since the end of September, Quillen and her classmates have been meeting in a pale-yellow cinderblock classroom and following Williams-Garner's instructions as they mine their pasts and try to translate some of their darkest feelings into words.

The class - which Williams-Garner has been teaching as a volunteer since 2001 - gives the prisoners an outlet to express themselves and helps prepare them for life after prison, said Brenda Shell-Eleazer, the prison warden.

"It gives them an opportunity to recognize the talent that they have and the talent that others have, and promote that within themselves," Shell-Eleazer said.

Writing classes in women's prisons are rare nationwide, said Joann Brown Morton, president of the Association on Programs for Female Offenders, a nationwide group that focuses on the needs of female prisoners. Prisons in Illinois, Indiana, New York and Minnesota have had such classes, with the programs coming and going, depending on volunteer staffing, she said.

But Morton said there should be more such programs because they help women explore the roots of their behavior and can help them change.

"It does very little good to lock someone up and have them leave the facility with the same attitude and the same behavior problems they had when they were there," she said. "This is one way to reach some of the women."

Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, the coordinator of the law and social work program at the University of Maryland School of Law, said that while writing can be therapeutic for many people, it can be especially beneficial for women, who are more apt to discuss their feelings.

"When you're dealing with female prisoners, the majority likely have histories of some kind of abuse or trauma, be it sexual abuse, physical abuse," Bowman-Rivas said. "And I believe that writing about it is very helpful for women."

In the class, the prisoners learn the basics of constructing a poem or short story - Williams-Garner tells them to use active verbs and descriptive words - with a touch of therapy mixed in.

Williams-Garner emphasizes how much healing can come from writing, that the women can be free of some of their trauma if they put their feelings to paper.

The club mantra is, "You can't conquer it if you can't confront it." Williams-Garner tells them to "write and cry at the same time, if you have to."

Various crimes have sent the women to prison: homicide, drug abuse, prostitution, theft. They write about their troubled pasts, childhood memories or temptation by drugs.

Williams-Garner also wants them to see beyond the prison's walls and to plan for a future when they are released. Some of the women want to be writers, film producers or artists, and in what Williams-Garner calls "dream checks," she helps them create business plans to ensure they achieve those goals.

"I'm just teaching them, I hope, that no matter where you are, you can still fulfill your dreams," she said. "No one can lock up your mind."

At the end of the program, in the summer, the prisoners will publish a book of their writings and perform some of their works at an assembly in the prison's gym, just as Williams-Garner's past class did in August.

Rhonda Sterns, who took the class last term, said Williams-Garner taught her to work through her anger and channel that feeling into a letter to her estranged father. She wrote to him: "So many times I've asked myself why don't you love me. What could I have done as a child growing up that hurt you so much."

Sterns sent the letter to her father and wrote that she forgave him. He visited her in prison, where she is serving 10 years for larceny, burglary and forgery.

"It took 18 years to get our relationship back," said Sterns, 40, of LaPlata. "And now he's in my life."

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