At Allegheny County Jail, creative writing classes release pain, channel rage

Freedom in the words

Jason Toombs' hands steady the papers he's clutching. His name is called -- on this day, an invitation, rather than the more typical order.

He shuffles to a microphone in front of his teachers, his comrades -- and others monitoring the room. He breathes deeply. His voice shakes. But when Mr. Toombs reads aloud from two pieces he's written -- recounting grim realizations from his time in the courthouse "bull pen" -- he finds a rhythm.

"Obviously I'm fighting the system, but who am I really fighting?" Mr. Toombs, 30, said, his voice reaching a crescendo. "I was trapped in what I ignorantly built. Now I'm on the outside wondering, 'How in the hell am I going to tear this thing down?' "

The room applauds. As he smiles, Mr. Toombs appears to recognize -- despite a rap sheet for serious crimes dating back to his teens, and his current incarceration on pending charges of robbery, drugs and aggravated assault -- that he still has the freedom to tell a story. It's a recognition shared by the students around him, uniting them beyond the identical red scrub suits they wear.

At their "final reading" last month, these inmates at the Allegheny County Jail presented polished writing samples produced in the nonfiction class they've completed -- minutes before guards escorted them back to their cells.

Candidates from Chatham University's master of fine arts program in creative writing started teaching two gender-separated writing classes for inmates this summer in a collaboration both sides intend to continue. The eight-week nonfiction class -- in which some students eventually wrote poetry and fiction as well -- met for three hours once a week, with as many as 15 men and 15 women attending per week.

"When I decided to go back to school for a creative, artistic pursuit, I felt conflicted about it," said Sarah Shotland, 28, an MFA student specializing in fiction writing.

Creating "art for art's sake" often can be isolating and selfish, she said, and she was interested in working with groups of "under-represented," or disadvantaged people.

So when Sheryl St. Germain, the director of Chatham's MFA program in creative writing, mentioned in a meeting that she once taught creative writing at a women's prison, Ms. Shotland was inspired to get involved with a similar program.

She initially approached halfway houses and mental health facilities, but she and others from Chatham sought to collaborate with the county jail after learning it already offered creative writing courses.

This spring, Sandra Gould Ford, a Homewood fiction writer who started those classes five years ago and will be leaving by year's end, invited MFA students to take over the program.

In jail, "you are defined almost your entire life by one thing you did ... by one mistake you made," said Ms. St. Germain, whose son and late brother served time in jail.

By offering individual attention and allowing freedom of expression, the teachers hope the class can spark hope and optimism in inmates who are often depressed or frustrated -- "or at least give them affirmation or encouragement that they can do something," said Libba Nichols, a teacher for the men's class this summer.

"A lot of these individuals have had a troubled past, and I watch them trying to be better people," said Ms. Nichols, 27, who just received her MFA in nonfiction writing.

"They don't want to keep doing what they're doing, and a lot of them feel they've been born into certain circumstances, or caught in cycles and can't get out of them. ... Who knows how genuine it is? I think it is for a lot of them."

Tension and inspiration

In a sense, the jail class is like any other, with warm-up exercises, assigned readings and weekly workshops. The students are hungry learners who dive in, welcome criticism and revise their work with gusto, their teachers said.

They lead tense lives, serving sentences or awaiting trial on charges ranging from retail theft to attempted homicide, drug possession to arson. Their troubles, however, can inspire plots and provide perfect material for stories.

"Everyone at the jail has a story to tell. It's just about how to express it," Ms. Shotland said.

Jail isn't a topic the teachers ignore or forget, but they'd rather not plumb the specifics of why their students are there. Jail officials, too, encourage the students -- who are screened for "security alerts" beforehand -- to refrain from talking about their cases, said Jack Pischke, the jail's inmate program administrator.

Nevertheless, Mr. Pischke said the classes provide a safe, cathartic outlet for students whose topics cover scars and redemption, drug addiction and love, gun shots and God. And the jail is a more secure place when they have an alternative to less-constructive activities, he said.

Writing offers a canvas for prayers, a therapeutic release of grief, a healthy outlet for rage -- or a catalyst to jump-start a new life.

"I love the class. It helps me put down ... things I can't voice," said Tamar Deen, 35, who has a lengthy criminal record and recently pleaded guilty to gun violations. "If you put it down on paper, you won't hold back. But if you say it to someone you will."

William Arrington, 32, who is awaiting trial in November on charges of making terroristic threats and simple assault, also guards his emotions a bit -- until he presents his work.

"I try to find a way to kill them with kindness instead of killing them with violence, but the rage inside me is keeping this all one-sided," he recited at the final reading. "I'm on a dark path looking to the light for guidance but with all these obstacles in my way I doubt I'll ever find it."

Grief and doubt

Elise Burks, who is awaiting trial in September for retail theft, was unable to write for a time after her birthday Feb. 21.

"I was too busy crying," she said. Her younger sister, Ayesha Burks, 29, of Allentown, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Homewood on Elise's 42nd birthday.

Since then, her pain hasn't changed. What has, she said, is her burgeoning ability to write about it.

At the final class reading, a mournful Ms. Burks read a bleak piece in which she questioned death. When she finished speaking, she closed her eyes and smiled, her face a mix of elation and serenity.

As she'll quickly tell you, the writing has helped to relieve her grief.

As the course ended, doubts remained for others.

On the last day of classes, Terra Lynn worried about presenting her final reading.

"It just puts fear in me ... that I'm not strong enough," Ms. Lynn said, staring at her story "Lost" on the computer.

The story was born out of an assignment: Write about something you lost and then found. She first wrote about losing her dog. But for Ms. Lynn -- whose trial is scheduled to begin Monday for attempted homicide, arson and endangering the welfare of children, among other charges -- the piece unraveled into a story about a much bigger loss.

"I lost my husband, I lost my children, I lost my home, and I lost my dog," said Ms. Lynn, never mentioning the specifics of her case.

Police who arrested her in November, however, accused her of pouring and igniting gasoline in her home in Tarentum in a failed attempt to kill herself and her two sleeping children. In court papers, detectives said she later told them "What have I done?" and said she did not want to lose her children, who had been the subject of a custody dispute with her estranged husband.

The computer screen's blue tint colored her wet eyes.

"I'm going to have to not wear makeup [at the reading] because the makeup we get in jail isn't waterproof," Ms. Lynn said. "I'm going to have to be brave."

Nevertheless, at the final reading days later, she battled through the tears. She received a certificate honoring her completion of the class, as did six other women and seven men.

Vern Connor, who is serving time for drug and firearms offenses, admitted he'd been "super nervous" before he read about love and the ghetto. Afterward, he grinned and ran his hand across the certificate, along the printed letters of his name -- searching for the right words.

"It's beautiful," he said.

Small triumphs

Chatham and jail officials intend to continue classes in the fall, and many jail students have vowed to continue writing until then. Recently, some of the inmates submitted their work to a national prison writing contest.

The teachers are pragmatic, acknowledging that they can't expect the classes to transform all of their students' lives. Others have warned them that inmates aren't likely to shed their criminal pasts, or eventually will return to jail.

Ms. Nichols said people who learned of her work at the jail wanted to know only about "the drama," not her students' work. Recently, a friend who works in law enforcement insisted to her that the inmates couldn't be trusted.

Still, the teachers embrace triumphs when they come. The class will be successful if just one or two students continue to write after leaving jail, Ms. Shotland said.

"In the class the students have been so well-behaved and so enthusiastic and so positive," said Adrienne Block, 32, a teacher for the men's class who is working toward a nonfiction specialty at Chatham.

But a "bubble of normalcy" cracks, she said, when guards appear at the end of classes to escort inmates back to their cells. At times, "it's hard to understand why they're in the situation they're in," Ms. Block said.

She has realized she cannot change the inmates' circumstances, but what she can do is offer three hours of writing instruction -- "and that's not a small thing."

Nor is the realization among the teachers that stories can carry power regardless of who writes them.

"What keeps me burning in this situation is that I've seen how it's affected me and I think the human condition is the same for all people," Ms. Nichols said. "They're people. They're just like any of us."

Dante Anthony Fuoco: or 412-263-1538. First Published August 8, 2010 4:00 AM


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