Writing workshops as alternative literacy education for incarcerated women.

Author:Jacobi, Tobi
 
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"Are you from SpeakOut? Can I come?" "I wrote this yesterday; will you read it?" "Can I go next? I have something to share." Such requests are common as women (who a few months ago would rarely have claimed the role of writer as their own) clamor for the attention of the writing workshop facilitators. Many incarcerated women have only negative school experience with reading and writing. Few have had the opportunity to explore literacy as a tool for communication, pleasure or change beyond those early school experiences. Writing workshops create a space for such exploration, and a slow but steady resurgence of jail-and prison-based programs is occurring as recovery from the funding cuts of the mid-1990s continues.

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One such program, the SpeakOut! Women's Writing Workshop, was developed in 2004 by the author to engage members of the Larimer County Community Corrections program in literacy work based on life experience and writing as a tool for understanding and change. The proram, now facilitated in community corrections housing units, a local jail and with residents at a juvenile recovery facility, is intended to complement and supplement traditional educational opportunities such as pre-GED and GED coursework and is designed specifically to meet the needs of female inmates. Since the program's inception, more than 350 writers have participated and 10 issues of the SpeakOut! Journal have been published and circulated in local communities. Writing workshops have the potential to engage prisoners--particularly women--in cooperative and collaborative literacy work that demonstrates the reflective and civic skills necessary for success upon release from institutional care.

Unique Needs Female Learners

Incarcerated women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. correctional system; yet, in many facilities, they have access to the fewest number of educational and vocational programs. Waiting lists abound in many facilities, and some women choose to repeat courses again and again rather than wait for the unlikely addition of new programs.

Consider the following data; According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), less than 50 percent of female inmates in state facilities have completed high school or attained a GED outside of prison/jail. (1) A 2002 BJS study of recidivism in released prisoners revealed that within three years of release nearly 58 percent of female prisoners were rearrested and nearly 40 percent were reconvicted. (2) Research conducted during the past two decades has consistently pointed to the relationship between increased education and decreased recidivism. (3) While female inmates will likely never outnumber male inmates, they should have access to training that will decrease their likelihood of recidivism, and that often means different kinds of programming than is offered to their male counterparts.

Female offenders need access to programming for other reasons as well, including motherhood, histories of emotional and physical trauma, and learning style. One prisoner rights organization estimates that "80,000 incarcerated mothers are parents to approximately 200,000 children."(4) Writing workshops become an informal space for processing the distance between family members. Many women are...

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