Writing for Change
By Casey Coughlin
For the past 12 years Connecticut author Wally Lamb has run a writers’ workshop for the women in York Correctional Institution. Most well known for his fiction novels, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, his work was featured on Oprah’s Book Club and has been on national best-seller lists. Lamb’s workshop at York covers any genre of writing and, unlike other educational programs, does not have an education level prerequisite. The workshop, split into two group levels, works to strengthen writing and literacy skills mainly through personal essay. Lamb has also published two anthologies from the women at York, I Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away.
COUGHLIN: Can you tell me a little about your program and how it relates to education for inmates across the state?
LAMB: I do a writing program at York and, although they can choose whatever genre they want to write in, most of them choose autobiographical essay. The women I work with are primarily interested in reflecting on their lives. So my program, although I am not a therapist by any stretch, I do witness the therapeutic value not only from their writing down but also from sharing it with the other people in the group. They are very invested in revision, which really is what writing is all about. Some of their work has become publishable. But as far as the prison itself I probably don’t have a really clear overall view, but I know that most of the education is focused on students getting their GED.
COUGHLIN: What skills are you seeing the women coming into the program lacking?
LAMB: In order to qualify for our program you don’t have had to reach a certain education level. In other words, we have ESL students, people who have an eighth grade education, and, on the other end of the spectrum, people who have law degrees and nursing degrees. Because ours is a program based pretty much on personal writing a woman can jump in where she happens to be in terms of her development educationally. There are some weaknesses that are fairly common–grammatical and form usage mistakes. I am not above doing a little grammar lesson if there is an overall need for that. Or I might do a ten minute check-up course on the placement of apostrophes. Another area where there is some deficiency for some students is in reading comprehension. But, again, if I assign a short story as a model I will run a discussion class, so I will throw out a couple of questions and there usually is a variety of reactions. We have no problem getting the women to speak up; they are really great at class discussions and they tend to teach one another. Sometimes a student will be way off the mark as far as what the story seems to be saying. Now I don’t mean to imply that everyone has to get the same meaning out of a story that may be somewhat ambiguous, but if someone is really off the mark by listening to the discussion of the others, she’ll get caught up on the meaning of the story if reading comprehension is a problem for her. So what I am saying ultimately is that I am the teacher of the program, but what I love about working with these women is that they teach one another.
COUGHLIN: What changes do you see in the women from when they start the beginner course to when they move on to the more advanced?
LAMB: They become much more articulate. They become much better at clarifying their intent. Their writing becomes more polished; it becomes more rich with examples and a lot less vague and unclear.
COUGHLIN: What supportive services are in place for women that are participating as far as them revisiting traumatic events that have happened when they are writing?
LAMB: There are psychiatric services available to them. I know some women who have been very traumatized by earlier events in their lives and they seem to have regular contact with the psychologists who are there at the prison. In my opinion I believe there may be an over reliance on medications, but I know that psychotropic medications are dispensed. Some of the women really invest in a set of religious programming. There is a pretty wonderful program that I have heard from many of the women called the Chrysalis Program. It is spiritual based program but it is not advocating any one religion. There are many volunteers who are faith based and that is another avenue that the women can access.
COUGHLIN: What effect does it have on yourself and your team from constantly reading such heavy personal stories?
LAMB: Well, it is very tough sometimes to hear described some of the things that the women have lived through or in some cases things that they have done. But I have felt right from the beginning that I am not there to judge them, because if they have been sentenced they have already been judged. The state has judged them. So my mission is only to respond to their writing. That said, sometimes it gets tough. If a woman reveals that her grandfather incested her and humiliated her when he didn’t do what he wanted, it’s horrible to have lived through something like that, but it’s also pretty rough to be bearing witness to those kinds of stories. And that’s whether your reading and reacting to writing or whether it is something the woman is revealing during class discussions. So, yes, it takes its toll on me sometimes.
A couple of things really help me with that. One, it seems that in every workshop we run there are tears; sometimes communally shed, sometimes shed by the individual. But there is also a lot of laughter. Some of the women are very funny and I crack jokes on a semi-regular basis, too. The laughter can be very therapeutic. And for me, because I have been at it for so long, what I get to see is some amazing transformations. Women who started the program very hang-dog and teary over the course of a year or two years they come into their own. They start dealing with the tough stuff in their life and when they feel comfortable enough to share it there is kind of an unburdening that happens. Some of these horrible secrets that have weighted them down for years or decades; it’s like lifting weight off of their shoulders. I was a high school teacher for many years and a college professor but I have never had the opportunity before I went to York to work with students over longer than a year or a semester. Some of the women that I work with now I have worked with for 10 years or more. So over time as they develop their skills I see some amazing development of self confidence. For a teacher that is really an exciting thing to be able to witness.
COUGHLIN: In your opinion, where do you think the State of Connecticut’s Education system is failing its students?
LAMB: Well, I am not going to speak for the entire education system in Connecticut, but I do feel that the programs within the prisons seem by and large to ignore the women who are there for very long sentences. Some of my students have life sentences and will be there until they die. There are a lot more programs for people with shorter sentences; I feel that the people with long term are often left out of the planning education. I am a firm believer in lifelong education if a jury or a judge hands down a life sentence for some conviction of a horrible crime then that’s still a life sentence not a death sentence. Therefore these people who have life sentences are entitled to have a life and if they want to further their education I think that should be available to them. Not everybody feels that way. There are a lot more people that are more conservative than I am. I understand their point of view I just don’t share it.
COUGHLIN: What do you think can be done as a preventative measure? If these women had been writing all along do you think that would somehow have changed the course of their lives?
LAMB: Education is rehabilitative. One young woman I work with now, she’s about 28 to 29. She was a street kid, her parents were heroin addicts and when she was 14-years-old she was a runaway and got involved with a rough guy who was maybe a year or two older than she. They decided that they were going to rob a cab driver. They called for a cab and when the cab got there they ordered him to hand over the money. He refused and gave them quite a fight and it resulted in one of the two kids pulling a knife and killing the cab driver. Was she ready for a more formal education at age 14? No. She was an angry young woman, confused and in some ways very naïve. Now she’s 28 to 29, she’s ready for it. She’s hungry for it. And even without a formal education she’s probably one of the best writers that I have worked with down there. So I think that education is definitely a key to people getting out of rough neighborhoods, and getting out of rough situations; however, not everybody is ready and willing to accept that and not every city is willing and able to provide that quality education. Connecticut really needs to better address the haves and the have-nots and make it more balanced. But I do see some hope in that regard and that is with some of the charter schools that are coming in the state.
COUGHLIN: I know you have been interviewed a lot about your work at York, but what is one question that nobody ever asks you that you wish someone would?
LAMB: I guess I would like to be asked: why institutions are not more merciful to the people in their custody?
COUGHLIN: What’s the answer?
LAMB: I think it’s probably because it’s easier to think of incarcerated people as chess pieces rather than living breathing human beings, who are more than just the crime they have committed. I feel that we are all pretty complicated equations whether we are spending our life in prison or have never walked the grounds of a prison. We are all complex individuals. To simply say, “those are the bad guys and we on the outside are the good guys,” it’s just much more complicated than that.