Writing Behind the Walls
Allison Langer began teaching writing to inmates in a Florida prison several years ago. This week, we run three pieces by inmates, set up by an intro from Allison.
Five years ago, I volunteered to teach memoir writing in a men’s prison in Florida. I wasn’t looking to change the world or to change anyone really. I was nosy. The gig sounded a little dangerous and cooler than anything else I’d done. I’d meet men who broke the law and hear their stories. I was sure I’d be teaching behind a glass barrier, like the ones I’d seen on crime shows.
But when I got there, there was no barrier. I sat in a room with 18 criminals. No guard; no co-teacher. Just me and them.
Before I arrived, I went through a full day of training with the Department of Corrections. I was told what not to do: no hugging or touching, no sexy clothing, no sharing of intimate details. I never thought to ask about the barrier.
Upon entry into the prison, I was given a pocket alarm in exchange for my driver’s license. The alarm hung off my beltloop. If I felt threatened, I was to sound the alarm.
When I walked into class and realized there were no barriers between me and the men, I looked for cameras. There weren’t any. A guard nearby who might hear the alarm? Nope. Eighteen seat-desks were set up in a semi-circle, and I was at the head table. I glanced at the men, who appeared calm and eager to learn. Each one had a paper folder with a pen and loose paper.
Rev, an inmate a little older than me, jumped up and introduced himself as my coordinator. He said if I needed anything, I could come to him. He handed me a Styrofoam cup containing something black that smelled like coffee. “It’s not Starbucks,” he said with a look that said, it’s crazy what you can get used to.
I took a sip as I wrote my name on the board. I said, “Does anyone know what memoir is?”
They thought a memoir was an autobiography. I said, “Nobody will read your entire life story unless you are Marilyn Monroe, Andre Agassi, or a successful serial killer.” They laughed. I told them they’d be writing personal essays. “Essays reveal a moment in your life. A memoir is that essay in longer form.” Then I gave a prompt.
This was my first teaching gig. I’d stolen the syllabus — prompts and all — from Andrea Askowitz, my writing teacher and now my business partner and podcast co-host. I have a degree in sociology and business, not writing or teaching. I’m a learn-as-you-go girl. I just jump in. I was nervous, but learning on a bunch of inmates seemed the low-stakes way to ease into teaching.
Prompt No. 1: Write about your name. This prompt gave the men a chance to write freely without exposing too many intimate details. The next week, I threw out prompt No. 2: Describe your childhood bedroom — also a pretty mild prompt, so I thought, but it wasn’t mild for everyone. Prompt No. 3 came three weeks into the semester after the men seemed more comfortable writing and sharing: Write about a moment that changed your life. From what I’d seen in six years of taking writing classes, this prompt usually brought tears and truth. With prompt No. 3, the men came clean.
Swa wrote about traumatic abuse, 2-Tall about his incarcerated dad, and Rod about poverty and a drug deal gone bad. Most of these men had fought drug addiction or had been in the business of distributing illegal drugs. Some had been convicted of carjacking, robbery, or even murder. All were financially disadvantaged. They were all given long sentences, even for first offenses.
Before the class gave feedback, I said, “In writing class, we never address the story, only the writing.” Addressing the writing (what would make the essay tighter and stronger) provided an opportunity to ask for more detail without seeming as if we were prying. I asked them to show more of the narrator, more vulnerability, and to do less proselytizing. I indicated where they could omit needless words. And when they deviated from the story, I explained why more is not always better. The guys took feedback well. They also gave feedback well.
My students were not the ignorant inmates I’d assumed I’d be teaching. They were curious and well-spoken. They told stories better than almost anyone I’d met. Each story left me wanting to know more. Not just more details, but more about men I was starting to care about. I took their essays home and used my now famous red ink, which they referred to as blood, to show them what they had to say mattered.
“More blood?” one of my students, E, said when he saw his writing covered with red ink.
“More love,” I said. I was a little surprised when the word love came out. But it was true. These incarcerated men had written themselves into my heart with their honesty and vulnerability. They trusted me with their truth, and I felt honored.
After all the men read their responses to prompt No. 3, they asked me to read mine. I remembered what I’d been told in training, but not sharing felt unequal. How was I to expect them to pour out their secrets if I wasn’t willing to do the same?
My writing teacher always shared what she wrote, so I shared, too. I wrote about my 16-month-old daughter who died from a congenital heart defect. I felt vulnerable sharing my most personal, crushing truth, and I started to sweat. By the end of my essay, I was in tears and there were a bunch of sniffles in the room. Their feedback was gentle and supportive. They wanted to know more. Rev thanked me for opening my heart to them, 2-Tall brought me tissue, and the trust in the room seemed to shift.
From that day on, the real, painful, intimate details began appearing in their stories. They included scenes that showed them doing the wrong things, hurting people, and why. They included traumatic memories, fears, and they took responsibility for what they’d done. They were able to show their evolution from criminal to responsible, intelligent, capable human being.
Their stories needed to be shared. Their stories needed to be heard. If I could change my beliefs about these men and really see the incredibly humble and kind people locked away, then so could anyone.
Before coming to prison, I judged men like these for not finishing school, for selling drugs, for using a gun to take what wasn’t theirs. People say, “They shouldn’t have done the crime if they didn’t want to do the time.” I’ve said that, too. But I have never been poor. At 12 years old, I wasn’t expected to support my entire family. I’ve never been discriminated against, held down, or told I was unworthy. I don’t know what it feels like to be them, to live their lives, or for visitors to prefer a body alarm and a barrier. What I do know is that helping them find their voices feels right.
Allison Langer is a Miami native, University of Miami MBA, writer, and single mom to three children, ages 12, 14 and 16. She is a private writing coach, taught memoir writing in prison and has been published in The Washington Post, Mutha Magazine, Scary Mommy, Ravishly, and Modern Loss. Allison wrote a novel about wrongful conviction and is actively looking for an agent. Currently, she is working on a memoir with her friend and inside student, Clifton Jones (2-Tall). Allison's stories and her voice can be heard on Writing Class Radio, a podcast she co-produces and co-hosts, which has been downloaded more than 750,000 times.