Poetry and prose from prison

Finding a voice despite being locked up

Published: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Incarcerated women in the state of Colorado face a grim future. According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, the rate of recidivism (a return to prison after violating parole or probation, or committing a new crime) is 47.4 percent.

When half of the people who are released from prison come back to prison, society pays more money to keep prisoners housed, delinquency has a greater chance of spreading through generations, and society as a whole suffers. That’s why Stephen Hartnett, associate professor of communications at UC Denver, has helped pilot a program to stop recidivism through education and creative writing.

The project, Captured Words: Free Thoughts, is a magazine of poems and short works by women who elect to take a for-credit course at the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility. Hartnett, along with other volunteers, tutors, edits and encourages the women at the facility in the process of devoloping as a writer.

The Fall 2009 volume of Captured Words: Free Thoughts contains work from 19 women. The subject matter in the pieces varies from person to person, but each work contains similar themes: heartache, loss, loneliness, discomfort, pain, regret, acceptance, forgiveness, strength.

The goal of the project, Hartnett said, was to give silenced and locked-up women the chance to gain their voices back. He said, “The women get to come into a space where, instead of being treated like monsters, they are treated like humans.”

“The environment at [Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility] is made to shame and humiliate the women. It’s very judgmental and dehumanizing,” said Linda Guthrie, a senior at UCD and volunteer in Hartnett’s program.

“This is an outlet for them,” Guthrie said. “They talk to each other and see the common threads in all of their lives.”

Some of the women in the correctional facility were law-abiding citizens until drugs took over their lives. Guthrie explained that the women she works with share a background of abuse. “Using drugs to numb emotional pain, having babies when they are just babies, bad family lives, and parents who did not care about them—all of these women see their time with us as a breath of fresh air,” she said.

“Many of these women are still crying because of how their parents treated them,” said Guthrie. “They are just people who have made mistakes. In any other situation, that could be you or me.”

The short story “The Night I Did Meth, The Night I Kissed Death” by Rachel Velarde tells the story of Velarde’s gradual descent from a life as an honor student, taking four AP classes and excelling in high school, to one of a meth addict. “If I had said no to death,” she wrote, “then I’d be in the Ivy League instead of a correctional facility.”

Hartnett said his students at the correctional facility have been victimized in the past. “Almost every one of these women is coming from a case of extreme mental abuse,” he said. “It’s just a complete catastrophe, where these women have come from.”

Most of the stories in Captured Words: Free Thoughts depict women who might be expected to be a heroine, not a criminal. In “9/11,” Frankie McConnell recounts the loss of her husband on Sept. 11, 2001: “My head was exploding as the day’s fear took its toll. The air had the most unusual, nasty smell, and debris in the air flowed around us and made it feel as though we carried 10 pounds of dirt. That’s when I snapped and started screaming into the foul air, ‘James! Where the hell are you baby?’”

At the end of McConnell’s story, a person is left wondering: how could this woman who lost her husband in 9/11 be in jail now? The story doesn’t provide answers. It simply chronicles a moment in McConnell’s life—but the effect of the pain stays with a person after reading the words.

Both Guthrie and Hartnett say they are fighting a losing battle against an outdated system that they see as meant to punish, not rehabilitate. Yet they persevere in their mission, even if the system is hard to infiltrate.

“For me, the key is to say we want to reduce crime, while empowering our neighbors to be better citizens,” said Hartnett. “I tell these women, ‘If you just learn how to write a complete sentence, or give a public speech—those are the tools to regain dignity and become a more functional citizen.’”

In the short story “One Wish,” Jessica Yarbrough wonders what her life would have been like if she was raised without sexual abuse. Her one wish is the wish to “erase” her childhood and “start over” with “no physical, mental, or emotional abuse.”

“Now here I am in prison, begging to take any classes that might benefit me when I am released. I’m desperate to get right with God and my four kids, who deserve only the best,” Yarbrough wrote. “Still, I wonder about what my life would be like if I could have that one wish.”

Volunteers like Hartnett and Guthrie who give their time to provide hope cannot grant the wish of erasing these women’s backgrounds. However, they can help them build their futures.

By Tiffany Fitzgerald
Staff Writer

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