Monday, November 19, 2018

NFN18: Ethics of Writing Nonfiction with and about the Incarcerated

Like many fellow essayists, we spent the weekend of November 1-4 in Phoenix, Arizona at the NonfictioNOW conference catching up with old friends and making new ones. We also sat on a panel on ethics of writing with and about the incarcerated. The panel included chair John Proctor, writing teacher at Manhattanville College and Rikers Island; Sarah Shotland, director of the Words Without Walls program at Chatham University; Pittsburgh journalist and essayist Brittany Hailer; Bob Cowser, who teaches at St. Lawrence University and participates in the university’s Inside Out Prison Exchange Program at Riverview Correctional Facility; and Chauna Craig, Creative Nonfiction Editor at the Atticus Review and teacher in the Second Chance Pell Program.

Perhaps the best thing about our panel was the many-branched conversation we had in response to questions the audience asked. We employed a method of question-gathering gleaned from a presentation at NYU by the Criminal Justice Initiative, passing out notecards beforehand, having runners (in this case John’s father and brother) pick them up as people wrote questions on them, and ordering and addressing them as they came up naturally in our conversation. We’d recommend this method, which made for a vibrant, efficient discussion with an involved audience.

That said, we only had an hour and fifteen minutes, and we didn’t get to many of the questions. So, we thought we would give a list of those questions with written responses from our panel here.

“If you’re brand new to doing this, what do you recommend/thoughts do you have?”

SBS: Find your allies in the system and on campus. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the people who come to your aid when the inevitable crisis happens. Try your best to build a team so you avoid burn out. Don’t try to expand too quickly, or serve too many students at once. This is a field where I think “scale” is a danger. My best success in this work has come in its most inter-personal relationship building. The longer you can work with the same, small group of students, the higher the impact. Try to see if there’s a group of relatively stable students in your facility who you can make a year-long commitment to working with. That will give you a nice pilot project, and help you avoid the challenges of constant turn over.

JP: One thing I find about this work is that a lot of it is quite ad hoc, which I think is a result of the American justice system itself being so disjointed. When we talk about working with the incarcerated, we might be talking about teaching in a jail, which has its differences from teaching in a prison, which has its differences from teaching within an alternative detention facility (like, say, an in-patient drug treatment facility or a community shelter that works with the courts, which are especially receptive to practices of restorative justice, in which this work fits). If you want to get involved, you can also work directly with a facility, with a nonprofit organization, with an institution of higher education, or a number of other entry points I’m not thinking of right now.

CC: I taught as part of a program that I thought (assumed?) was already well-established, but as others have noted, I still needed to find my allies, i.e. those people in both the correctional and academic institutions who believe in this work and were able to help me work around the many unanticipated barriers, obstacles and problems that seem to perpetually arise in this work. And read the rich resources that are already out there to help you contextualize this work.

BC: I think a new teacher needs to be mindful of the profound effect prison, even for short stints, can have on your overall well-being. I think the relationships you form with people who work and are incarcerated there can be incredibly satisfying— I’m certainly more aware of social justice issues and of my own privilege since I started this work, and have made so many lasting friendships. But there’s a cost, too— psychological and even physical, in terms of the stress that system is designed create. We are not entirely immune just because we can leave at the end of the day. That said, I would never discourage anyone. It’s the best work I do and has changed me as a teacher and a man.

“I teach creative writing courses to MA students who are incarcerated at a state penitentiary south of Houston. We’re a second-chance Pell Grant recipient, and the only university in the state of Texas that offers BA and MA degrees to incarcerated people. Thanks for noting how HARD it is to be alone.”

JP: Like Sarah says, perhaps the most important thing to do is to find a team to lean on. I’ve slowly built a team of educators at my facility at Rikers, but I also have a group of friends and fellow writers who are interested in the work I do, and I send them a periodic Mailchimp newsletter. I have an extensive Excel file of people and organizations to contact when I’m wondering how to handle a particular situation, or when I need to talk through something. I find most fellow educators are warm and empathic, but I also try to remember that the work is not about my own personal journey or whatever. That’s perhaps the element of the work that is the greatest salve to my intrinsic loneliness: Working together with other people, on behalf of people whose personal journeys are much more fraught than my own.

“The men I teach don’t have access to computers. What research methods can I ask them to use? How do you run a workshop using only handwritten drafts?”

JP: I do struggle with this as well. One perspective, though, is to look toward their release and emphasize to them how many words they’ll have written by then, that they will be able to read, revise, and/or develop then. It’s actually given me great pleasure to save the work of guys who work with me until their release, and then give it to them as a sort of graduation gift.

BC: My incarcerated students have never complained about re-copying whole essays in the revision process, not in my hearing at least. It’s but one more inconvenience in a world of little inconveniences. And they are SO committed to the work.

“Thoughts on the loss of physical books in favor of e-readers, especially in terms of what it means for the progress of inmate education and educational programs?”

SBS: I am upset about this. I think it will ultimately lead to less meaningful programming and offers another venue for corporations to make money by charging incarcerated scholars for e-books.

JP: While I agree with Sarah on principle, I will mention a recent development at Rikers that is working at the other end of my mind. Recently New York State entered into a partnership with a tech company to provide tablets to all incarcerated people. At first it seemed like a horrible crackdown on what they were allowed to read, as our governor instituted a pilot program at certain facilities whereby the people incarcerated in those facilities could no longer receive books in the mail and could only read selected titles made available on the tablets. Fortunately the public outcry was so loud that the pilot program was eliminated. Fast forward a few months, and the tablets are now at Rikers, with not just selected titles but software installed that allows the men and women incarcerated there to create, publish, and share content with other people on the facility (with, I must add, many limitations). My team is currently in contact with the rep of the tablet provider, and they are setting up a monthly newsletter for men in my facility to publish their work!

“What about teaching texts in the class by ex-prisoners who have become famous: [e.g.] Eldridge Cleaver, Ricardo S├ínchez, [Jimmy] Santiago Baca?”

SBS: Yes! I do this a lot, and try to invite those writers to visit the class if at all possible. Would add to the list Dwayne Betts, Etheridge Knight, Angela Davis, Shanka Senghor, Wole Soyinka, James Kilgore. The letters of Mandela and King. I try to bring in a combination of work that literally and explicitly speaks to incarceration along with work that speaks to all the other human experiences we share: family, place, food, love, parenthood, spirituality, humor, etc., etc. Balance.

JP: I’ll just add that Sarah has edited an anthology that I use with my incarcerated students, Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration, which has many authors who have been incarcerated, including Baca, R. Dwayne Betts, and others. Sorry for the plug, but it really is a great, eminently teachable anthology.

CC: I am very in favor those who have been incarcerated speaking their own stories in their own voices, and teaching work by writers who’ve lived in prison gives currently incarcerated students real world models and that vital sense of community that so many of us find in authors who’ve lived lives similar to ours.

“Describe a time or situation when you failed ethically.”

BH: I’ve felt like I’ve failed my subjects by not properly preparing them for fact-check. I works for an investigative newsroom that is incredibly thorough. When I write about formerly incarcerated persons, I am asking them to share incredibly traumatic experiences. When I have to come back and ask them to “prove” those experiences, I run the risk of retraumatizing them. For years, my subjects have not been believed, and later, for a journalist to follow-up an interview about dates, paperwork, or other witnesses who can corroborate their experience can make them feel betrayed. Now, I am very upfront about our fact-checking process and try to prepare them for that experience as best I can.

SBS: We have a final reading at the end of each semester, in which our students present their best work for an audience of other incarcerated students, C.O.s, and other facility staff. We are required to approve what they’re going to read for these events. Early in my teaching, a student asked me if he could read something that he’d written since our last class. He was a great student, and I fully trusted that the work he wanted to read would be fine. I didn’t check it before he read. He ended up reading an incredibly graphic, vulgar piece about his work as a pimp, which included a passage about a woman who was shockingly similar to ME. The C.O.s in the room were very unhappy, and one of them ultimately made him stop. This put our whole program in jeopardy of being cancelled, made the incarcerated women in the audience incredibly uncomfortable (maybe even threatened), and damaged my standing as a teacher. It was a moment when it became very clear to me that my job was not only to give students agency in their own work, but to protect the program, and all the future students who might benefit from it. I had ethical obligations to the audience, as well.

JP: One of the first things nearly everyone tells you when you start this work is that you never ask anyone you with what they are being incarcerated for. If they volunteer the information, fine; but that is not for me to ask, any more than I would ask one of my college students to tell me about things they’ve done in their personal lives that they regret. When I started at Rikers, especially considering that it is a jail and the people with whom I work have not have been convicted of whatever they’re in for during the time I’m working with them, I decided that I would not base any of my interactions with them on their innocence or guilt of the crimes they are in for; I would simply interact with them in recognition of our shared humanity. After I’d been running my workshop for about four months, a man started coming regularly. After he’d been attending a couple of months, he told the workshop he’d been falsely accused of breaking and entering and sexual assault. After he’d shared this, he asked me if I knew what moral panic is. I told I was aware of the concept, mostly from reading Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics. He asked if he could read it, so I lent it to him. After reading it, he began speaking of himself as a folk devil, and if me as a Christ figure. On week on a whim, I decided to Google his name, and found out that he has a very extensive record of sex crimes, many against children the age of my own. After my initial shock, I realized that I could not be in the same room with him. I asked the CO working with me to stop calling him down for the workshop. He’s now been sentenced upstate, and still writes me letters I don’t respond to.

I’m still parsing out the ethics of his case, and where things went so horribly wrong. There is of course the violation of his privacy in looking him up, but a part of me is glad to have found that out about him. One might say I should have called him out more forcefully on his delusions, but I still wonder if it’s really my place to call people - people, not cases - on their delusions when I hold so many myself.I allowed myself to feel empathy for a fellow human, only to retract it when I found out the kind of human his record says he is. Like I say, I still don’t know exactly what to do with this.

BC: A few years ago, in a memoir class, I pushed a young incarcerated man to consider in revision the connection between failed art school interview (he had skipped it out of a fear of failure, motivated by a double-consciousness first described by DuBois) and the assault that landed him in prison, which occurred only hours later. When I arrived at the prison the next week, I learned he was in solitary confinement after committing a new assault on another incarcerated man the previous week. I couldn’t help but think my pushing him back into that crisis had led him to act out again.

“How do you ensure the safety of your students when they write their story? How do you ensure their safety when you write about them?”

BH: To retell a person’s experience in the criminal justice system is an incredible responsibility that I take very seriously. I have to establish trust. I have to do no harm. I am constantly checking in with subjects. I try to prepare them for their life and story to debut on a public stage. Open communication and transparency is key. Having heart is key. Making sure you are telling the story with care and nuance is key. Sometimes I think I am more worried about it than the subject.

SBS: I don’t know if I can ensure it, but I can definitely encourage students to consider questions of safety. I try to be explicit about the difference between and value of public and private writing. I want students to make a conscious choice to take something from a piece of private writing to a piece of public writing. Once a student decides to make something public, then you have questions of revision: what to keep, what to edit, how to frame, what to foreground. Revision has high stakes in these circumstances. My students are largely concerned with the families of their victims (a lot of my students have killed people). By the time they reach my class, they are profoundly aware of the consequences of their actions and don’t want their stories to re-victimize the loved ones of those they’ve killed. Other students, with less serious crimes, are much more concerned with questions of how the piece might impact their case, their parole, their life inside the facility. These are questions and concerns that I’m not that qualified to answer for them. After all, they are the experts about life inside a prison. I think my responsibility is to bring up the questions and give them class time to think/talk through the options.

“How do you cope with seeing the level of injustice that your students are suffering?”

BH: I had a really hard time with this and became a journalist as a result.

SBS: Institutionally, I push my university to support programs that work for justice, especially in their funding priorities. Personally, I try to bring in writing prompts for my students that allow them to articulate and explore their strength, hope, gratitude, and community. Not as a way to avoid the injustices that they’re suffering, but as a way to remember the strength and agency that they still have. Sometimes those things are very small, but identifying them and illuminating them through a poem or essay can be a miracle. I obsessively read writers like Victor Frankl, Angela Davis, and bell hooks, who are so hopeful, brilliant, inspiring, and powerful. And I give myself permission to compartmentalize the injustice and still do things like laugh, play, and celebrate my own life (see the answer on self-care.)

BC: Not to be flip, but how do we cope with the injustice we see around us every day OUTSIDE of prison? I am insulated from it by layers and layers and layers of privilege, so prison teaching is a way of forcing myself to confront issues of social justice and inequality. An incarcerated writer once wrote to me that he was strangely grateful to prison for forcing him to encounter and confront himself. Me, too.

“Has what you consider ‘ethical’ changed in response to a system that may itself not have your students’ best interests first? (Examples?)”

SBS: The system does not have students’ best interests in mind, but there will be individual people inside the system that do. Find those people. They are often social workers and clergy. Work with them. Follow their leads if they have been involved in the system longer than you have.

CC: I teach at a university heavily populated with first-generation college students in a somewhat poor county in my state, and I’ve always been sensitive about the cost of textbooks. In fact, I think it’s unethical to order books that I don’t use a lot or to order expensive texts when there are less expensive alternatives. When I understood with the Second Chance Pell Grant program that the university president was paying for my incarcerated students’ texts and the correctional institutions were allowing my students to keep all their books in their cells, I recognized an opportunity. I ordered big anthologies and books I wouldn’t necessarily spend class assignment time on. Why? Because the most ethical thing to do in that situation was to put valuable reading materials in the hands of men who needed and would read those books. The prison situation flipped my usual sense of what was right on its head in this case, and I don’t regret it.

“I was interested in the panel because I am constantly thinking of questions of ethics when it comes to teaching with students on the inside. Mainly questions of consent. It feels important to communicate about issues surrounding mass incarceration and its impacts and students on the inside are limited in how their stories are shared. Ideally, it would be great to help them shape and publish work. But when writing about it, I want to be careful about consent. I think about anonymity, about not wanting to "other" in any way that would cause further harm (both potentially to students and in perception of those on the outside). I teach with minors as well so that's a whole other thing. Mostly, I am curious to hear what you all talked about because these are questions I am very invested in thinking about how to handle responsibly and also use the storytelling tools I have to shed light on the ills of the system.”

SBS: These are issues I’m thinking about all the time, too, and I can only offer giving students opportunities to weigh the risks of telling their stories, risks of remaining silent, and risks of journalists “getting it wrong.” Taking time to imagine possibilities is a small way of making more informed decisions about how and why their stories should be told.

CC: I’ve determined that as a writer who isn’t a journalist, I can only tell my stories, but those stories are important. For example, how what I see/hear/experience as someone working on the inside but able to leave anytime has made me rethink my own privilege and naive opinions about issues surrounding incarceration. If I can help others like me see what I see, maybe more states will take Florida’s lead and restore voting privileges to former felons or make even greater strides toward genuine reformation and restoration of lives to people who have “done their time.”

“Another thing that isn't explicitly about teaching writing with incarcerated students but that is an issue is there seems to be a real dearth of programs for people reentering. I think in part some folks find it exciting to teach inside carceral space but there's such a need for community and artistic expression when people get out. I'm wondering if folks know about successful programs/funding for both adults and minors reentering community.”

SBS: Project Rebound, which works in many of the schools in the California State university system, does great work:

Education Justice Project, which is run by Rebecca Ginsberg, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, works to get the students who are taking classes on the inside to finish their degrees at the University of Illinois when they are released:

Our program offers a fellowship program called the Maenad Fellowship to women who have been impacted by substance abuse and/or incarceration. We pay for child-care, transportation, and offer a stipend when people complete the 12-week creative writing class on Chatham’s campus:

What I’ve learned about re-entry programs is that the greatest obstacle to participation are the mundane, everyday things like inflexible work schedules, lack of permanent housing, childcare, and transportation. If programs are interested in working with those who are re-entering communities, we absolutely must find ways to eliminate those obstacles by finding spaces like public libraries that are located on bus lines; in making childcare, transportation, and stipends a priority when writing grants to fund the program; and by making sure you have the legal ability to stay in touch with people once they’ve graduated or participated in an “inside” class. Community partnerships will be crucial. Who are the organizations who are already doing this work? How can you partner with them, hear what wisdom they have, and help them to serve their clients/constituents with writing skills?

JP: I honestly can’t conceive doing this work without considering successful re-entry of the people I work with as the primary goal. This was something I didn’t really foresee when I deciding I wanted to work with the incarcerated, but once I grasped that responsibility as part of this work I also realized the deep and wide community of educators and advocates working toward this end. The New York Re-Entry Education Network (NYREN), in particular, has been foundational in linking me to librarians, agencies, employers, and many other entities in the variegated ad hoc community in support of people who’ve suffered under and are recovering from our system of justice.

CC: Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop in Denver has a free writing workshop specifically for people in transition from incarceration. It’s called Writing to Be Free, and this, and other free community workshops is a great model for ways writing can be integral to re-entry.

“As a paralegal, so much of my writing in regards to offenders is either on their behalf or directly in contact with them. We had a client who was a writer, and his manuscript was used in trial as evidence against him (some similarities between the offense and the story’s plot). In these in-prison writing programs, is this a sort of risk that the inmates take? Are they aware that this is a risk? How do you navigate explaining this while also encouraging your students to write?”

SBS: My students seem very aware that this is a risk. I re-assert that risk, but also give people the room to make a decision for themselves. Some of them also know that they’re going to be in prison a long time; I have many students who are serving life-without-possibility-of-parole, so the risks are different for each student.

“Is it possibly cruel and/or frustrating for inmates for them to get just a small taste of education in prison-teaching programs when they most likely will not continue their education? How does a teacher in a prison education program handle the sense that it may be useless in helping people with basic re-entry elements such as housing and employment?”

SBS: I think we talked about this at the panel, but my best antidote for feeling helpless and useless is to be a part of a community of people who are working on these issues. As a prison educator, try to become part of a wider community of people who are working on different parts of the mass incarceration problem. There are no doubt people in your community who are working on housing, employment, parenting, public health, etc, etc. The more you know about the resources available in your community, the more you can refer people to those resources which gives you the ability to focus on the work you’re an expert in: writing instruction. We are up against a massive system. We can do our small part, support those near us doing their part, and avoid burn-out by leaning on the community.

“Writing about the men in the 3rd person feels unethical. Help?”

BH: I am coming at this question not as an educator, but as a journalist. I obviously am constantly writing in the 3rd person. My newsroom does offer first-person essays to anyone who has a story to tell, but often times, I find that subjects would rather tell you the experience and have it shaped in a way that feels professional and true. Sometimes the writing and editing and and work it takes to shape a story can be frustrating and overwhelming for folks. They know they want their story out there, and they’d rather a professional do the work to capture it in a way that audiences will engage with.

I tell my students that I’m a writer, and that recently I’ve been writing about the work of teaching in prisons. I am transparent that as a writer their jobs will be to observe the world, witness, document, reflect, articulate insights. I have to practice what I preach, I have to bear witness to the world I’m travelling in and out of. Being transparent helps my ethical questions.

“How can your colleagues not suited for this work best support you in this work?”

SBS: Great question! By letting other professors in the university know that it’s happening--supporting the project in casual conversations with colleagues rather than making dismissive remarks. By referring graduate students who might be interested in working with these programs to us. By enthusiastically and publicly celebrating our work in faculty meetings. By doing research on mass incarceration. By making issues of race, class, and mass incarceration central in your own writing and scholarship. By considering how your field, research, or personal work intersects with mass incarceration. By finding out what your school’s policy is on accepting formerly incarcerated students, and if there are limitations on hiring formerly incarcerated people as faculty and staff in all areas of the university. After finding out what your school’s policy is, advocate to “ban the box” in your admissions and hiring policies.

By voicing your support of the program to us privately. By asking us if we could use any supplies, books, or resources for our prison classrooms. By simply writing us a nice note that voices your support for our program. Believe me, knowing that there are people who personally support you will be tremendously helpful. We are so often anxious that no one else thinks this work is worthwhile. Respecting this work as service when reviewing us for tenure and promotion.

CC: Oh yes. Everything Sarah said.

“What are you self-care practices for doing this work for a longer haul?”

SBS: Community, community, community. You have to be friends with people who can let you vent, cry, scream, and be frustrated with the work. You have to have people in your life who you can be honest with when you want to quit. You need at least one person on your faculty who is in total support of the program who can advocate for you when you are too tired. And you have to take semesters off. In order to keep a program going AND take semesters off, you need a team. Build that team, build your community. Rely on them. Also, give yourself permission to have fun. You’re allowed to jump on trampolines, get drunk, go on vacation, and make out at Salsa Night. Do these things. Your incarcerated students want you to.


John Proctor’s work has been published in The Weeklings, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and the forthcoming anthology of work on the rhetoric of suffering, Beyond Pain (Routledge). He is a lecturer of writing and media studies at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for inmates at Rikers Island.

Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and Co-Founder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers in Pittsburgh, PA. The program is run through Chatham University's MFA in Creative Writing program, where she is Assistant Professor of English. She co-edited the literary anthology Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence and Incarceration, which includes a companion workbook for educators who teach writing in alternative spaces. Her essays about mass incarceration have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Baltimore Review, Proximity, and elsewhere.

Chauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her work has been honored as Notables in both Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is currently Creative Nonfiction Editor of Atticus Review and teaches incarcerated students in the Second Chance Pell Program.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing at the Allegheny County Jail. In 2017 she wrote a ten-part series -- “Voices Unlocked” -- exploring how the U.S. penal system has shaped identity and life of Pittsburgh residents. She has also covered stories on drug addiction, race, development and motherhood.

Bob Cowser’s most recent book GREEN FIELDS: CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND A BOYHOOD BETWEEN won "Best Memoir 2010" from the Adirondack Center for Writers. He is Professor of English at St. Lawrence

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