Locked up and learning to write, women prisoners find a safe space and hope for the future with a teacher who cares.
Poetic justice: healing women inmates through writing
While working on her graduate school thesis, English teacher Ellen Stackable was surprised to learn her home state of Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in America. Stackable found that many women inmates were first-time, non-violent offenders. She listened to their stories and began to understand their difficult lives. In 2014, Ellen decided to use the power of creative writing to help imprisoned women by launching her nonprofit, Poetic Justice.
“I just fell in love with the idea that writing could change someone’s life,” — Ellen Stackable
While working on her graduate school thesis in 2013, Ellen Stackable stumbled upon a topic that would change her own direction.
Stackable learned that her home state of Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country—a record it has held for more than 25 years.
“We have harsh sentencing laws, and we’re locking up so many women," she told CNN. "I couldn’t believe what was going on in my state."
In 2014, Stackable decided to bring creative writing classes to incarcerated women. Her nonprofit, Poetic Justice, started in one location. Now the program is in five female prisons in Oklahoma.
As she began meeting the women in prison, she learned many of them were first-time, non-violent offenders. She began to hear their stories and learn about their difficult lives.
"These women have been failed by everyone," Stackable said. "They have childhood trauma; many have been sexually abused or experienced domestic violence. When you learn what they’ve been through, you understand how they found their way to prison."
When people read what these women have written, they are blown away.
Top 10 CNN Hero Ellen Stackable: Helping jailed women to work through past trauma and find healing
During the weekly Poetic Justice classes, the women meditate, learn about poetry and creative writing, brainstorm and then spend time writing. Volunteers help prompt ideas and provide individual attention. At the end of class, the women can share their work with one another.
"It’s a sacred place where you can write, and you can feel free to share your writing and trust people in a place where no one trusts anybody," Stackable told CNN. "In a place that never feels safe, you make a safe place."
At the end of the eight-week course, each woman receives a printed book containing a collection of their group’s work.
"When people read what these women have written, they are blown away," Stackable says. "Everyone assumes they’re in prison, so they must be dumb. But they are talented, creative and incredible writers."
For Stackable — whose group has reached more than 2,500 women — this is about much more than writing. She views these courses as a therapeutic way for the women to work through past trauma and find healing.
"I see these women gain self-confidence and find self-worth," she said. "I just want them to find hope. If they can find hope, it can change their lives."
Poetic Justice now has thirty volunteers who lead classes every week for over 150 women—at the Tulsa County Jail, Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, Turley Correctional Center, and Kate Bernard Correctional Center.
Ellen Stackable was voted one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2018.
Poetic Justice: Voice, Hope, Power to Change
Poetic Justice offers restorative writing workshops to incarcerated women emphasising voice, hope, and power to change. Students use transformational communication skills to lead restored, meaningful lives. Find out more, get involved, volunteer, donate.