Article from Lindsay This Week

copyright 2007 Lindsay This Week newspaper and

Date: 2007-01-26
Author: Mary Riley

Some go to the class because they’re bored. Others go out of curiosity. Many jump at the chance to fill yet another endless hour in jail.

Susan Reynolds says she doesn’t worry about the reasons that bring female inmates in Lindsay’s Central East Correctional Centre to her creative writing program.
She simply wants them to try it.

“At first, they come because it’s something new to do while in jail,” she said. “But, when they actually start to write, it becomes an outlet for them. It’s both creative and therapeutic.”

Ms Reynolds, a Durham Region resident, is a freelance writer who published her first, award-winning novel in 1993. She has also taught creative writing for the last 12 years.

Currently working on a Master’s degree in psychology, she has been teaching creative writing at the Lindsay jail for the last two years.

Her Friday afternoon classes began when she decided she wanted to work with incarcerated women.

“I was given Grace King’s name, and I called her, and it went from there,” she said, referring to the jail’s volunteer co-ordinator.

She added that Ms King was a key factor in bringing the program into the facility.

The classes are split into two groups, each with up to 12 students.

“It’s incredible what these women write,” Ms Reynolds said. “People don’t really know a lot about women in jail, because the majority of inmates are men.
“But, unlike a lot of men (inmates), women don’t think it’s cool to be a criminal.”

Ms Reynolds said about 85 per cent of female prisoners have absolutely no sense of self-worth.

“Most of those who have children have lost them to foster care. Many are addicted to drugs because the drugs take away their pain.”

Ms Reynolds says the combination of low self-esteem and drug addiction sends many women prisoners into deep despair.

“Many of them have been sexually and physically abused,” she continued. “They are often with partners who beat them. Once they take up drugs, they commit crimes to support their habit. The next thing they know, they’re in jail. And, when they get out, they go right back into the same situation. It’s a vicious cycle that some of them just can’t break.”

For years, Ms Reynolds said she has researched studies on the power of therapeutic writing, learning from pioneers in the field and becoming a certified teacher of the craft.

“It’s been shown that writing can help both physical and mental health,” she said. “Especially when people are writing about traumatic events in their lives. These women pour out their souls.”

“Some are transient; others are familiar faces,” she said. “In every class, there are new people. But, it can be tough and macho on the ‘range’ (the common area in the jail outside of the cells). You have to project a ‘tough’ image. When they come to the class, they pour their pain into what they write. One of them told me, ‘Your class give us a place to cry.'”

Last summer, the women’s writing was featured in a special publication, ‘In Her Voice – Writings by Women Inside.’

The works reflect thoughts of the inmates’ moms, dads, children, ex-boyfriends; even pets they used to own.

And they write about drug addiction.

“Right now, I love the pipe way too much. Hate it at the same time…” – M.N.

And they write about self-loathing. “I can’t believe what a screw-up I am.” – T.B.

But, they also write about a chance to start over.
“I would like to see my mom and dad be able to brag about me for once…”- J.S.

Ms Reynolds says teaching the course has made her much more aware of the humanity of women in prison.

She applied for and received a grant from a private foundation in Peterborough, which will allow her to start a Writers’ Circle specifically for the women after they are released.”You can’t read their work and not be affected by it,” she says. “A lot of these people never had a decent shot at life. The program offers them a chance to do something that makes them feel better about themselves, and their future. Creative writing is all about discovering the meaning in your life.

“I feel honoured to be able to read what these women write – it’s a privilege. Lindsay

This Week – Mary Riley – published January 26th, 2007

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In the summer of 2013 I was invited to do a TEDtalk on “Shining the light on our Changing Communities”. I talked about the therapeutic writing program I do with incarcerated women. You can view the talk here.

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