When Jessica emailed me about attending a Women’s Group at Rikers who were going to read their work, I thought it would be good for me to hear their voices. We met at the F train station and rode out to 21st St in Queens, then on to a Limited Q100 bus that took us across the East River causeway to Rikers Island.
I had had the foresight to remove jewelry and metal objects, to carry the bare necessities - ID, phone, metro card - but I need not have been so concerned. As attendees at the Advanced Writing Workshop presentation, we were practically honored guests and the security, while thorough, was swift and painless. With an invisible “club” stamp on the back of our left palms, we went on in.
In the Auditorium where the event was to take place, there was lemonade and popcorn which Jessica had provided. But there was also pizza and cake from the authorities at Rikers. A handful of readers - five - were nervously awaiting their turn, shuffling papers and leaning on their friends for moral support.
The MC , also one of the participants - entertained us with her own raps until every invitee from other sections was brought in and seated.
Jessica had told me that this was an extraordinary group. She was not wrong. I was totally blown away with what I heard and saw that evening. During the six-week workshop, the participants worked on writing about a life-changing experience. It seems like a lot of thought went in to the choice of material: what to say and how to say it, and more, how to share it with others. We heard about very candid and personal details that reshaped their lives. Most were able to draw something positive from their experiences: they found a friend, they finally made the right choice, they learned to act differently …….. I saw resilience, hands-on learning and relentless confrontation of reality. Their reality. These women not only had the courage to speak in front of an audience of strangers and friends, but also, legitimately, took pride in their achievement. They really did seem to appreciate our applause.
Many of the guests were struck by the natural ability of these women to “perform”; I asked their Workshop Facilitator and founder of The Kite, Gigi Blanchard, whether she had coached them. She denied it. She only helped with the writing, she told me. Everything else was theirs. Although they spoke with many voices, they all spoke the truth.
There is so much potential among these women. The quality of the writing, the choice of words, the authenticity of the experiences, the reality of life combined to make this a very special experience. At the end, I heard other inmates ask if there were going to be another Writing Workshops: they too would like to join.
Prison Writes recognizes the value of writing for therapeutic and other reasons.
Beyond being a cathartic process, the work done by volunteers in Prisons might help point the way towards a career that could be fulfilling for the detained and incarcerated. I am glad I went that evening because I really enjoyed being there.
It was a real privilege.
If you’re looking for a similar experience, the Prison Writes group at BronxConnects, 432 E 149th St, is having a reading on August 15th from 4:30 - 6PM. Take the 5 train up there and it's pretty quick - about 40 minutes.