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Interrupting Incarceration With Writing

by Daniella Deutsch

Working with Prison Writes over the last few months has been nothing short of transformational, profound, and deeply humbling. As an organization, Prison Writes has turned their attention in a beautifully detailed way by focusing on bringing intervention on a micro and mezzo level to an enormously overwhelming macro systemic problem. At a time in our country where there is so much pain, injustice, and confusion on where to turn our attention, being a part of a healing practice for a community of people who need and deserve it has been life changing.

As a social work master’s student, I am often faced with the harsh reality that aspects of my career may be quite demoralizing and that I may not always see the direct result or impact of the work I tirelessly pour myself into. However, working with Prison Writes is a unique way of first hand viewing the ways in which healing can happen on the spot. As an artist (specifically a writer), I have spent the last 10 years of my life building up to the moment where I can bring creativity into a therapeutic space. Finally, I am here, and bringing therapeutic writing workshops to those formerly and currently incarcerated has only strengthened my belief that my life’s purpose is to do this work and also that everyone deserves a safe place to express themselves - regardless of their past or current situation.

In particular, working and writing poetry with the young men (18-21 years old) at Rikers has been immensely powerful. There is such a natural human need to be seen as a complex individual, to not be defined by one moment or one decision made. But unfortunately, the racist and unjust American carceral system and mass incarceration epidemic has lost all sense of basic empathy, and stripped those who are in jail of everything they are besides their charge. Being able to go into the jail and work with people from the perspective of one human to another human is important in their healing. The vulnerability and bravery that the young men show when they are writing with me is inspiring. The poetry I’ve seen the young men produce in jail is full of pain, love, anger, hurt, hope, desire, pride, and more. They have so much to say, and Jessica (the founder of Prison Writes) has made it very clear that they all see how important it is to write - to write to/for others, or simply to journal for themselves. It is critical they receive the message that they all deserve the time and attention to learn how best to express themselves, to release pain healthily, and to find strength in various forms.

It is pressing to promote rehabilitation and education over incarceration. The cycles of intergenerational trauma and pain that lead to cycles of incarceration and re-incarceration in New York City must be broken by better and higher prioritized policies and programs. However, on a micro level in the meantime, it has been an honor to play a small role in the day to day of these individuals - providing an hour or two in their week to drop into a different world together of the pen and the page.

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