?In jail, my mind opens like the cell door in front of me.?
That?s a line from one of the memoirs written by one of the students in Ami Regier?s creative writing class.
Regier, professor of literary studies at Bethel College in North Newton, has had many students during her 19-year tenure at the college. But this student, and others like him, are different ? they?re inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. They?ve had more life experiences and have been through tougher, more traumatic times than most of the college students she?s taught.
Things they say and write have an impact on her.
The inmate who wrote that line, Charles, has written more than 20 pages of his memoir, in which he wrote about his relief of getting arrested during his 14-year meth addiction. Getting put in prison was a relief because it allowed him to quit going down that destructive path, Regier said.
?It?s beautifully written,? Regier said about Charles? memoirs.
?I adopted that line for myself,? Regier said. ?So when the jail door opens for me, I experience some mind-opening things, too. As a teacher, I now see the classroom as a really humanistic place, and it?s a valued place for the participants in the prison.?
The class is under ?the auspices of the prison arts program sponsored by Offender-Victim Ministries (in Newton), which has a Showalter Grant,? Regier said. She makes life-writing assignments on a regular basis, as well as fiction, drama and poetry.
Regier said there was one moment during a class at the prison that really hit her. During class, Regier has students read out loud what they write. All of the students are realizing they?re sharing about their lives and getting to know each other. After one inmate read what he wrote about himself, another man said, ?Thanks for sharing that, man.?
At the prison, Regier thought she was experiencing some important connections, and wanted college students to experience that, too.
The students in prison aren?t the only ones learning.
?I think it?s made me a better teacher,? Regier said. ?I was trained to be distant and professional and not have the classroom be a warm and inviting place. It?s teaching me a relationship is part of teaching.?
The students open up, and there?s a bonding. Regier is trying to get them to support each other, but it appears whatever happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. The inmates don?t feel comfortable sharing information outside of class with other inmates or talking about it in front of others there, Regier said.
But inside the classroom is a different story.
?I thought that the level of support was really important and wanted to see it in my college classroom also,? Regier said. ?It shows the inmates are willing to collaborate in the real world.?
Through the writing class, inmates have been able to see that language and writing are ways to express their reactions to trauma, the need for power and having a voice instead of having a physical reaction, like doing something destructive, Regier said.
Inmates definitely are experiencing positives from the class. For example, Regier said Charles said writing has helped him understand his family better.
?Some of the inmates have stories about family members who turned them in and how their actions affected others,? Regier said.
Other class members have cited benefits. Dylan and Charles said writing helps their attention-deficit disorders; ?K? stated writing helps him prepare what he?s going to share with his children and wife; Michael wants to become employed in the communication/writing field; and Dylan said his behavior has become less impulsive.
Regier said she has college students researching the benefits of writing about traumatic events, and they?re finding there are physical and cognitive benefits. It also can help people handle their emotions and to get jobs.
?My speculation is that just as unemployed people who write about their experiences are likely to be re-employed at higher rates, inmates will be more likely to leave the prison and gain employment,? Regier said.
Another advantage of the class is students get positive feedback from it.
?Some of the men have so little positive reinforcement in their lives,? Regier said, and they get that from her and each other. ?I think they are hungry for some praise for work.?
The prison participants are quite thankful for the opportunity, and they want education, Regier said, adding it?s nice to see that. They feel like they missed out on getting an education. One man was arrested while attending the University of Kansas. He?s been in prison for 10 years and is ready to be released.
?I choose not to look up what they did,? Regier said. ?I choose to see them as people who need education, like we all do.?
In addition to writing, the class reads the same books together. The first book they read was, ?The Things They Carried,? which is about Vietnam veterans.
?Some of the guys said, ?You picked this well ? all dudes,?? Regier said.
Now, they?re reading ?The Fault in Our Stars,? which will allow the class to talk about suffering and how friends can support each other. The book is about two teens with cancer.
?Reading is a little hard,? Regier said about the class. Some can read, and some are struggling to improve reading comprehension and to process ideas thoughtfully.
When discussing and reading the book about Vietnam veterans, the men had some different insights about the trauma men faced in the Vietnam War, Regier said.
?They had some really great insights into that book about how the men were traumatized and what the clues were,? Regier said, like picking up on the men shutting down and not speaking.
It appears Regier processed the idea of teaching at the prison thoughtfully after she received a letter from a self-help group called Reaching Out From Within. They asked for a poetry, fiction and drama writing class at the Hutchin?son facility, Regier said, and to have the class last for several weeks. The class has lasted longer than that.
?I couldn?t say no,? Regier said. ?How could you say no? I was scared.?
Regier?s sense of adventure, wanting to help others, and her love of literature and writing overcame her fears, and she started teaching the class in April 2014. Offender-Victim Ministries taught her about the rules of prison, like not bringing in cell phones and pens (pencils are allowed), and about getting badged and fingerprinted.
?It?s the things you learn,? Regier said, smiling.
Regier doesn?t go to the prison by herself. She?s accompanied by Will Shoup, a Bethel College student who is a creative writer. He?s doing this as part of a service project, and he shares his work with the prison students and also teaches about writing. Regier and Shoup go every Monday night to the East Unit at the correctional facility, which is a moderate-security area.
Although she?s volunteering, Regier considers herself a representative of Bethel College partly to establish identity and credibility.
?How do they know who I am?? she said. ?I believe in writing in general ? rehabilitation for life. Rehabilita?tion for all our lives.?
by Wendy Nugent