Stacy had been out of jail for a couple of months when she found herself in a classroom, sitting around a table of women.
She leaned back in her chair, arms and legs crossed. She had come to this gathering to be part of a leadership program for women in re-entry, meaning women who have recently left jail or prison. The mission of the program was to support these women in feeling and being more empowered, and to find and access the resources they need to get jobs, find housing, raise their kids, and become leaders–– leaders of themselves and within their communities. This was a time to restart and renew.
Stacy had been sitting in class for a few hours––the lunch break had just ended––when a guest teacher came in to lead the women in a writing workshop. Stacy knew she needed resources. She was admitted into this program to create change. But what did writing have to do with any of that?
The women re-congregated around the table as the guest teacher began speaking about the power of writing; of using your voice.
Writing is how you can be loud, how you can claim that you deserve to take up space,” she passionately said. “Your voice is your fire, your advocacy, your change. It’s an effective and nonviolent weapon to stand up for yourself, for those you love, and for your community.”
“And it is also your home,” she went on. “A place for you to connect back to yourself, and to hear your inner voice. So, write! Express yourself, even if it’s only to yourself in a journal.”
A few of the women nodded their heads, but Stacy wasn’t buying it. She interrupted the teacher: “I don’t get it,” she said. “What’s the point? Like, if you write in a journal, do you read it back to yourself after?” She wanted to know, with everything confronting her after jail, how writing was going to help her heal?
And she wasn’t wrong. When women and men leave prison in America, they’re confronting seemingly insurmountable odds. Got a felony conviction? Now you’re going to have to check that box on every job and housing application you fill out. It’s not going to be easy to earn money or find a safe place to live. Committed a drug offense, misdemeanor, or felony? If you want to go back to school to finish your education and get the skills you need to succeed, it’s not easy going there, either. Grants and financial aid are all but prohibited or severely restricted for you. And what about government support like food stamps? If you’ve got a drug conviction on your record, you can cross that off your list, too.
But the teacher wasn’t giving up just yet. “You know that feeling,” she said, “when you’re sitting in a classroom and you feel caged? You really just want to get up and move, but the teacher’s still talking so you just have to sit there, waiting, feeling antsy like you need a release?” Stacy stared back.
“And then, finally,” she continued, “the teacher stops talking and class is dismissed, so you stand up and you stretch your arms above your head, big and wide, and you shake out your legs because, at last, you’re free; relief.”
“Well,” she went on, “it’s the same thing with writing; with your voice. Sometimes, you just have to let it out. And that is the power of writing––in the act itself. You set yourself free.” With that, the teacher stopped talking and the women had 30 minutes to write and share their stories.
Becca wrote about getting arrested one afternoon. That very morning, she had gone for her 16-week sonogram. She wrote about the fear that came over her when she realized she may have to deliver her son in jail. What did this mean for his life?
Laquita let her emotions fuel her writing, sharing how scary it was to get locked up and not know her rights, and her trepidation around parenting from a distance. “Make me feel that,” the teacher told her. “What did you miss about your children?” Laquita missed her daughter dancing and her son playing Legos.
And Maria wrote a moving letter to her daughter, mourning her daughter’s experiences with sexual violence throughout her life, wishing she could have been there to support her during her toughest moments while she was in jail. “It was only 75 days,” she said, describing her stint in jail, “but it put a lot of pressure on her.” The teacher, who had been going around to check on each woman, asked Maria, “Will you share this letter with your daughter?” “Yes,” she said. “Today.”
At the end, the teacher pulled out a chair next to Stacy and sat down. At the outset, Stacy said she had nothing to say. But, in those 30 minutes, she had found something precious: Her voice. It flowed out of her, filling the page.
“See,” the teacher said, a smile on her face, “it’s always been in you.”
Stacy asked for the teacher’s cell phone number at the end, “in case I need to reach you again,” she said.
One writing workshop may not change Stacy’s life––or any woman who is in re-entry––but it is a start; a reminder that our most valuable gifts are already within. They’re something we always carry with us.
Supporting these women in becoming leaders is not some pie-in-the sky idea. If we are going to create change as a society, if we are going to ensure that all of our people are thriving––our neighbors, friends, parents, children, and co-workers (because that’s what incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals are)––we need to hear their voices. Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.
Women and men in re-entry need and deserve support. Their punishment is over; they’ve served their time. Now that they’re back in their communities, they need to be equipped with the skills and the resources to be active, healthy, and engaged citizens, and embracing the gifts that writing has to offer is a vital first step. Teachers like Stacy’s are the necessary conduits to amplify the power of the written word and to encourage those who most need it to harness their potential on the path to their inspired lives.
Ashley Asti is a writer and criminal justice reform advocate. Her books include I Have Waited for You: Letters from Prison, The Moon and Her Sisters, and Your Nature is to Bloom. She is also the founder of ASHLEY ASTI, an organic skincare line created to honor our bodies, protect our planet, and connect us to the beauty of our souls.