Inside the gray and virtually windowless walls of the prison a group of University of Colorado Denver students braced themselves for their first meeting with the disenfranchised, the invisible, the unteachable.
What they found was something quite the opposite. They were there to be tutors, helping the inmates write poetry, short stories and essays for an annual CU Denver-produced collection of prison literature. As the 2012 volume of “Captured Words, Free Thoughts” came together, the prisoners became the teachers.
“What’s inside of them is a very strong thirst to learn,” said Misty Saribal, a prison tutor in the Communication, Prisons and Social Justice class. “They would always come (to class) and have all their homework done, which is remarkable because they had to write four- or five-page essays by hand. Anytime we gave them a compliment for good work — oh my gosh — their faces exploded with fireworks.”
Saribal said being a “learning partner” in the class, taught by Stephen John Hartnett, associate professor and chairman of the Department of Communication, not only changed her preconceptions about prisoners but also “changed my life forever.”
Nicole Palidwor, a graduate student in communications, likewise called the weekly sessions at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) “intense” and “rewarding.” She said more than 50 percent of the prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses and many had been behind bars for at least five years.
“These women have suffered parental abuse, spousal abuse,” Palidwor said. “Sixty-six percent of women in prison have at least one child. It’s really disturbing in that sense. You hear about how people were taken away from them. Your heart just breaks in that women have seen these things that are just so traumatic.”
The mass media typically portrays prisoners as monsters, said Hartnett, who has produced the prison poetry booklet the past five years at CU Denver and five years before that at the University of Illinois. “The (university students) get in there and see, ‘Oh wait, you’re an abused child.’ The writing can be very raw. There’s a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of drug use. Most of the women (inmates) were raped or beaten when they were young.”
During the course of the spring semester, the inmate participants produce poetry, short stories, speeches and artwork. One prisoner, who wants to be a minister when she’s released, has written sermons. One poem, displayed on a pair of banners, alternates lines written by the CU Denver students and the prisoners. At the end of the spring term, the collaborative poem was read aloud inside the prison walls by its contributors.
The booklet is released in the fall, and over the past five years, its contributor network has grown. The participating prisoners often mention the project to friends and relatives who in turn offer their own creative submissions.
The goal is to give voice to the voiceless, Hartnett said. In that process, a symbiotic relationship forms between the inmates and the university students. “One of the things I love about the class,” he said, “is it turns our students loose and lets them be creative. They get all jazzed and do their own poetry, their own art.”
One aspect of the project, which has been a dual-institution effort through CU Denver and Adams State College, is changing. The program has been funded by a federal grant that allows the prisoners to earn Adams State College credits, which they can apply to school after being released. But the grant ran out this year.
Hartnett said he hopes the prison literary magazine can continue as a volunteer writing workshop. “We know we need to evolve a new structure,” he said, and he’s been in discussions with students, including Palidwor and Saribal, to develop it.
Palidwor stressed that the community engagement project is not for the faint of heart. Working with prisoners takes uncommon commitment levels from students. “They have such abandonment issues that if you stop showing up you’re just another person who showed up in their lives and then walked away after 20 minutes or so,” she said. “You need to know this is the kind of work you want to do.”
Saribal said the experience awakened her to just how privileged CU Denver students are to be getting a quality education. “They are so hungry for education and positive influences,” she said of the inmates. “That’s the number one thing I think we all got from it: You can make an impact on people’s lives, and you can make a change.”