07/28/2014 12:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Overcoming the Worst Moment With Words

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Co-written by Tim Small, Coordinator, PEN Prison Writing Program.

The first exercise in writing is to write. Like Shakar's letters to his family and those he helped his co-inmates write, that first letter can spark the transformative power of expression, to think through and share personal experiences for the first time. For the incarcerated, this may be a turning point: the first use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.

Writing is a skill that can be practiced, and, unlike many skills, writing well is useful in almost every avenue of employment, education and, of course, daily life. Writing is a skill that generates other skills. It is well proven that education reduces recidivism in prison by high -- double-digit -- percentages. The word correctional is used frequently in the prison industrial complex, and we believe men and women who are incarcerated in these facilities and those who work in them should not come out worse than when they went in.

It's important to include those who work in the prison industry because guards and other prison workers ought to be included in educational grants to counter the pressure and stress of work in prison environments and to reduce some of the resentment that can exist towards those, like Shakar, who are working on a personal correction.

Susan Rosenberg, who herself discovered writing in prison, has often inferred that prisoners are frozen in their worst moment. Once someone is convicted and sentenced, the system and society no longer see a human being but a crime. Mentors like those in the PEN Prison Writing Program, however, witness on a daily basis the desire and capacity of people to overcome their worst moment. Many tell of having discovered in prison that they have a story, just like everyone else, and are eager to practice the skills to tell it. For this reason, we often meet inmates in a positive, eager and gracious light that reveals nothing of their crime but merely a desire to move beyond it, whether in prison or upon release.

Warehousing and silencing any segment of a population is a fear-based practice, and, in order for democracy to function, we believe it is important to hear from every segment of the population, even those disenfranchised by crime. The hidden voices, particularly of men and women who are doing time, have a lot that they can teach us about who we are as people. To read and try to guide work created in the deforming atmosphere of prison is a humbling process for both sides, a process that many of us discover teaches us as much or more from our mentees and students than we may ever be able to impart.

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