Behind bars, those serving sentences may feel trapped in a world far different than the one they left behind. By design, prison is uncomfortable and unfamiliar to most. Yet it can also provide an opportunity for growth, especially from programs like the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop.
IPWW is a 12-week creative writing program that serves men in four Indiana correctional facilities. Since it began in 2017, 84 men have participated in the program. IPWW’s goal is to give these men an outlet for expression and help them improve communication skills before they reenter society.
But does it work? A team with the Center for Health and Justice Research at the IU Public Policy Institute partnered with IPWW and the Indiana Department of Correction to find out.
Researchers sat in on workshops and spoke with course facilitators and program participants. What they found was that the program actually did far more than improve communication skills.
“They aren’t just teaching us how to write but also how to process and accept information,” one participant told the research team.
The men who have gone through the course say it helps them communicate ideas they can’t otherwise express. In fact, 77 percent of the men who enrolled did so because they thought it would serve as an outlet for various forms of expression.
“In prison, all you have is your ability to speak,” one participant told the team.
“How can I get what’s in me out of me?” another man added. “It’s through writing.”
Participants agreed the program allowed them to safely express themselves. They told the CHJR research team that it brought them joy and created a sense of family among the group, breaking down barriers and allowing them to talk to people they normally wouldn’t have spoken to due to what they call prison politics.
CHJR found the facilities benefited from the program as well. Program participation was associated with a 38 percent reduction in prisoner misconduct violations. There were other positive outcomes as well, such as enrollment in addiction recovery services and steady employment both while in prison and after release.
The program allows the men to explore different writing styles as they hone their writing abilities. The men agreed their skills had improved because of the program’s training. But in addition to tangible skills, 84 percent of participants said they joined the program because they felt it would provide a break from their daily routines.
“It becomes our life, a freedom we don’t have,” one man said. “It’s a luxury in an unluxurious place.”
Another participant echoed that feeling, “It allowed a sense of freedom inside a place where you really aren’t free.”
When most of the men eventually do regain their freedom, they continue to reap the benefits of the program. Preliminary findings suggest that taking part in creative writing programs may help participants develop skills that can help them better transition back into society, such as improving problem-solving skills, being better able to constructively deal with criticism and feedback, gaining a better understanding the outcomes of their actions, and developing empathy and coping skills.
“IPWW showed me I can have a voice and do positive things here, and I can make an impact when I leave,” one participant told researchers. “It’s not just me coming out of prison and trying to keep it together. IPWW instills confidence.”