Ellen Stackable has been an English teacher for more than 20 years.
“I just fell in love with the idea that writing could change someone’s life,” she said.
While working on her graduate school thesis in 2013, she stumbled upon a topic that would change hers.
Stackable learned that her home state of Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country – and it has held this record for more than 25 years.
“We have harsh sentencing laws, and we’re locking up so many women,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what was going on in my state.”
In 2014, she decided to bring creative writing classes to incarcerated women. Her nonprofit, Poetic Justice, started in one location. Now the program is in five female prisons in Oklahoma.
As Stackable began meeting the women in prison, she learned many of them were first-time, non-violent offenders. She began to hear their stories and learn about their difficult lives.
“These women have been failed by everyone,” Stackable said. “They have childhood trauma; many have been sexually abused or experienced domestic violence. When you learn what they’ve been through, you understand how they found their way to prison.”
During the weekly Poetic Justice classes, the women meditate, learn about poetry and creative writing, brainstorm and then spend time writing. Volunteers help prompt ideas and provide individual attention. At the end of class, the women can share their work with one another.
“It’s a sacred place where you can write, and you can feel free to share your writing and trust people in a place where no one trusts anybody,” Stackable said. “In a place that never feels safe, you make a safe place.”
At the end of the eight-week course, each woman receives a printed book containing a collection of their group’s work.
“When people read what these women have written, they are blown away,” Stackable said. “Everyone assumes they’re in prison, so they must be dumb. But they are talented, creative and incredible writers.”
For Stackable – whose group has reached more than 2,500 women – this is about much more than writing. She views these courses as a therapeutic way for the women to work through past trauma and find healing.
“I see these women gain self-confidence and find self-worth,” she said. “I just want them to find hope. If they can find hope, it can change their lives.”
CNN’s Meghan Dunn spoke with Stackable about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What inspired you to bring writing to these women?
Stackable: I wanted something that I felt like wasn’t just me reaching down and giving somebody something, but giving them a tool and a way that they could change and empower themselves.
Once they find out they can write, no one’s ever going to be able to take that away. The only true freedom they have to hold is within themselves, because everything else can be taken away from them. So, writing becomes really infinitely more powerful for them.
CNN: What changes have you seen in them?
Stackable: I see women being restored to their families. I see them making a difference in other prisoners’ lives. I see them changing the atmosphere within prison. And I think that writing is part of that. But underlying writing is a sense of self-worth and employment and agency. To have those things while you’re in prison is just counter to the entire system.
CNN: You start each new class with the women setting the rules.
Stackable: I think in order to know that you matter, you have to feel like you have a choice in something. So, everything that we do in the class is to eliminate the hierarchy these women have always been part of. They’ve always been the bottom of it, and even more so in prison. So, we allow them to make the rules.
Creating a safe place in the most unsafe place is at the heart of what we do. And from that, writing flows easily. And then with writing comes healing and hope and change.
CNN: What keeps you motivated?
Stackable: I think, ultimately, it’s because these women are worth it. They matter. I walk away from every class I teach encouraged and just honored to be there.
There’s no coincidence that prisons are often in out-of-the-way rural places. It’s because we don’t want to see them. We don’t want to know what’s happening. So, for me to be able to tell their story and for them to tell their story, that’s the motivation.
Want to get involved? Check out the Poetic Justice website and see how to help.
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