Finding One’s Voice from Behind Bars

Ellen Stackable’s home state of Oklahoma can be a tough place to be a woman. For the past 25-plus years, it’s held the nation’s record for highest rate of female incarceration. Policies drive those dismal stats: Oklahoma has a low use of probation, and according to the Tulsa Voice, subpar mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs. Several incarcerated women will spend the rest of their lives in prison. In 2014, Stackable, who has been an English teacher for decades and firmly believes writing can change lives, decided to create a program through which incarcerated women can find their voices and tell their stories—many for the first time. The nonprofit program is called Poetic Justice, and the way Stackable sees it, its mandate is to empower.

“Once they find out they can write, no one’s ever going to be able to take that away,” Stackable told CNN. “I wanted something that I felt . . . 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.”

That empowerment begins with weekly classes, during which there is time to write, meditate, brainstorm, and learn about poetry and creative writing. Volunteers provide individual attention, something some of the women have never enjoyed before. “More often than not these women are talked at—they’re not listened to,” Poetic Justice volunteer Hanna Al-Jibouri told the Arkansas Times. Poetic Justice provides a forum where the women can express themselves, be heard, and feel secure while doing so. As Stackable said to CNN, “Creating a safe place in the most unsafe place is at the heart of what we do . . . from that, writing flows easily.” And by finding a writing voice, incarcerated women are liberated to tell the story that defines them well beyond the limits of a rap sheet or prison sentence.

“We do what we do under the guise of poetry,” Stackable told the Tulsa Voice. “But it’s more about therapeutic work. It’s the affirmation of you as a human being. Looking at you in the eyes. Treating you as an individual. We let them make the rules. They hold each other accountable, and that’s empowering.”

Thumbnail credit: from Ellen Stackable MrsJ by Ellen Stackable via YouTube.

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

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