“Freedom Within” by Tiffany Leininger, IPWW Program Facilitator

I recently gave the men in my class a prompt. What is freedom to you and how do you attain it? I found the men’s answers to be interesting and thought-provoking. A question such as the one I posed lends itself to a myriad of responses, but I felt given their current situation, the idea of freedom might not be as black and white as one would assume for these purported hardened criminals. The following is freedom defined in their own words:

“Freedom, liberty, fair treatment and free from being a captive. Free from slavery and torture. Free from penitentiary, free from depression, free from stress, mind and body free. That is what freedom is.”

“Freedom is the right to believe whatever we want. My beliefs are my own, and no one can take them away from me. Right or wrong, good or evil, light or dark – beliefs are what constitute the individual. They form us. Drive us. Define us. Even kill us. We are only free when we believe it to be true. Our loved ones become more bolstered when we believe in them. We become lost when we cease to believe in ourselves.”

“People incarcerated say that the only true prison is in your mind, so the only thing that can hold one captive is oneself. Here, imagination is the key to freedom.”

The word freedom can be defined by the dictionary, but I think the idea of freedom is something far greater than the words that define it. To each of us, freedom has a different meaning depending on where we are in life, what we believe, and how we choose to live our lives. Is freedom a physical freedom – the freedom of life beyond prison walls? Is it a mental freedom – one that gets you out of your head, if for only a short time, like a drug clouded consciousness? Is it the release that comes when relentless sin and struggle finally lose its grip and the bad habits that cling to us like unwanted leeches are defeated? Is freedom death for the pain-riddled drug addict or hospice patient, or is it life and the chance to try and live again? Is freedom forgiveness given to the seemingly undeserving, freeing the victim from the bondage of hate? Or, can freedom be found in happiness and a life free from worry, stress, and anxiety? Is freedom attained by shedding the skin that’s grown calloused to the world around us through the lives in which we have walked day in and day out and choosing to be made new? 

When I think of freedom, I think of art. Artistic expression marinates in freedom. The artist is free to choose what they want to create as well as the emotion they want to evoke. The irony and beauty of that process is that the person who views the work has the freedom to interpret it differently. Writing as an art form also gives way for freedom. It allows for the freedom to bare one’s soul and create works of art through words.

The men in IPWW, though not physically free, have the freedom to express themselves through their writing, saying whatever they want and allowing the words buried deep in their bones to emerge and give shape to the written word. Writing is an outlet for these men and a way for freedom to be found inside the walls that contain them. Just as one of the men stated, “[In] here, imagination is the key to freedom.” What better way to give imagination viability than by allowing it freedom to come alive on paper. For writers, imagination fuels us and with heart and soul we create.

In a place where daily decisions and schedules are enforced by someone other than themselves, writing allows the men a sense of normalcy and autonomy. As writers, we allow what’s inside of us to come out be it in the form of fiction, poetry, memoirs, or journal entries, and we embrace words like a close friend or cling to them as if they are our lifeline. We choose how those words are used, whether we share them with others or reread them silently in the safety of our own space. The beauty of writing is that we can touch others with our words if we choose to give freely of our gift, or we free ourselves from the hurts that lie within us by simply writing the words and allowing them to bear our pain. Our words have power and the ability to empower. With every prompt, every journal entry, every homework assignment, the men are allowing writing to empower them to believe in themselves just a little more than they did the day before. Believing in oneself cultivates confidence and with confidence comes the ability to try again no matter the barriers that keep us captive.

For the men inside prison and for those of us who (perhaps hesitantly) call ourselves writers, freedom can be found in the flow of the proverbial fountain pen. It is a fountain of life, flowing freely and moving with intensity. Its strength swells as the words pour out and we are filled with a sense of purpose. We are writing our own stories. Regardless of our circumstances and despite the pages of our lives that are peppered with challenges, we write, because writing allows for freedom for our soul and with that freedom we find peace.