“Reflections of IPWW” by Robert C., incarcerated writer

I thought myself to be fairly familiar with and knowledgeable in the art of writing when I signed up for Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Yet, I have learned and discovered far more than I could have imagined. I honestly didn’t expect much from the class initially, but that quickly changed after attending the first session, and it left me with a feeling of anticipation and wheels spinning in my mind. It’s as if a part of me was locked behind a door in my mind and this class helped me unlock that door. I was free.

The facilitator, Kristina, showed compassion. She has a will to listen to the unheard and she cared for the least considered. Kristina has a true love of writing, and this made the class all the more important and memorable.

As an incarcerated writer, I learned true confidence in my writing ability realizing I should not limit myself any longer. I learned how to channel my mind and find empowerment through Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. Now I see a world of endless possibilities. This class also has fueled my desire to put my writing out into the world.

Indiana Prison Writers Workshop was therapeutic. It helped me become comfortable sharing my writing and I gradually opened up. This class was a weekly temporary escape from my circumstances and I feel immensely blessed to have been a part of it. I will look forward to any classes or programs offered in the future by this organization.

“Rooted in Reclamation”

“Rooted in Reclamation”
(a collaborative poem written by students at the Montgomery Women’s Facility)

I come from a bold generation, proud and strong.
The strong-willed, but kind of heart. 
            the backwoods. 
A bluff that carries a pine-scented breeze and
a small town with powerful people who can destroy your life. 
I carry love. 
The love of self, family, and love itself. 
Through chaos and tragedy, I know a faith that moves mountains,
and music that tells stories. 
Music that blares out the pain, distracts from reality. 
Pure country. Old country. 
            when country wasn’t cool. 
Rock N’ Roll, Heavy Metal, Gospel, 80’s Pop, R&B, and Otis Redding. 
What I know going forward is that…
I will not use the words “I can’t.”
or allow the world to tell me 
            Who. I. Am. 
I am not another statistic. 
I don’t want to be miserable or mean.
To lie.
To go backwards.
To lose hope.
To be silenced. 
I want to smile and stand tall. 
To love harder and without abandon. 
When I open my wings, I can fly
            towards a brighter future. 
A future where I do amazing things and 
I believe that I am going to be okay.
Even better than okay, I will be great. 
After all, one day I will go home and return to the dirt from which I came,
            to my deep roots. 

“Beyond the Classroom” by Kortney Stern, IPWW Program Facilitator

On February 18, 2023, I began teaching my very first Indiana Prison Writers Workshop (IPWW) class at the Edinburgh Correctional Facility in Edinburgh, Indiana. Prior to being assigned my own class, I had the incredible opportunity to shadow IPWW Program Facilitators Tiffany Leininger and Mallory Rodenberg at the facilities they volunteer at, Branchville Correctional Facility and Putnamville Correctional Facility. Even though IPWW had supported me by providing multiple opportunities to guest lecture and gain experience under Tiffany and Mallory’s tutelage, I felt strong first-day jitters when I walked into the classroom and met my IPWW students for the first time on that cold day in February.

Upon entering the classroom for the first time, I was greeted by a small group of incarcerated students who were just as nervous and excited to meet me as I was to meet them. After settling into our seats and doing an icebreaker, we began to discuss the reading for the day. Moved by our discussion, I ended our first session with a smile and an increased sense of confidence. I knew our class was going to be enriching, inspiring and thought-provoking.

During the second-class session, I came to class feeling at ease. I greeted my students and began jotting the day’s agenda on the board. As I turned around to make an announcement, I noticed a new student walking down the hall. I had not seen this student in the previous class, and he had a very commanding presence. The other students turned and stared without making a sound. I quickly greeted the new student and asked if he would be joining us. He mumbled, “Yeah.” I pointed to several empty seats in our U-shaped desk formation for him to sit, but he sat down at a desk several feet away from our community circle. After working with students for over ten years in higher education, I was not unused to such behavior, but I was quickly on alert that this might be a challenging student. Determined to create a bond with this new student, I walked over to him, handed him his complimentary IPWW course materials and discussed our previous class with him. I asked him his name, and I marked him present for the day.

That class session continued just as the previous week: students were eager to learn, share and discuss; that is, except for my new student whom I will call “Jason.” *Jason chose to remain outside the community class circle, and he did not offer any thoughts on any of the materials we discussed. I was familiar with this kind of silent student protest, but I was hoping such behaviors would not find their way into our volunteer program—and, here, I use “volunteer” to describe the participants participation in the class, for this is a course the students choose to take purely for their own benefit and enjoyment. When our second class came to an end, my students stood up, smiling and laughing, as they all helped each other put the chairs back; Jason, on the other hand, stood up from his island seat and walked out the door. I watched him saunter, slowly, out the classroom, and I wondered if he would choose to come back to our class the following week.

I arrived to our third-class session, and myself and three other students began transforming the visitation space into a classroom. As we rearranged the seating, I looked up and saw Jason walking, methodically, down the hall. Upon seeing Jason, I loudly said, “Jason! Welcome back! I am so glad you are here!” The other students turned, looked, and continued getting ready for class to begin. A smile began to tug at the corners of Jason’s mouth, and before I knew it, he was beaming. “You remembered my name?,” he asked. “Jason, I remember all of my students’ names, and if I saw you ten years from now, I would still remember your name,” I responded. He continued to smile, and this time he sat in our inner circle along with the other students. In this moment, I realized I had misread this student. His silence was not a protest. His icy exterior was not combative. This was a student who was used to not being seen or heard or even acknowledged or remembered in the classroom. This was a student who was pushing himself outside of his comfort zone in hopes of finding some small fragment of joy.

After that class, Jason returned each week, without fail. He completed every homework assignment, and he took notes every class. But, week after week, he sat silently, unwilling or unable to share. I knew from Jason’s homework that although he might be quiet in class he was always thinking, feeling, processing and growing. With each passing week, the writing in his homework became more and more advanced, insightful and vulnerable as his confidence grew from the lessons we were learning in class and the individual feedback he received on assignments. He began to write about horrific experiences in his life that led him to the very place he was currently in—and I do not just mean spatially, I also mean emotionally. For the first time, Jason allowed himself to express his authentic self on the page. In many ways, Jason “came into being” during the course of that class, and as the instructor, I had the honor of watching him bloom. 

About midway through our course, Jason raised his hand for the very first time in class. Every student turned and looked. I did not want to make Jason feel unsettled or regret speaking in class, so I quickly called on Jason as if this was the norm. Jason said that he was preparing for the GED, an alternative exam that is equivalent to the U.S. high school diploma. Jason added that he had taken the English portion of the exam ten separate times, and he was very concerned about how many more times he would have the strength and energy to put towards this portion of the test. Then, he asked if I could help him. The classroom burst forth with tips, tricks, and commiseration about the GED. Jason became a full, integrated member of our class that day.

In response to Jason’s plea for help, I gave students the option to write their homework from that point on as an essay or as a more creative, reflective piece, and I would respond to their work, leaving feedback tailored to whatever structure they were writing in. By doing so, Jason was able to receive feedback on more formal academic writing structures while still following the traditional IPWW writing exercises and prompts. In this sense, Jason’s work became a blend of both creative and academic genres, for the “evidence” in his essays was often drawn from his own life experiences.

Toward the end of our course, Jason shared that he would be taking the GED in a few days. He was nervous but hopeful that his new skills and tools from our IPWW class would help him finally pass the exam. The other students assured him, giving him hope. At the end of class, I told him that he had everything within him that he needed to pass. I saw his development as a critical reader, writer and thinker in his homework, and I knew he was ready to take the exam. As he walked out of class that day, I sent every well wish that I could his way in hopes that he would pass the test.

The following class session, I walked into the room but did not see Jason. I was nervous. Did he pass? How was he feeling? I began to prepare for class to start, and then I looked up and saw Jason waiting to speak to me. He had a paper in his hand, and he said, “I have something for you to see.” The paper was shaking as he held it up to me. I quickly scanned the document and found “English” and a perfect 10/10 score next to said category. I looked up at him, and I said, “YOU DID IT! I knew you would! CONGRATULATIONS!” He said, “I could not have done it without IPWW and your class.” He sat in his seat and smiled for the rest of our class session.

As I reflect, I realize just how transformational our IPWW class was for all that were involved, including myself. IPWW transformed my life. Helping students find confidence in the classroom is a gift. Knowing, in some small way, I aided Jason in discovering the power of his pen is a treasure. IPWW gave my students a moment each week to be seen, heard and present in their own lives and with each other. Building a community together, having thoughtful discussions about all of our readings, growing as critical writers with each writing assignment, and even finding the bravery and tenacity to pass the GED exam are just a few of the beautiful moments that came out of our IPWW class, and each one of these moments has had an impact far beyond the space of the classroom.

*All names and identities have been changed to protect the privacy of all IPWW students

Life-changing writing class holds special meaning

Written by incarcerated student, Rob C.

The Indiana Prison Writers Workshop classes at Putnamville Correctional is a place where people change. I have seen many men become betters writers, but I have also known some to become better fathers, sons, and brothers. Some men learn new things about themselves, while others have healed a part of their life. All of these things and more have been made possible through the volunteer work of Tiffany Leininger.

The creative writing class has been a part of my life for four years, and it has certainly made me a better writer and better person. I worked hard to make that happen, but Tiffany’s teaching and dedication have guided me along the way. Her efforts have created an environment that is peaceful and safe, a place where men feel they can open up and not be judged or humiliated. It allows them the opportunity to turn inward and discover new interests, relive and share their favorite life moments, or confront matters that have long been ignored because of the painful memories attached.

I have been involved in many programs led by numerous volunteers over my nearly twenty-five years of incarceration. No one compares to Tiffany in their ability to connect with people and lead them to a better place in their life. She provides a space completely removed from prison that is conducive to growth, creativity, and positive change. Her patience stands out as something unique and refreshing, and her manner in getting guys to be brave with themselves in opening up and exploring new areas is unlike anything I have known.

I am privileged to be in Tiffany’s class and to know her as a person. Her direction has certainly changed my life for the better, and I am deeply grateful for the way she has helped me to grow and see the world in a different way. It has been a special blessing, and she is truly a special volunteer.

Rob C., IPWW Student
Student Rob C. and Tiffany Leininger

“Pain” by M.J. G.

Pain is undeniable but suffering is a choice. Living in the material universe demands a certain acquiescence to the limits of form. Pain is not evil or wrong – helpful in fact – only intense in its delivery. Suffering is the result of deciding to ignore or disregard what pain seeks to see made right. I argue that in pain is found truth, and once you subdue your innate aversion to its presence you can gain for yourself its treasure as your own. Pain should be embraced and then allowed to go its way, not to be held too tightly. Pain can only be fully released after its measure is truly taken and its message fully read. Accept your pain, but let go your suffering.

“The Sound of Silence” by Steven C.

It echoes off the musty, dark walls. The further I try to run from it, the louder it gets. Sadly, I’ve heard this overbearing ‘noise’ since I was a child. At first, I was an innocent little boy, raised by my single mother until the age of six. She was my whole foundation- built on my earliest memories of life with mother always being there.

Then one day, she wasn’t.

“Who’s this?” a curious and confused six-year-old asked, as he stepped out of the guardian home.

A counselor pointed to a group of strangers. “This is your new family.”

This was the moment when I first heard the sound of silence. 

“After the coalman left” by Anonymous (incarcerated for 51 years)

I don’t expect anyone to to understand what the early memories of family togetherness at Christmas means to a person who has been confined in prison for 50+ years. When I was a child in the 40s and 50s we didn’t have lights or ornaments on our tree; we made a colored crayon chain made out of paper and glue, like the ones we used to make in school, and we wrapped it around our tree as decoration. Later Christmases revealed trees with lights, ornaments, and garland. My father, an illiterate, hard-working, self-employed roofer always tried his best to provide. Dad didn’t talk a lot. He was a quiet yet deliberate man. I’ve seen him struggle when he was down but also noticed his generosity towards others when he was doing well and had plenty. He struggled with life because of his lack of education and a bum-leg he acquired from slipping and falling on ice at the age of 29. He never liked taking handouts. At Christmas, our house became as grand-central-station. After the coalman left, neighbors suddenly appeared at our front door. At Christmas, the spirit of thoughtfulness and kindness filled the years and mind of many. I remembered thinking later in life, that if only that spirit prevailed all year long, it would a wonderful world to live.

“Reward system” by IPWW student

Owen was obsessed with the little stickers that college football teams put on their helmets. Over the course of the season, players received these stickers for their accomplishments. Owen didn’t have a clue what the specifics were, or if the reward system was individual or team-based? Season after season, as the unquestionable summer sunshine gave way to the crunchy crumbling of orange and brown and yellow leaves of fall- Owen felt like nobody cared but him. Would each tackle by the defense produce a sticker? Or just sacks on the quarterback? Forced fumbles? Owen grew tired of just grunting like a linebacker tackling a running back. Everybody else shrugged him off between plays and sips of beer and awkward crunches of Tostitos. So he did the only logical thing he could think of: he decided to develop his own sticker reward system. Since he didn’t have a football helmet, he used his ’97 Volkswagen Jetta. And since he was sick of stickers, he superglued little toy figures to the hood of his car whenever anybody on his “team” accomplished anything. For job promotions and raises, he glued little army men to the Jetta to symbolize the soldiering through that transpires in places of employment. Whenever his friends announced successful first dates, one-night stands, engagements, pregnancies, marriages-he stuck to the old-school red and blue cowboys and Indians to represent the eternal tension in relationships. And when anybody had the chutzpah to ask him why all those toys were on his car, he would reply “Why do college teams put stickers on their helmets?!” And only the keys in the ignition of the Jetta could break the awkward silence.

“I Remember” by IPWW student

I remember growing up wishing that I had more than I did. Times were rough when I was coming up. Son of a single mother that raised seven kids on her own.

I remember learning how to cut grass so I could go to McDonald’s or the corner store to buy candy.

I remember Mom using old bedsheets to make our costumes for Halloween and pillowcases for our candy.

I remember shoveling snow just to buy my mom something for Christmas. I was ten years old.

I remember complaining to my mom about sitting at the welfare office all day long and her telling me “If you don’t go to school and get a career you gon’ have to do this when you get older.”

I remember not getting new shoes for years at a time. I was used to not getting anything new. Mom always made sure Christmas was special though. She always had something under the tree for us. I love her for trying to make us smile.

I remember Mom telling me to lock the door behind her and to open it for no one because she had to go to work. My older sisters and brothers had run away from home.

I remember walking to the grocery store with my mom because she didn’t have a car and having to carry the bags back. She’d tell me “You got it son, show me how strong you are.”

I remember not going on field trips because my mom didn’t have the two dollars. Things were different back then. It made me grateful for everything that I receive.

I remember.

“I Remember” by Jeremy R., IPWW student

I remember my sister pulling my ears until they popped.
I remember running around the house, curling my lips, singing and imitating Elvis.
I remember pretending to be a working man, fixing things.
I remember the smell of incense and booze mixed with cigarette smoke clouding the air and the night that was to follow.
I remember joining a union at 18 years old and starting my career.
I remember building my own home at 21 years old.
I remember the birth of my firstborn.
I remember smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and that same smell that filled the air.
I remember my first OWI.
I remember the births of my next 2 daughters.
I remember living a beautiful family life.
I remember getting hit by that car.
I remember the pain meds and how they made me feel.
I remember realizing I was addicted. Only no incense, smoke, or smell of booze filled the air.
I remember the darkness that came over as my addiction consumed me.
I remember losing everything.