“Just Tell Yourself” by Christopher S., incarcerated student

Let go of the wanting.
Find the joy.
Live for the moment.
Be where you are.

Can you control it?
Don’t deny pain.
Let it come.

Face it.
Feel it.

Let it come and go
like the river,
like the flowers,
like the rain,
like sparrows in a field.

Don’t worry about it.
Why worry?
Paint a smile.

Just tell yourself this.

Try again.
Nothing to it but to do it.

– by Christopher S.

My poem “Just Tell Yourself” contains the mantras I use to get through the pain of my past. I’ve made a lot of mistakes during my life which has led me to recovery and Buddhism. I’ve also been gifted with two amazing little girls. These mantras allow me to focus on the present so that my future is possible.

“When We Look with Love” – by Kate Jones, IUPUI student

(A visual school project based on IPWW prose)

I started the journey of this painting project with nothing but trepidation and curiosity, an eagerness to find within the words of others a glimpse into the grandness of life. I can tell you now I found that and so much more. These past few months have been spent reading and re-reading the works of the students of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop. After nearly 30 hours of work, I present to you a visual representation of the heart you’ll find in their writings. I don’t think we spend as much time as we should believing in the power of our words, how they provide for us a way to remember and to commune with ourselves, our pasts. Or that, in general, we don’t listen enough; sometimes to ourselves, sometimes to each other.When we do, we see what is ugly but also what is beautiful. I know they exist together. These writings, these souls, are a testament to that.

I have learned so much from the writers of the IPWW. From Chris, from David, Andre, Thomas, Greg, and so many more. Thank you for sharing your hearts with us. I won’t pretend that this art piece is revolutionary or saying something someone else hasn’t already said. But that’s because this isn’t about me. It’s about us, it’s about the writers whose lives are presented, in some small way, in this art piece. It’s about the captivity of our minds and bodies, of social and physical death, of power and control. But really, it’s about the power of words and the power of creating, communing with our pasts and presents, our futures, our families. This is me, taking a small step in the process of engaging with the world around me, the people I exist in this world with, those who we might not think to not forget. We can’t afford to misconstrue our sight of one another. I want you to take it in, look at each image and each word. Go back to the writings they come from. What can we learn from the artifacts, the ruminations of thought and mind from those who have written the imagery you see before you? What can one learn, finding out for themselves, what these images might be if they were to look into their lives and their minds as the students of the IPWW have? What do these images, from the hearts and minds of those asked to focus themselves on a prompt of exploration and of healing, say to us? When they’re asked to give themselves over, in words, to the lives they have lived and the stories they own.

When they’re given space to go back, or stay in the now, and just create, just learn, just focus, just listen to what their souls have to say, to look back on or forward to. Words are powerful and so is the power of listening? Please look. Please listen.

“I Remember” by Gregory S.

“I remember the clouds, the air of mother nature, the trees and birds. I remember my family and freedom and the excitement of doing what I want. I remember home. I remember cooking in the kitchen with family near. I remember going to work and being a provider. I remember being me.

“Dear Younger Me” by LaQuinton L.

Dear Younger Me: A Letter

This isn’t a letter to forewarn you or alter any decision you’ll make in the future. Instead, this is a letter intended to inform you of the hidden jewels that lie deep within you, undisturbed, like the treasure from a wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean. My hope is for this letter to act as a compass that’ll assist you in finding these riches. There are many different elements that the ocean will bring to you along your journey.

There are the storms that hit the surface tossing you to and fro. In those times, remember to keep your faith and peace amongst the chaos. There’s darkness that surrounds you as you dive further away from the surface. But in that darkness is where you’ll find the light to guide you. There’s the pressure that comes along with being in the deepest depths of the ocean. That pressure will produce the diamonds within you. And most importantly — always remember that you are the ocean and the explorer.

“Prison’s home” by Thomas B.

Time cannot be undone. Time holds our memories hostage for the duration of our lives. Those of us who are serving time suffer from this truth. When the cell door closes and you hear the final turn of an officer’s keys, you feel the loneliness. There are moments when the silence plays with your mind. You feel weak, needy, and starved for interaction. You feel soft and ashamed because of these thoughts, so ashamed that your mind wanders to the act of suicide. You contemplate where to hang the sheet, but then you feel like a coward for lacking the courage to finish the action. Once again, you’re left with your loneliness and silence. However, prison can offer more than just punishment. It can offer more than just being locked in a coffin, left to our own thoughts, and trying to understand how we became a part of the living dead. Sometimes, something amazing occurs. The same turn of a key that locked you in this coffin can also free you from your thoughts. It’s a new day! You step out of your cell and you are met with laughter, handshakes, and hugs. You not only get to witness, but to live and experience the compassion, empathy, and love us prisoners have for one another. Camaraderie—our version of the word, anyway. It means how we care for and look after each other. At times, I hate this environment. There is still pain, deception, and stereotypical views. Yet, I understand that prison has helped me become the man that I am today, a man of pride and integrity. I would have died young if not for prison. Did I want to come here? Hell no! Are you crazy? However, prison did what no house, no apartment, no family member could do. It placed me around others like myself—broken, damaged, and in search of something better.

Prison gave me a place to belong. Finally, I have a home.

“An early memory of Alabama” by Steven S.

It was summer and I was 5 ½ years old.  We had just moved to Alabama but not to an Air Force base.  I’d only known life as a military brat, and now something was different.  And I don’t mean the gnats.  I’d never seen one before and now they were everywhere.  Only the breeze could keep them away.  That breeze carried the smell of the Gulf.  We were near the beach but not right on it.  So different from Texas.  My parents, my older sisters, a younger brother, me, and a horse named Cameo.  We’d moved here near where my dad was from.  My mom had lived in Alabama, too.  When she first came from England, it was to an Air Force base in Selma.  So, now that we were here, why weren’t they happy?  There was a cloud over my parents.  So tense.  Was it my fault?  I didn’t understand. 

Then they told us Dad was leaving.  He’d brought us to where he felt we’d be safe, but I didn’t feel safe.  I didn’t understand why he had to leave.  Where was Vietnam anyway?  Things were different, but I didn’t yet know that this was the end of the life I’d known.  That my parents would never be together again and would get divorced as soon as Dad got back.  That I would never understand, and that I would spend years thinking it was my fault.  That’s how kids are though. 

A lot has changed since that summer in 1967.  One thing hasn’t…I still hate what that war did to my family.

line art illustration of world map globe design

“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