Inmates publish their writings as part of special project

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(Host) Inmates at the women’s prison in Windsor have been putting their thoughts on paper as part of a special writing project.

This writing project is different from those at other facilities, because the essays are being published in a weekly newspaper.

The published column is called “The Glass House.”

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, it’s a benefit to the inmates but sometimes raises concerns for victims.

(prison entrance) “Hi, how may I help you?”

“Hi there, it’s Kevin Forrest and Johanna Knowles for the Glass House Project.”

(Keck) Johanna Knowles is a freelance writer from Hartford, Vermont. Kevin Forrest is the Editor of the Vermont Standard newspaper. Every week, the two walk past razor wire and guard stations to lead a writing workshop at the prison for women. Six inmates, dressed mostly in jeans and sweatshirts, arrange chairs around a large table in a makeshift classroom. Once everyone’s settled, Knowles gets started.

(Knowles) “Okay, these are the hand written assignments for the ‘I’m afraid, I’m not afraid’…”

(Keck) Donna Ditchkus reads first. The woman, in her 40’s, is serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for prescription fraud and violating her probation.

(Ditchkus) “I’m afraid of never being my mother’s daughter again. Of never really finding myself. A family member dying while I am incarcerated. Of relapsing – not having a chance to make amends failure. I’m not afraid of staying clean, change, jail, having lupis, speaking my mind, saying no – life on life’s terms.”

(Keck) The workshops are part therapy session, part college extension course. Dana Osmond has been in the group the longest. Because she’s Canadian, she’ll be extradited to Canada immediately after her release from prison next year. She wrote about that and shared her work with the group.

(Osmand) “Before I leave I won’t get to say good bye to everything I’ve come in contact with. All the familiar and comfortable things tainted with all the memories of my life. I won’t get to walk down Church Street, stop for a bagel and eat it on the market as I wander northward toward the fountain and bookstores where I’ve spent countless Sunday afternoons. Before I leave I won’t get to drive down to Boston with my hair blowing in the wind, singing loud to Aretha Franklin. Before I leave my goodbyes will have to be silent and tucked away – alone – a goodbye to a book I’ll fondly recall, but never read again.”

(Keck) The women in the group say that writing helps them to cope with their emotions – their frustration and anguish at being away from their children and families – and especially their guilt.

(Cousens) “The more I write, the more I become in touch with who I am.”

(Keck) Laura Cousens is serving a 3 year sentence for selling drugs and violating her probation.

(Cousens) “And sometimes just putting those thoughts and feelings and emotions on paper makes them easier to deal with and I’m not ashamed necessarily of my past, but I’m still trying to understand it and my motivations and why I do the things I do. So, it helps me with that.”

(Keck) Dana Osmond says she remembers a particularly difficult assignment where she was asked to write about how she ended up in prison. After several attempts, Osmond says she realized that it wasn’t the crime she needed to face, but everything in her life that led up to it.

(Osmond) It’s very emotional – to take the risks to really write the truth – when part of the reason I’m here and the crap that got me here is all about the secrets and the lies that I told myself and I made myself believe just to get through every day. And I just dedicated myself to not doing that- to just being truthful every day – and the truth is painful.”

(Keck) The crimes these women committed vary from burglary, selling drugs and counter fitting, to murder. Of all the women in the room, Dana Osmond’s crime is the most disturbing. In a drunken, jealous rage, she stabbed a woman for dating her boyfriend. Osmond then left the woman to slowly bleed to death. Kevin Forrest, editor of the Vermont Standard, says he and the newspaper’s publisher thought long and hard about whether or not to print the columns.

(Forrest) “And we decided the concern over victims’ rights was outweighed by the importance of giving a voice to the incarcerated women which is a voice that, as far as we are aware, has not been heard before. And the success and popularity of the column I think has born out that decision.”

(Keck) Nina Ward bristles at that. Ward’s mother, Siona Smith, was the woman Dana Osmond murdered.

(Ward) “I think it makes me angry that Dana has a voice and they’re allowing her to have it published. My mom isn’t with us and she won’t ever be. And Dana can put her writings in a paper and I think that they would look at it very differently if it had been their mother that had been murdered.”

(Halloway) “Clearly there are going to be victims who feel that any publicity given to an offender is taking away from them and their pain.”

(Keck) Amy Halloway is head of Victim’s Services for the Vermont Department of Corrections.

(Halloway) “To say that these people’s rights trump these people’s rights is too simplistic. We need to say that these people have rights and these people have rights and we need to figure out how we honor both of them as much as we can at the same time. Because if it’s an either or – the victim’s always lose. They have no statutory rights in the state of Vermont. Our constitution doesn’t really recognize them. It’s crimes against the state, it’s not crimes against the person – so victims always get trumped out.”

(Keck) Halloway says our society wants inmates to become better human beings – and educational opportunities in prison have a proven track record. But if a newspaper publishes columns written by offenders – she says victims should have the same opportunity. Too often, she says victims don’t have the same opportunities and she says that can cause understandable anger and frustration. Back at Windsor prison, Dana Osmond pauses when asked whether her writing might cause the people she’s hurt more pain.

(Osmand) “I’ve taken responsibility for my crime and I’m here serving the sentence for my crime. And there’s nothing I can do to take it back. There’s nothing I can do except try to be better.(crying) That’s it.”

(Keck) Fellow inmate Donna Ditchkus agrees.

(Ditchkus) “That’s their right to be angry and I would understand that and respect that. But I’m working on myself and I’m trying to be a better person so that when I do hit the streets I’ve got something to give society. And part of writing in here is to not be the same person I was when I walked in these doors.”

(Keck) It’s too soon to know what sort of impact the Glass House writing project is having on participating inmates. But according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, prisons that offer vocational and general education programs do see a significant drop in recidivism – between 7 and 9%. For the women in the writing group, an even bigger benefit is the hope that their columns might help people on the outside view them as more than simply criminals.

For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck.

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