SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. -- Five students from Lake Superior State University English Prof. Janice Repka's advanced creative writing class found themselves in prison this past November but emerged from behind bars much better for the experience.
No, the students had not been arrested; they conducted a three-day workshop for approximately 30 inmates at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kinross, Mich.
Repka said her students are required to undertake an out-of-class project in bringing creative writing to the community, and she said the prison workshop was one of the more challenging options. She coordinated the creative writing workshop with Martin Terrian, CCF activities coordinator. LSSU English Prof. Eric Gadzinski, who has previous experience teaching writing in prison, was asked to supervise the project and help conduct the workshops.
Five students volunteered for the project and had several meetings with Gadzinski to discuss design of the workshops and general issues about the prison environment. The group included literature/creative writing majors Elizabeth Masters, from Peoria, Ariz.; Stephen Keller and John Keller, both of Harbor Springs; Jan Luurtsema, Ludington; and Whitney Robinson, a liberal studies major from Gaylord.
With Gadzinski making a sixth member, the group decided to divide into three pairs, with each pair working with approximately 10 inmates in three adjoining classrooms in the facility. Each workshop period was two hours. The three-day event included two writing-intensive workshops, followed by a final session that consisted of readings of work by all of the inmates together in the prison gym.
DOING (QUALITY) TIME -- Five students in Prof. Janice Repka's advanced creative writing class, along with Repka's colleague Eric Gadzinski Ph.D., taught a three-day creative writing workshop recently for inmates at Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kinross, Mich. From left are Gadzinski; Jan Luurtsema of Ludington; Stephen Keller and John Keller, both of Harbor Springs; Whitney Robinson, Gaylord and Elizabeth Masters, Peoria, Ariz.
A print-resolution copy of this photo is available at this link.
“I give the students a lot of credit for choosing this project,” Gadzinski said. “They all told me that none of them had taught before, and the idea of going into the prison and interacting with people who have committed serious crimes was intimidating."
Gadzinski said the tension and anxiety reached its peak when the students arrived for the first workshop. The students underwent the security procedure of going through the "bubble," the locked area between reception and the actual facility. Everyone went through a metal detector, was patted down, and told to remove their shoes and socks, which were searched, and the soles of their feet inspected. Women had their hair searched. The corrections officers were brusque and serious.
Each student was then issued an electronic personal protection device about the size of a pack of cigarettes that had a pin plugged into a socket at the top. They were told that, in the case of emergency, pulling the pin would signal an alarm and location to which the guards would react immediately.
Finally, everyone's identity was double-checked and the group was buzzed through the outer door, which opened directly onto the prison yard. The group followed Terrian across the entire yard to the education building, while a number of curious prisoners stared. Once in the classrooms, the students awaited the arrival of the inmates.
“It’s a cliché, but you could have cut the tension with a knife,” Gadzinski said. “There was no way to back out now.”
Gadzinski said what happened next was truly amazing. The students were enthusiastically welcomed by the inmates, all of whom had specifically signed up for the course. Many had previous experience with creative writing, and wanted more. Discussions were lively, the imagination flowed, the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, and there was a lot of good-natured laughter.
“It wasn't a case of having to prompt a reaction,” Gadzinski said. “The guys were eager to participate and you didn't have to wait for someone to talk, they just started. They were aware that some of us were nervous, and they did their best to lighten things up and put everyone at ease. I think all of us were impressed by the quality of the writing that emerged, both vivid and thoughtful, about basic human issues.
“The two hours raced by, and instead of surviving an ordeal, everyone couldn't wait for the next workshop. And that was the way it went for the entire three days. At the end, many of the inmates asked if and when the event could be repeated.”
The meeting of strange and distant worlds turned out to be a very genuine and affecting experience for all. After hearing about the experience from the students, Repka said, “I am so proud of this group for helping the inmates incorporate the positive benefits of creative writing into their lives. This was also a great learning experience for the students.”
Gadzinski said he believes the experience was the kind of opportunity students could probably only get at LSSU.
“We're small enough and flexible enough that we can find the opportunities directly, and use initiative and unconventional creativity to make things happen,” he said. “Instead of enduring a nightmare like ‘Scared Straight,’ all of us, both inside and outside of the prison, are better for the human contact and the shared enjoyment of having something important to say."
To find out more about creative writing at LSSU, visit lssu.edu. -LSSU-
CONTACT: Tom Pink, 906-635-2315; firstname.lastname@example.org; John Shibley, 635-2314, email@example.com; Prof. Janice Repka, firstname.lastname@example.org, 635-2448