It’s Monday night, so Elizabeth Steeby is standing on a moving body scan machine in the lobby of New Orleans’ jail.
What: Readings from Unheard Voices, a collection of works by women incarcerated at Orleans Justice Center. The pieces will be read by by teaching volunteers affliliated with UNO's Creative Writing Workshop.
When: Thursday, Oct. 26, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: Language Arts Building, Room 197, University of New Orleans - Campus Map
The University of New Orleans associate professor of English stares ahead, her hands resting near her thighs, until an olive-jacketed sheriff’s deputy staring at a computer screen waves her off.
“Please empty your pockets,” the deputy tells Steeby’s companion, Phinnie Zahareas, a writer and graduate of UNO’s Master of Fine Arts program in fiction writing.
The pair are part of a volunteer corps of creative writing teachers who make weekly treks to the Orleans Justice Center, where they offer female inmates a chance to leave their cells for an hour to read and talk about writing and channel their experiences and memories into words on paper.
The volunteers go to the locker they share to deposit their personal belongings, grab the stash of pricey prison pens—stubby ball point pens that are designed to be non-lethal—and move escorted by a guard through the halls and locking doors of the jail to a room on the third floor that is marked “Group Therapy.” Inside, they wait for women in orange and maroon jumpsuits to walk through the door.
“It’s been the sunshine in my life here,” says Angela, a 39-year-old New Orleans woman who has been incarcerated at the facility for more than a year. She has been participating in the classes since the moment she heard about them and has become a regular. She says the classes have given her hope and helped her find herself again.
In this room, the women laugh and smile. They read aloud and cry. Some nights, they speak and read quietly, seriously. Other nights, they chatter and snicker like school girls.
When Angela was 12 years old, she wrote her first poem in an English class. She wrote throughout high school, performed at poetry open mics and envisioned a life after high school graduation that revolved around the written and spoken word. But dreams get obscured. For many, it’s just the momentum of life that takes over. For her, she says, it was babies and spousal abuse, a painful past and an uncertain path forward.
When she was booked into jail on felony charges, Angela says, she slept for a week. “The second week I realized, ‘I need a pen and some paper.’”
Freedom is creating something rare, she wrote one night in the creative writing class.
Freedom is breathing and smelling fresh air
Steeby and Randy Bates, professor of English, joined forces in 2015 to create a service learning course, English 6398, that immerses UNO graduate students in writings related to issues of incarceration.
The mission is to pair the students with instructors or more experienced volunteers to go together into the jail to teach inmates on a rotating basis.
Over 16 weeks of their own coursework, the graduate students read, discuss and write in response to fiction and non-fiction works that deal with criminalization, incarceration, race, gender, sexual orientation and prison pedagogy.
Before they are permitted into the jail, they undergo the facility’s background screenings, watch a prison rape prevention training video and wait to receive approval to be volunteers. They keep weekly journals of their experiences, provide constructive feedback to inmates on their writing, submit lesson plans for their jail classes and help transcribe and print a collection of the inmates’ work in a magazine collection.
Steeby says she and Bates felt it was important that the students walk into the jail with clear context about the place where they would be working and the people they would be teaching.
“Everyone in this city has a relationship with the city jail in some way or another,” Steeby says. “My commitment was that we would do readings and have conversations from the very beginning so that we have an understanding of the larger landscape of incarceration and criminalization in—not only New Orleans—but also Louisiana, the South, the nation and internationally.”
Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the Unites States—816 per 100,000 people—and the number of people behind bars has doubled in two decades. The Orleans Parish jail has been under a federal consent decree since 2013, when a federal judge mandated sweeping operational changes designed to reduce unsafe conditions, in-jail violence and inmate deaths.
Patrice Jones, an M.A. English student taking the class this fall, is awaiting her first volunteer rotation at the jail. She says she wanted to take the course as soon as she heard Steeby mention it. Jones’ grandmother and mother were both jailed multiple times during civil rights protests years ago and her niece is currently jailed in another state. She is eager to bring her teaching to the Perdido Street jail, but says the coursework so far has enhanced her understanding. “I think I’ve become more knowledgeable and aware of the magnitude of the problem,” she says.
While women make up only about 9 percent of those incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center numbering about 100 to 150 per day, they also have far fewer programs to serve them.
Gregory Carroll, director of programs for Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and himself a UNO alumnus, says that besides religious programming, group therapy and a high school equivalency class, UNO’s volunteers are bringing in the only other opportunities available to female inmates. In addition to the established creative writing program, UNO alumni and faculty have plans to bring the women classes in yoga, improvisational performance and graphic arts.
“The females have always been thought of second,” says Carroll (B.S., ’84). “Part of my goal is to change that."
In addition to Zahareas, the other volunteer teachers who lead the creative writing classes even when the service learning course is not in session are UNO graduate students Elizabeth Brina, Tori Bush and Robin Johnstone; UNO alumnae Barry Fitzpatrick and Dana Glass; former UNO student Florentina Staigers; and Rhiannon Dowling of the Louisiana Prison Education Coalition.
When the ladies from Block E enter the room marked “Group Therapy,” they are smiling and talking with one another.
Seven show up this night. Most appear to be in their 20s. They take their seats in brown plastic chairs situated around a few mismatched tables that Steeby and Zahareas shoved together minutes prior. A large window shielded by metal bars looks out on the lights of the New Orleans’ downtown.
Steeby welcomes the women. She asks them to close their eyes, to put both feet on the floor.
“I want you to think about your most perfect place on earth,” she says.
The room gets quiet. Moments pass. A guard sits at the door looking on. A ripple of giggles takes over. Steeby smiles. Zahareas smiles.
Within minutes, the women are open-eyed, hunched over papers, scribbling with stubby pens on loose leaf about their favorite places.
On the page, one woman is sitting on a rock with an ocean view, wind blowing, her child and fiancé nearby.
One is under a starry sky with her two dogs, “out in the open,” she writes, traveling “to places where people don’t lie.”
One is at home with her little brother, “watching movies or baking.” A place where censored voices are heard, a place where kids can just be kids and baking sweets is free.
Angela isn’t in the class this night. She is in her cell. Her block, Block F, just across the hall, is on lockdown.
She tucks all of her writings into a folder she keeps in her cell. Each piece is catalogued on a single sheet of paper according to number and title. “Healing Appears.” “Welcome 2 Jail.” “Domestic Abuse.” “Haiku #1.” She has written more than 190 poems since she was booked into jail. And she pores over the comments the UNO graduate students make in the margins.
“Nice strong images,” reads one. “Maybe make this question stronger by repetition,” reads another.
The class has reignited Angela’s ambition to go to college, to study English, to continue reading and writing, she says. She’s making a book-bag out of torn up T-shirts knotted together so that when she’s released she has a way to carry out the donated books she’s received from the volunteers.
Bates says he once brought in a mock-up of Unheard Voices: Prose & Poems by Writers in the Orleans Justice Center, which would be the program’s first collection of the women’s writings. On the spot, Angela thumbed through the pages, rearranging the order of the works into its final form.
Angela, he says, insisted it open with the invitational sounding poem, “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” by a woman named Chantle.
She also wanted the magazine to end with an untitled poem by a woman named Terrie. It’s a poem that describes the thoughts of a 7-year-old upon hearing the sounds of her abuser’s footsteps coming down the hall. It ends with words that echo the magazine’s title:
If I could just be loud. If I had a voice that wasn’t unheard.