Workshop inspired creative expression in cellblocks

A correspondence creative writing class offered by the Yale Prison Education Initiative is helping incarcerated students find their voices — and themselves.
Illustration of an inmate surrounded by various masks and boxes of work by Black authors.

This piece was a collaboration between MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute inmates Shawn and Justin, the latter of whom participated in a Yale Prison Education Initiative creative writing workshop over the summer. The illustration is by Shawn; Justin contributed to the concept. (Image courtesy of Zelda Roland with the artist’s permission)

When a student named Justin wrote pieces for a creative writing workshop offered by the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) this summer, he felt like he was sharing his heart with the world.

The workshop, which was offered to inmates at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute in Suffield, Connecticut, made him feel his heart was “treated as a heart should be,” Justin said.

I couldn’t have dreamt up a more thoughtful world for my writings,” added the 32-year-old incarcerated student, one of 27 individuals at the correctional facility who participated in the workshop. (The last names of the incarcerated students are withheld in this article.)

The workshop was offered entirely via mail due to the suspension of face-to-face programming in the prison by the Connecticut Department of Corrections in response to COVID-19. It was one of a handful of YPEI correspondence courses, workshops, or seminars offered at the prison during the spring and summer following the suspension; others included Latin, physics, an art workshop, a religious studies reading group, a seminar on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and an introduction to “Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.” Since students in prison do not have access to the internet, the courses cannot currently be taught online.

(2018) students gather around the seminar table for “ENGL 127: Readings in American Literature” at MacDougall-Walker
In a photo from 2018, students gather around the seminar table for “ENGL 127: Readings in American Literature” at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. (Credit: Kendall Teare)

The Dwight Hall-affiliated YPEI, founded by Yale alumna Zelda Roland ’08 B.A., ’16 Ph.D., first began offering in-person Yale courses at MacDougall-Walker and the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire in 2018. It allowed incarcerated students to earn Yale College credits for their coursework through a partnership with Yale Summer Session. YPEI also offers non-credit courses, workshops, and guest lectures year-round. 

The new remote Creative Writing Workshop at MacDougall-Walker, a non-credit offering, was conceived of by Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21 and co-led with Minh Vu ’20, GSAS ‘26 (now working toward a Ph.D. in American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies), and Gabrielle Colangelo ’21. The course acquainted the incarcerated students with a range of literary styles and genres through weekly course packets that included readings in poetry, long-form narrative, cultural critique, and more. The packets were guest-curated by prominent novelists, poets, essayists, and critics from across the country, among them Alexander Chee, Briallen Hopper, Franny Choi, Hanif Abdurraqib, Chen Chen, and Morgan Jerkins. In addition, Yale-affiliated writers David Gorin and Mark Oppenheimer, both lecturers in English, and Beinecke Library curators Nancy Kuhl and Melissa Barton also contributed teaching packets.

In their packets, the guest curators shared writings that have influenced them and, in some cases, their own works. Each penned a letter of encouragement to the students, along with writing prompts. After completing the readings, the students wrote their own pieces using the prompts.

The idea was to provide the students with an outlet to engage with contemporary works and also develop their own writing and their own voices,” said Kumar-Banerjee, whose work with the program was funded this summer through the Dwight Hall Summer Fellowship.

Each week Roland, who directs YPEI, picked up the students’ writing, which arrived via snail mail at Yale Station, and distributed scans of them via email to Kumar-Banerjee, Vu, Colangelo, and faculty member Gorin, who offered editorial guidance to the students to help them develop and strengthen their writing.

Kyle, 23, who has taken nearly every YPEI course offered at McDougall-Walker over the past two years, said he especially relished the feedback he received. “What interested me most about this course was the opportunity to share my writing with creative minds that may push me beyond expectations,” he said. “I want to connect with the world using my voice, and this course helped me find it.”

Kyle, who enjoys both nonfiction and fantasy writing, added that the exposure he had to different writing styles helped him realize that there is “no ‘right’ way to write.” 

Evan, 29, who also has taken a handful of YPEI courses, including four credited Yale courses, said the workshop helped him discover why he wants to write: to help him form his own identity.

For the first time, I was able to realize the value of being able to ‘control’ the narrative. …,” he said. “The more I write, the more I discover the truth about myself, about the world, about it all.” While he said he once “dreaded” being edited, he came to appreciate the importance of editing in the writing process. “[B]eing assured that your work is valid and that you have something to contribute strengthens that drive to create,” he explained.

For a student who goes by the nickname “Love,” as with others in the workshop, developing his own voice felt like a matter of “necessity,” not simply a desire. Love has taken four YPEI for-credit courses and has attended many of the workshops and guest lectures hosted by YPEI in the prison over the last two years.

[W]hat I’ve learned throughout my education at YPEI, sadly, is voices like mine do not exist or matter in recorded history or canonical literature,” he said. “Knowing that, seeing that, and being a victim of that drives me to use every medium available to me to break the silence. In this way, YPEI’s creative writing course, by far, serves me as the best — and the only — way … to speak truth to power.”

The workshop coordinators said they were not surprised to see a high level of talent in the incarcerated students.

The students’ writing both in the workshop and their academic courses has always blown my mind,” said Vu, a founding member of YPEI’s Student Advisory Committee who helped organize last spring’s “Ethnicity, Race & Migration” course at MacDougall-Walker, co-taught by Yale faculty members Daniel HoSang, Roderick Ferguson, Lisa Lowe, and Leah Mirakhor. Vu’s work was funded this summer through the YANA-Dwight Hall Summer Fellowship.

For me, participating in the workshop as a fellow has very much been a peer experience,” said Kumar-Banerjee, who is also editor-in-chief of the Yale Literary Magazine. “It is nice to be able to use my own great love and passion for creative writing and to be able to share that with people who are similarly passionate. By sharing information with workshop students, I hope they are able to reclaim agency. I think that is one of the powers of art.” 

Colangelo, who has worked as a student research assistant in the Yale Collection of American Literature at Beinecke Library, said a particular pleasure for her was collaborating with curators Kuhl and Barton, who shared materials from the Beinecke Library’s Collection of American Literature, especially the James Weldon Johnson Collection of Arts & Letters. Included in the packet were several drafts of Langton Hughes’ infamous poem “Harlem,” which asks “What happens to a dream deferred?”, photos of one of the first mass demonstrations by Black Americans in American history (New York City, 1917), the Declaration of Independence, and excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What, to the American Slave, is Your Fourth of July?”

I think librarians are always interested in questions about who has access to materials, and providing access outside of the Beinecke reading room was really special,” said Colangelo. “For me, it’s interesting to think about how things that we would traditionally look at as outside the realm of creative writing can inspire creative practice.”

Roland said that the opportunities for learning extend beyond the students in the workshop; she makes extra packets for the inmates to share, thereby expanding educational access.

I have and will continue to argue that the biggest benefit of YPEI is not found in the classrooms, but in the cellblocks,” said Love. “YPEI has empowered a group of men dedicated to educating and liberating their peers from the bondage of ignorance. In this way, the classrooms only plant the seed; it grows and blooms inside the prison, in people Zelda may never meet. However, they all know her!”


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