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3 Things I've Learned While Teaching a Creative Writing Workshop For Women at Rikers Island

Creative writing can help women inmates, who often have dealt with abuse and drug use, to better understand their emotions and triggers, and to cultivate critical thinking skills which can help them navigate life.

Creative writing can help women inmates, who often have dealt with abuse and drug use, to better understand their emotions and triggers, and to cultivate critical thinking skills which can help them navigate life.

Rikers Island, BK Reader, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Fortune Society, The Legal Aid Society, Supervised Release, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, George Motchan Detention Center, NYC prison system, NYC jails, incarceration, prison reform, Justice Implementation Task Force
Photo credit: NY Daily News

In December, I began teaching a series of creative writing workshops for women inmates at Rikers Island. Rikers is rather notorious, for its bureaucratic brutality, corruption, pain, and there is strong a movement to force its closure. I'm using creative writing as a cathartic and therapeutic tool; to help the women better understand their energy, emotions and triggers, which will help them navigate life. The ultimate goal: To reduce recidivism and to help the women maintain a legal and productive lifestyle upon their return to society.

Women at Rikers are either serving short sentences or remanded in custody because they can't make bail, or are awaiting trial or a transfer to a facility upstate. I won't pretend to know everything about Rikers, criminality or women inmates. Yet, there are a few things that I have learned since I started.

1.) Drug use keeps prisons full.

"Drugs are bad" is such a banal and trite statement, that it rings hollow when spoken. But after a visit to Rikers, it becomes clear that the phrase is actually an understatement. The number of women who were in my workshops, who came to Rikers as drug addicts, was incredibly high. Prescription drug is big, as is heroin when the "scripts" are no longer attainable. Crack is still running rampant, ruining lives. Some of the women were using a bit of everything. But the bottom line of drug use: they cost a lot of money, and once addicted, criminality to obtain drug money soon follows.

An example: I saw one of the women from my workshop on the bus, leaving Rikers for the first time in months. Although we're told to not get too familiar with the inmates, I told her to be safe as she was exiting the front door. She looked back with such fear on her face because she knew that once back around drugs, she may feel powerless to its siren song. Drugs are a huge part of recidivism and they keep prisons full. Prevention is needed.

2.) Sexual abuse is a horrible experience commonly shared by women inmates.

Too many of the women in my workshops were sexually abused as young girls. Some of them were abused multiple times, by more than one man. It's truly horrifying how common it is.

Even more horrific is that the perpetrator is often a family member or family friend. These are men from all walks of life; people who should be protecting young girls could be the ones committing the crimes! It's far too rampant and it leaves these women feeling powerless. Sexual abuse creates an incredible trauma that can cause anti-social behavior, violent tendencies and self-esteem issues which, as I learned, often can lead to prostitution and drug use...and jail time.

3.) Critical thinking and reflection are important skills.

While some of the women at Rikers have reneged on a proper education and dropped out of school - they aren't stupid! These women have kids and loved ones that miss them tremendously, and even if they lack traditional, school-based education - they all possess the ability to critically think and to make clear, reasonable decisions that heavily impact their lives.

But they can't do that while using drugs.

Mistakes that lead to rearrest could be avoided if people thought through all levels of their actions. Cultivating and developing these skills could greatly serve the women at Rikers. I am trying to teach them creative writing to instill critical thinking, to help these women to better understand themselves and manage the emotions and triggers that may lead to negative actions.

But I'm also learning along the way.