Written Inside: Essays From Prison Give Writers A Voice They’ve Lost

Stateville Correctional Facility
The Stateville Correctional Facility in Crest Hill, Ill., about 35 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Rw2 at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Stateville Correctional Facility
The Stateville Correctional Facility in Crest Hill, Ill., about 35 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Rw2 at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons

Written Inside: Essays From Prison Give Writers A Voice They’ve Lost

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Philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey teaches one of her courses about 50 miles away from the Northwestern University campus in Evanston.

Her class on mass incarceration is taught to a group of 15 inmates — all men imprisoned for committing violent crimes — at the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. 

One of Lackey’s guest lecturers, journalist Alex Kotlowitz, worked with the inmates to edit their essays on the everyday experience of being incarcerated. Their stories were voiced by Chicago actors as part of a new WBEZ podcast, Written Inside. Some of the essays were published in The New Yorker.

Morning Shift host Jenn White sat down with Lackey and Kotlowitz to learn more about the project. Below are highlights from their conversation.

On life for prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center

Alex Kotlowitz: I’ve been to a number of prisons. I’ve never been to a maximum-security prison. Stateville is a little unusual in that way in that most prisons you go to are usually surrounded by wire fences. You can see the outside world. Stateville is actually kind of like a castle where it’s just surrounded by these high, cement walls, so you can’t see inside and you can’t see outside. 

Jenn White: Jennifer, what’s your relationship like with the prisoners?

Jennifer Lackey: Well, they’re some of the most fulfilling relationships I’ve had as a professor in my 17 years of teaching. They are some of the most engaged, committed students. They come in with the readings read three, four times, underlined. I’m right now teaching a course where I gave them a course packet in advance — we have about eight weeks left in the course — many of the students are done with the whole course packet. They’ve turned in all of the readings already. I think, also, this is one of the only things they have that’s fulfilling and meaningful. I’ve had students show up in my class where they think they have a broken ankle and they won’t go get it fixed because they’re not going to miss class. I have students who are sick — they will not miss my class because it’s one of the only times in their daily routine where they, I think, are in an environment where they’re treated like students and not like prisoners. 

Hear more from Written Inside:

On the personal impact of the essays

White: How did the inmates react to having their essays published?

Lackey: One of the things I’ve been struck by is how many of them have received letters from people just commenting on the pieces. That connection with the outside, knowing that their pieces were read by people is so significant. I think, again, there’s a sense in which they, having been incarcerated for so long, oftentimes they just don’t have any connections with the outside. … They feel voiceless. They feel faceless. And so, to have these connections, I think especially having family members be proud of them (and) having other people read it and comment and write to them has just been extraordinary for them.

White: What have you learned about how their families have reacted?

Lackey: Oh, it’s been remarkable. I think for a lot of them, sharing this with their children is one of the greatest moments of their lives — and I mean literally. There’s no hyperbole there. They have so little good news to share with their loved ones and I think for many of these men, sharing it with their children is something that’s of critical importance because they’re trying to prevent them from making some of the same mistakes that they made. So being able to show them something that they’re proud of that they’ve done. To show them, “You can do something similar,” that’s been something that they’ve really, I think, appreciated about the process

On the purpose of the project

White: Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from this project?

Kotlowitz: In some ways it’s kind of a very simple takeaway. When I think about my work in general, I think that essentially what I’m doing is really writing about people and how they live their lives, often in very extraordinary circumstances, whether it’s growing up in the projects or whether you’re a new immigrant. In the case of these men, these really short pieces are about how they live their lives behind bars. You know, we have over 2 million people incarcerated in this country — more than anywhere else in the world — and yet I don’t think we really have a really full and rich understanding of what it means to be locked up. 

Find Written Inside via RSS | iTunes.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.