"Just Sitting in a Cell, You and Me": Sponsoring Writing in a County Jail
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"Just Sitting in a Cell, You and Me":
Sponsoring Writing in a County Jail

Entering jail is an assault on the senses. Thick recirculated air feels either drafty or stuffy, never comfortable. The walls protrude with a stark, dingy white, bare of character or care. The smell is sterile, some unidentifiable cleanser stinging the tongue and nostrils. Doors clang shut and open via invisible mechanics. The wall-mounted eye of the panopticon is omnipresent.

And while volunteers and inmates might share these visceral experiences of entering the institution, to enter into jail is not the same as being "in" jail. To be "in" is to be monitored—watched and listened to without exception or reprieve. To be in jail is to follow unwritten laws of behavior and written but unvoiced rules of engagement. To be in jail is to exist under the constant gaze of captors and yet remain unseen, voices unheard, despite unrelenting surveillance. Upon entering the confinement, a jailed person becomes an "inmate," categorized by a cell number, a charge, maybe an offense; she is stripped of clothing, of the tools of contemporary communication, jewelry and other personal items, stripped of the many "selves" we value as humans: self-expression, self-esteem, self-worth. To be in jail is in many ways the antithesis of self. Our work volunteering as weekly writing workshop leaders makes visible the contradictions of incarceration as we gain brief access to the highly mediated space of jail, one that seeks both to erase and change the individual. She is marked as both deviant and dangerous and as a canvas to be modeled and revised. This essay will explore the complicated relationship between jailed selves and self-publication through the lens of university-sponsored writing workshops. Our experience with the writers at a county jail in northern Colorado suggests that there are multiple moments of engagement that offer varied opportunities to publish self/self-publish.

The SpeakOut! writing workshop is a program sponsored by Colorado State University's Community Literacy Center whose mission is "to create alternative literacy opportunities in order to educate and empower underserved populations" (http://literacy.colostate.edu/about/). Weekly workshops are led by teams comprised of local university students, faculty, and community members. Over the course of twelve weeks, facilitators invite incarcerated people to read and write together and to publish original works in the SpeakOut! Journal at the end of each workshop cycle (May and December). Writers compose in genres ranging from poetry to rants to science fiction and offer perspectives on family, loss, joy, nature, philosophy and life in the 21st century. Many focus on the urgent present: life in jail, finding community, losing touch with family, feeling trapped and static, as Garza's "Jailbird" suggests here. [End Page 5]

Jailbird by Baby Garza, SpeakOut! Journal, Spring 2016

Sitting in a cell it's just you and meTrapped like animals, deprived of being free.Without any commissary and no money on the phoneIt really makes me feel like I'm in this alone.Oh God how I wish I could just be freeThis loneliness is just tearing and eating at me.As I go day by deal, meal after meal, dis safer dissI wonder how I'm going to make it out this.I'm a jailbird through and throughJust killing time, me and you.It's as if I fell off the face of the earth and diedAs I slowly forget what it's like on the outside.The feeling of fresh grass, or the warmth of the sunYet I know missing these, I'm not the only one.There are other jailbirds here just like meYearning to open their wings, to fly, and be free.Yet we're trapped like animals, deprived of being freeSo it's just sitting in a cell, you and me.

Writing and participation in jail publications provide an opportunity for incarcerated people to document their circumstances and reimagine their authorial self, increasing both the visibility of the numbing impact of incarceration and the desire to literally and figuratively be free. To publish is to raise...


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