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Prisoners are writing their way to freedom

Aimee Whittington (left) and Ruth Melendez (right) were two former inmates who spoke at a guest lecture series event at Westfield State College last week.
By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD - Women behind concrete walls are discovering that they have something to say and are doing just that during weekly two-hour writing workshops taking place in prisons all over New England sponsored by Voices from Inside (VFI).

Three former female inmates and writers from VFI visited Westfield State College (WSC) during a guest lecture series on Feb. 21. They read their poetry to a large audience that included many criminal justice students. The women discussed the value of practicing creative arts in prison.

"The women in the prison are amazing and are improving the odds for their rehabilitation by working on their writing skills in prison," Elizabeth Stassinos, assistant professor of criminal justice, former leader of "Voices" workshops in prison and program coordinator for the event, said. Former inmates Lysette Navarro, Ruth Melendez and Aimee Whittington spoke at the recent workshop.

Navarro said one of the reasons she first became interested in the program was because of the license poetry offered, that the audience would not know if what she wrote was fact or fiction.

"I look forward to the two hours every week," Navarro said as a former inmate and now facilitator for the program. "If there was a program like this before incarceration then I would have understood myself and why I felt this way and I wouldn't have wanted to kill myself. It has given me self worth which is something that I didn't realize I wanted."

The three women spoke of their lives today and how some have gone onto college and to have families.

"There is such a stigma for women who have been incarcerated (and men), that when women re-enter the community and are getting a job and license on top of all that they are dealing with negative stereotypes from people," Kim Keough, Associate Director of VFI said to Reminder Publications.

Keough said in the fall of 2004 VFI introduced Voices from Inside/OUT which created the opportunity for the writers to lecture at WSC. OUT involves a series of readings and discussions designed to bring the stories of incarcerated women into the larger community to increase awareness of the human and financial costs of prisons in society.

"They [inmates] need help in order to re-enter the community in a positive way. We [VFI] saw almost immediately a way to create a dialogue with the community to break stereotypes and to find that piece of you that you can see and I can see and that leads to seeing people as human beings," Keough said

The three women discussed the new women's prison that is located in Chicopee:

"I am completely and totally for it," Whittington said. "In a perfect world it wouldn't be necessary. In Ludlow, the women are confined to maximum security, the ratio of women to men is 200 to 1,300. It is maximum security conditions for women who did not commit maximum crimes."

"I hate it with a passion," Navaro said. "It is in the middle of the ghetto, right next to the cable company on the North End. I hate that prison where it stands and the air it surrounds itself."

Keough said that the writing workshops are preventing future generations of inmates.

"In terms of the women that have gone through the writing workshop, 80 percent are mothers of children under 18 years of age. We know that we learn by example. In terms of preventive measures it may not seem like a lot but if a child sees his mother begin to think differently (when a woman hears her own voice) then something will change in that child and they won't become the next generation of incarceration," Keough said.

VFI is a nonprofit organization that is based out of an office rented from Rev. Kelly Gallager at Christ Community Church in Chicopee. Founded in 1999 by Sara Weinberger, a professor of social work at Western New England College, VFI currently runs four groups for women. The groups are located in a medium-security prison, in a pre-release program, in a correctional substance abuse treatment facility and in the community for women who have been recently released. Each group is led by two facilitators who have been trained in the Amherst Writers & Artists method of facilitating writing groups with people from under-served populations. Several graduates of VFI workshops such as Navarro have also been trained and are active in the program.

The VFI recently released, "Women Writing in Prison" an anthology edited by Jacquelin Sheehan and published by Voices from Inside under the auspices of Amherst Writers and Artists Press in 2005. All profits from the sale of the book go to support the VFI writing groups for incarcerated women.

Copies of the book and more information can be found by going to

An art exhibit: "Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States" will run at the Hampshire College Art Gallery of the Harold Johnson Library through March 2 featuring the work of Rickie Solinger, the exhibit curator and a reproductive rights activist. For more information on this event, contact the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College at 559-5826.