Adirondack workshops help prisoners make sense of world
By Betsy Kepes
Jackie Keren stops at six locked doors on her way to her classroom in the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook.
After the body scan at the first gate a guard escorts her across a courtyard. “The campus is surprisingly beautiful,” Keren says, “except for the concertina wire and the various gates separating areas of the compound.”
In the winter of 1980, Olympic athletes stayed in these buildings at the base of Scarface Mountain. After the Olympics the freshly built campus became a medium-security federal prison that now houses more than 600 men.
Keren teaches writing classes to incarcerated men who are brought to Ray Brook from all over the United States. Through the Adirondack Center for Writing she offers vocational writing classes (resumes, business letters, grant proposals) and creative writing classes in fiction, memoir, poetry and writing for children. Attending a class at FCI Ray Brook is voluntary and classes range from one session to courses that are 12 weeks long. Keren says most of her students are in their 30s and a majority are African-American.
In the 18 years that the center has sponsored these classes, hundreds of men have discussed literature and learned how to critique a piece of writing. The incarcerated men are imaginative students, she says, and they actively participate in class discussions and most are avid readers. Keren contrasts this with her college students who often do not participate in discussions and are not readers.
But teaching in a prison means negotiating many unwritten rules and customs. At meals, Keren says, the men sit with groups of their ethnicity and from their home city. In her classes there is a wariness at first as the students share a classroom with men from other groups.
“Having someone there from the outside makes it easier for them to open up to each other,” Keren says. “It’s a decision they have to make, to let their guard down and share something personal, whether through fiction or nonfiction. The class gives them the opportunity to share and discover the experiences they have in common.”
Nathalie Thill, director of the Adirondack Center for Writing, says that teaching writing to incarcerated men “is just as lifesaving as drug and alcohol counseling. Studies show that reading and writing develop a sense of empathy.”
Thill administers the prison writing program with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Federal Bureau of Justice. Her program flourished with administrators who were receptive and those who were hostile. Today’s administration is supportive.
In the early years Thill involved the local community in writing and reading events at FCI Ray Brook. She hired actors to teach theatre and writers to talk about their books. But access to the federal prison is now more restricted. No one can enter FCI Ray Brook without a background check and it takes months to complete one.
Thill is required to attend a certification training every year and says she loves it. “I always learn something.” But this long process means it is almost impossible to bring in local authors or have an audience present for student readings. Thill says she is fortunate to have Keren, who has been teaching in the prison for six years. She says Keren is a wonderful teacher who instills a sense of community and trust in the men in her classes.
Keren deflects the praise. “I try to be myself and I’m very passionate about writing. I try to be open about what (the men in prison) say and I accept them as they are.”
Keren grew up outside of Boston, lived in New York City and got her master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia University. She now lives in Wadhams with her husband, and they own Foote’s Port Henry Diner (a business that has given Keren plenty of fodder for the linked short stories she is writing). In the classic Adirondack way of finding work, Keren, who does the books for the diner, also works in the Bridgeport Hospital for a cancer screening program.
Keren and Thill both mention classes that have been particularly successful at the prison. In one class the students wrote children’s stories and sent videos of themselves reading the stories to their families. A writing-for-recovery class last year went very well, with a focus more on self-expression than the craft of writing.
Thill comes to the final session of each class, its graduation of a sort. As the one-person audience for the final readings, she shows her appreciation by clapping as each man comes to the front of the room to read. For the incarcerated writers, Thill is one person from the outside who can celebrate the writers’ accomplishments along with the class.
Most of the programs that Thill administers through the ACW are meant to be visible. These include the popular story slam series called The Howl, a poetry retreat for high school students at Paul Smith’s College, and visiting writers who read their work at venues around the Adirondacks.
The FCI Ray Brook writing classes must hide behind barbed wire. Prison rules require complete privacy for prisoners, and no photography is allowed. The work that writers complete in prison is only rarely released to the public. Employees are not allowed to give specifics about the work they do.
Yet when an incarcerated person leaves a correctional facility, the silence can be broken. This fall in Canton, formerly incarcerated poet, lawyer and activist Dwayne Betts spoke at an October symposium about incarceration in the North Country. He participated in an evening poetry slam and gave the keynote address the following morning. At 16, Betts was sentenced as an adult for a carjacking. He had hoped to go to college. “The day I got sentenced to nine years in prison,” Betts says, “I knew I couldn’t be an engineer. I said to myself, I like books. I’ll be a writer.”
Poet, lawer and activist Dwayne Betts, who spoke at North County incarceration symposium last fall, says the goal of becoming a writer sustained him through prison and helped him see “all the nuance that goes into surviving a life sentence.”
Photo courtesy of Dwayne Betts
That goal sustained him through the violence and solitary confinement of his years in state prisons in Virginia.
After he was released from prison Betts wrote a memoir, “A Question of Freedom.” When Betts was transferred to a super-max facility in southern Virginia he was “in a county a flight away from anyone who loved me.” Many of the men in FCI Ray Brook are two or three flights away from family. The Virginia prisons Betts was in offered few educational classes, so he asked his mother to pay for a writing course through the mail, knowing how lucky he was to have financial help to support his education. “Writing was my major rehabilitative tool,” Betts writes. “My poems let me see the world in a way I hadn’t before. Not simply a world of cause and effect, but of all the nuance that goes into surviving a life sentence.”
For the men who are incarcerated in FCI Ray Brook, writing may also be a way out, or a way back. They come together as writers, to learn from each other and their teachers and to create writing that helps them make sense of their world.
In October, Betts ended his speech with this sentence: “If we tell our stories and we work on how to tell them and we tell them everywhere, we’ll all find release.”