Indiana Prison Writers Workshop

Photography by Jake Moran

Indiana Prison Writers Workshop is a program dedicated to teaching offenders and ex-offenders creative writing as means as an outlet and rehabilitation tool both during time served and life outside of prison. Founded by former news reporter, Debra Des Vignes, as a way of helping an overlooked group of people, the program has made tremendous strides in terms of participation and recognition and is being taught in four prisons in the state as a critical and valid way of helping offenders cope and rehabilitate.

PATTERN sat down with Debra to learn a little more about the program and its mission to help give offenders a creative outlet that helps not only while they are incarcerated but as well when they are released, proving to be a thorough program dedicated to helping offenders far beyond their time served.

To learn more about the IPWW and how to help out, check out our interview below.

Jake Moran: So I know the IPWW is a relatively new organization. Could you give us a little summary of what exactly it is you do?
Debra Des Vignes:
The Indiana Prison Writers Workshop is a writing workshop for those entrenched in the criminal justice system. Our mission has been to improve the lives of those incarcerated through creative writing and expression.

JM: Amazing, what a great outlet, especially for people who so many have given up on. When was the program founded and what is the structure of the class like?
I volunteered at a correctional facility in 2018 helping to lead another class there. I quickly realized that there were just so many talented individuals in the room and decided to have them “go off script” and write a short story and was really impressed with the level of creativity and storytelling. I quickly felt a desire to help an underserved or overlooked population of people. So I started to create a twelve week curriculum and the program has really started to gain some traction and support. The structure of the class is very much like that of a college course where we touch on all genres of writing throughout the twelve weeks.

JM: It seems like this started from such a small idea and has grown into something really special. What has that growth been like?
Goodness, it’s grown so much! It is run by an all volunteer staff of three and are always looking to find more volunteers to expand work with ex-offenders on the outside. We are now operating in four prisons. We have an emerging partnership with local jails to provide writing content to offenders and have partnerships with IUPUI, Marian University and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. A lot has happened and we are hoping for a lot of continued growth and support.

JM: Writing can be a very vulnerable subject to tackle and can really force you to show a lot of emotion. Was it hard to convince the offenders to let their guard down and write?
DDV: That’s a great question. Even the environment they are in causes them to keep their guard up. But I think they felt very safe, and that in turn allowed them to open up very quickly. There were fifteen offenders in the first class and I suggested a prompt for them to write about with the prompt being what were the implications or impacts on the victim because I was there for a victim impact class. They all really took to it and felt very comfortable with it. We discovered that there was a lot of creativity in that class and they all really enjoyed the outlet.

JM: Writing is a difficult skill to learn as there are alot of prerequisite skills needed like proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. I assume you are also helping offenders hone these skills as well as their writing?
DDV: Absolutely. We use a book called imaginative writing and that is our text book where we pull information about character development, dialogue and setting. So every week we are providing relevant content and then we are basing the prompts off of that content that we provide. So all participants are learning the prerequisite skills you may need for writing during the program.

JM: I’m sure it varies across the board, but do most writers come into the program with any prior writing experience or is it a completely new skill for them to learn and experience?
DDV: Yes and no. We do have an evaluation survey that was created by IU Public Policy Institute that asks what their prior writing experience is, what they hope to gain from the class and other questions like that. Most participants do not have formal writing experience but a lot of them already have a prior love of writing. What is fun about the program is that you find people who never had any writing experience but come into the class and really shine. I think that is a big part about what makes this program so special. 

JM: I read “The Butterfly with the Broken Wings” by Corey ‘Shakur’ Catherine and was awe struck by the imagery and concept of the story. It was skillfully written and something I think a lot of people can relate to. What was your reaction when you read that?
DDV: One of our volunteers passed that story onto me because she was the one working with Corey. I was awestruck. It was beautiful. Corey is very interesting because he has really hit the ground running when he got released. He is in school, a job, has a book and started a clothing brand. When we read these tremendous works by people like Corey we always hope that they continue to use their talents on the outside and he has definitely done that. 

JM: Eventually, writers who are incarcerated at the time of joining the program are released. Do writers continue to be involved with the program even after being released?
There is a statistic that says ninety five percent of people in our prison will return home, yet fifty five percent will end up back behind bars in five years. Last year we just included a new proponent of the program to where once you are released you can stay in the program through virtual workshops. A lot of our past writers stay in contact with us and stay involved in the program in some capacity or another. It has definitely been an evolution and hope to keep all of our past writers involved so we can still be a source of rehabilitation and mentorship.

JM: In your opinion, what might these offenders and ex-offenders discover through writing?
I think there is a mental fortitude of striking your whole former life and building from the ground up. There is power in that. When you spend a great deal of time in darkness, in solitary confinement where everything blends together, if you’re fortunate you’ll begin to see things more clearly than you saw them before. It may take time but you’ll begin to see things as they really are or see yourself as you really are. Or maybe even in a way that you haven’t seen before. Because when you can’t see outside, you can only look inside. I have found that writing helps tremendously with that.

JM: What is the long-term vision for the program?
We want to continue to build on what we already have. To be intentional with our work and bring in the right people to work with this population.

JM: My hope is that people will see this feature and will want to get involved in some capacity whether that is donating services as a teacher or writing utensils as I’m sure those are heavily needed. What can people who want to get involved do to help grow the program?
Educating yourself on those who are returning home and changing your perspective on ex offenders. Challenge yourself to think differently about people who have made mistakes or committed certain crimes because they have served their time that was handed down to them and are trying to rehabilitate themselves. I think if more people looked at offenders and ex-offenders differently that we could weave into a happier and healthier community. We also always need composition notebooks that can comply with what we can bring in. Always looking for future volunteer facilitators to help lead the new program of helping ex-offenders on the outside. Funding for printing materials is always welcome. Time, Treasure and Talent is always welcomed in the nonprofit world.

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