Sharing, Thinking and Talking
While it has been on hold since the pandemic, the reading and writing program at Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has been a place for years where female inmates read and write poetry and stories. It’s a place to discuss ideas; to discern what the writer really means; and, perhaps above all, “It’s a place where you can have an opinion, and no one’s allowed to tell you, ‘You’re wrong, you’re nuts.’” The quote is from Grace Dawgert, who has been running the program since she became involved in the Pennsylvania – Scranton Area’s Prison Ministry in 2013.
“We usually start with poetry,” Grace said. “I’ll read something, then ask people for their opinions. The ladies might write over the week and then share what they wrote. And then we might do a short story, or essay or something topical in the news.” But don’t think this is work. “You’re not forced to write,” Grace said. It’s not school. What it is, however, is an opportunity for the women to share ideas. “The poetry and the prose are catalysts for getting people thinking and talking.”
Grace has found a variety of ways to make the sessions interesting, everything from playing word games to having the women write additional verses to their favorite songs. “One time, they wanted to do only hip hop, so I brought in Hamilton.” She also helps the women submit their writing to the PEN Prison Writing Program, part of the international organization’s commitment to free expression in the United States and around the world. “It gives them a goal, and some of the ladies are very good,” Grace said. PEN publishes the winners every year.
Along with the writing program, Grace works with the Bookmobile Project, which brings donated paperback books into the prison, and Outreach, a program that helps women with job searching, parenting and other life skills.
Grace feels the active presence of the Holy Spirit wandering around in the jail, as well as in her classes. “In class, you see the Holy Spirit come out of people’s eyes,” she said. Honest to God, you sit there with these ladies, and they express their ideas or share something they wrote themselves, and then all of a sudden something dawns on them.”