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Student org. offers creative writing to incarcerated youth

Annie Sheneman

Contributing Writer

The College of Wooster has begun to operate a cohort of Writers in Residence. Writers in Residence is a program founded in 2016 by students at John Carroll University. 

The program began as a student-run organization dedicated to teaching creative writing to youth incarcerated in jails and prisons. Following the graduation of the original students, Writers in Residence has expanded beyond John Carroll University, and now has cohorts of students from four different colleges and universities who operate writing workshops at four different correctional facilities across the state. 

The College of Wooster cohort, which is composed of six students from the College and facilitated by Zachary Thomas, the director of Writers in Residence, drive to Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility in Massillon every Thursday to spend an hour conducting creative writing workshops with the residents. 

The objective of the program is to begin to “create a dialogue between residents of juvenile prison facilities and students of colleges in order for both parties to learn and grow and be able to share stories in a safe environment,” according to Megan Tuennerman ’22, a member of the Wooster cohort. The program held its first workshop on Sep. 26, and will take place over the next 12 weeks. 

In each workshop, both residents and the students in the cohort complete an hour-long creative writing activity, led by Thomas. The first week, the focus was on writing six-word memoirs. The second and third weeks focused on various poetry activities. Later in the semester, there is an opportunity for residents to write plays. 

The mission of Writers in Residence is “to reduce the rate of recidivism within the juvenile justice system by facilitating an open forum for artistic self-expression and constructive self-reflection while also fostering genuine, long-lasting relationships with the residents,” according to the program’s mission statement. The program attempts to provide an outlet and form of expression to incarcerated youth, as well as acting as an advocate for them outside of the facility. 

At the end of the 12-week program, the writing produced by the residents is compiled into a chapbook, which is distributed to friends, family and to the general public. 

According to Thomas, “This piece allows us to lift up a population’s voice that’s been dehumanized and oppressed. This piece allows for a conversation to begin on mass incarceration, racial discrimination and profiling performed by the police, etc. Their art has the power to shift a reader’s biases and to empathize at least for a second because what our residents write about range from traumatic experiences to being on cloud nine.” In this way, the writing workshops act as both an expressive outlet for the residents as well as a method of amplifying their voices within the greater community. 

This program also operates as an educational experience for the students involved in the cohort, broadening their understanding of both writing and the experiences of the residents they meet. According to Tuennerman, “I believe the benefits are a widened range of experiences. Working with the residents is eye opening as you learn their stories and begin to understand (as much as we can) what has happened in their lives that led them here. It’s a great reminder of the fact that we are all human.”

Interested students can reach out to current members of the cohort or to Writers in Residence for more information. This program will be operating both this semester and the next. The chapbooks created by the residents are currently planned to be distributed in the College’s departments of English, sociology and education at the end of the semester. The cohort is also planning to have some programming on campus related to Writers in Residence throughout the semester 

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