Poetry in Prison

Freehand Arts Project steps into the county jail

Murphy Anne Carter (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Every few days, Murphy Anne Carter drives out to the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle to teach creative writing and art classes to a group of female inmates. Between three and 17 inmates are at each lesson; they range in age from 19 to 65. One day, Carter decides that the class will draw self-portraits, a standard art lesson. However, there are no mirrors for the students to look into to see their faces; they must draw themselves from memory.

A classroom in a state penitentiary conforms to a standard of criteria unlike most other learning centers. The pencils Carter's students use must be shorter than a finger (lest they be labeled a weapon). Notebooks are forbidden. Most days in Carter's classroom, students read poems, discuss them, and create their own work that they can share. Participation in the class has been a cathartic experience for many of them.

"In almost every class I've taught, at least one person has cried. And in every class, everyone laughs at one point or another – and that one's probably my own selfish goal," said Carter. "But I've had women come up to me after class and say that my class is the only time they don't feel like they're in prison."

Created in 2014 by Kelsey Shipman, the Freehand Arts Project brings highly qualified volunteers to the county jail to teach classes on creative writing, art, and poetry. (Carter joined on as co-director in 2016.) Freehand has reached hundreds of inmates as well as officers, and has been instrumental in publishing two anthologies of inmates' writings, poetry, and drawings – Jail Fat and 3am – that will soon be available online. Shipman, a middle school teacher and poet, said she relishes the opportunity to "bring so much light" to a dark environment.

"Everything is so structured and regimented in jail," she said. "Even the architecture is meant to make you feel small and powerless. Creative writing is so powerful because you get to transform your pain and negative feelings ... into something that can no longer control you. I've seen a lot of amazing transformations. I think it's really important and can make a big difference even if it's incremental. It's true rehab because it teaches people what to do with feelings."

This emotional intelligence that Freehand teaches is critical for individuals as Amer­i­can incarceration rates continue to rise and resources for prisoners remain in short supply. Over the past three decades, the number of inmates in America's jails and prisons has risen from about 300,000 to over 2 million people. America's incarceration rate currently runs four times higher than the historic average, and roughly seven times what's seen in Western Europe. According to the Sentencing Project, there were 1.2 million women in the criminal justice system in 2014. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women grew by more than 700%.

In November, Freehand launched a Kick­starter to fund the printing of a third anthology of work from women at TCCC. They exceeded their funding goal of $1,000 within three days. When the women in Carter's creative writing class heard that, "everyone cried," she said. "They couldn't believe that anyone, much less a group of strangers, would want to read what they've written or fund a chance for that writing to be compiled and published." The anthology will come out this spring.

Beyond the anthology, Carter and Ship­man have big plans for Freehand. Right now, the group coordinates with 10 volunteers. Carter and Shipman would like to find a way to pay them. They also want to expand to other state facilities, and perhaps open a space where student artwork can be displayed, so that Freehand students can return to a supportive environment and make work, even after their time in jail is over.

"It's crazy how many of the healthy, strong relationships that form inside of jail, where everyone is sober and vulnerable, fade once they're released," says Carter. "The time in there isn't time wasted, although it certainly isn't a humanist time. In my dream world, there could be a place where the good part of that time could be preserved."

The Freehand Arts Project will host a benefit happy hour on Thursday, Feb. 16. For tickets and details, contact [email protected].

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Freehand Arts Project, Kelsey Shipman, Murphy Anne Carter

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