Students find their voice behind prison walls

Twice a week during the spring term, students in Vicki Reitenauer's Writing as Activism class stood outside Portland's Columbia River Correctional Institution, waiting for officers to buzz open the metal gate topped with razor wire. They had to trade their driver's licenses for visitor badges, store their car keys and cell phones in a locker and walk through a metal detector. 

 All that to get their classroom. There, they joined their eight classmates clad in blue jeans and T-shirts stenciled with the Department of Corrections logo and immediately broke into conversation.
 

This isn't your average college class. The Writing as Activism course is part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a national educational initiative that gives college students and incarcerated students a chance to learn together in a prison. Amy Spring, who now works in Portland State's Office of Research and Graduate Studies, helped bring the program to Oregon and PSU in 2007, and now there are several offered each year.

Writing as Activism was a course Reitenauer had already been teaching at PSU when she brought it to the Columbia River prison in 2016, but the constraints of being inside a correctional facility brought a different kind of intensity to the class. 

"We're incarcerated together in that two-hour period, and it creates real bonding in the best possible way," said Reitenauer, an assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies in PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

The inside students have either been sentenced to short prison terms or are in the final stretch of longer sentences preparing for reentry. The outside students, representing a variety of majors at Portland State, enter the prison with an open mind. Despite their different backgrounds and lived experiences, it was clear from their first class together that they share many of the same hopes and fears and dreams.

By design, the students only knew one another by first name, and the outside students didn't know what landed their peers in prison — not that it mattered. In the classroom, everyone was treated equally. Reitenauer made weekly reading packets with suggestions from the class. On Mondays, they discussed the readings, worked on group projects and met in smaller groups, where they could bring their work to each other for feedback. On Wednesdays, groups of four students — two inside, two outside — took turns leading the rest of the class in a writing workshop.

"My deepest desire really is that the students come into some sense of their own power and possibility as the individual in control of their own lives," Reitenauer said. "The capacity they have to really speak truth to power — that's what this class is really all about. We do that through collaborating as writers, as co-learners, as co-teachers."

Throughout the term, the class explored how writing could be used as a tool to amplify individuals' voices and make social change in their spheres of influence. Reitenauer said writing as activism doesn't necessarily have to be political or attempt to do something overt in the world, but rather it can be approaching writing as a process that changes the writer and inspires others.

"When we start telling the truth about our lives, whether we write it in a fictional way or not, those stories are what change us," she said. "We talk about works that have changed us and how when we encounter powerful writing, we're often not the same. To me, that's writing that is about making change."

That power and vulnerability was on full display during an open mic night that the class hosted during their last week. Stories of loss. Stories of grief. Stories of incarceration.

For Ben, who took Reitenauer's class two years ago and is now one of her teaching assistants, the class has helped him process his past and years of trauma. Ben first took the class when he transferred to the minimum-security CRCI after 19 years at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

"It was a huge transition for me and I was just spinning," he said. "Writing as activism started out as just journaling and trying to make sense of my life, trying to make sense of the world so I could overcome the circumstances in my life. But it evolved to become a weapon to publish and help others publish their stories. Even if our stories don't get published, we're generating stories that awaken the public and give some kind of relief to the person sharing the story."

 Ben said prison can often be a dehumanizing place, but the class made him and his peers feel heard and understood.
 

"You share context with each other that no one can take from you," he said. "It's transformative. When you do years or a little bit of time, you feel less than human. But coming in here, you realize that you could've met these students on the outside and they never would have known you were in prison. It's extremely humanizing and you leave feeling full every class."

Jenna Richards, a PSU student majoring in geography, said the class helped her find her voice.

"It's still something that I'm working on — feeling self-assured in who I am," she said. "Writing equalizes everyone. You share what you share, and no one else can write that. Evolving that trait is better positioning all of us to do whatever activism work we need to do."

Evelyn, an inside student who is transgender, said the class provided an escape of sorts and allowed her to connect with students — both inside and outside — that she otherwise would not have met.

"The fact that we're able to look at them as peers and them look at us as peers rather than as monsters or criminals, that's crucial for them knowing that we're coming back out into the community," she said. "I enjoy having that different camaraderie with people who are not part of the same everyday prison life. It really takes me outside of here."

Story, photos and video by Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Homepage photo: Students Lani and Queaz work with teaching assistant Rhiannon Cates (center) during a class session.