During the 2005-2006 school year, after hearing an announcement from Kent Dixon, Wittenberg professor of English, Arundati Dandapani, class of 2007 from New Delhi, India, decided that she wanted to give teaching a try.
"I originally got into it because of the writing aspect," she said. "Now I feel like I do it for different reasons. I'm more interested in the social condition."
The beginning of the current school year supplied Allison Helmuth, class of 2007 from Orrville, Ohio, and Kathleen Soler, class of 2008 from Northfield, Ill., with this same opportunity. Both Helmuth and Soler wanted another outlet to expand their passion for creative writing and were "attracted to writing as a form of service."
According to Dandapani, Helmuth and Soler, the sessions aren’t structured in the normal conventions of a class. Instead, the students designed the classes as a time to let the inmates vent, which at times can be "really difficult to know what to say or feel," Soler admitted.
"We work not to have an oppressive atmosphere," Helmuth said, adding that they only spend between 15 and 30 minutes on an actual lesson. "I love listening to people with incredible stories, so it works harmoniously because [the inmates] want to tell their story."
Prison has a certain stigma attached to it, which is something Soler noticed from those around her as she prepared to embark upon this new experience. These preconceived notions, however, haven’t affected her interactions with the inmates.
"People tried to warn me that these women are con-artists and dangerous," she said. "We don't think of them as criminals, and it's very refreshing."
Each inmate is given a blue book and pen to record her thoughts, either from a prompt or just the thoughts running through their minds. The experiences within the prison walls often lend themselves to conversations, which spawn into deeper topics.
Being able to write about their experiences, which range from first kisses to pregnancy to crime, has served as a coping mechanism during many unexpected situations.
During a recent class, the inmates brought copies of the handbook of rights given to them when admitted after an inmate flushed a sheet in the toilet. The entire cell block was put on lockdown for 18 hours, something the inmates felt infringed upon their rights.
"The session became focused on writing as a method of resistance," Helmuth said. "It was rewarding because they were finding value in the written word."
As part of a newly formed work program for women at the Clark County Jail, seven to 12 inmates will be coming to Wittenberg’s campus to read poetry at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, in Ness Family Auditorium, located in Hollenbeck Hall. The event will give them the opportunity to showcase their talents, as well as share their stories with a larger audience.
Although their community service requirements have been met, Helmuth, Dandapani and Soler each want to continue this experience beyond their time at Wittenberg.
"I like the sense of community that emerged from the writings," Dandapani said. "It feels like a very honest experience every Saturday afternoon."
By: Erica Strauss '08
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