Unlocking Stories Behind Prison Walls

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Prof. Lawrence Hill, an award-winning author, will teach a memoir writing course this fall at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

Women in Canadian prisons have stories to tell and want to put them to paper, says Lawrence Hill, acclaimed author and University of Guelph professor of creative writing.

This fall, Hill will help inmates write some of those stories at the Grand Valley Institute for Women (GVI) in Kitchener, Ont.

The award-winning author of The Book of Negroes and The Illegals, Hill is facilitating a U of G credit course on memoir writing at GVI as part of the Walls to Bridges (W2B) program.

This national initiative brings incarcerated (“inside”) and non-incarcerated (“outside”) students together in a variety of university and college courses. Ten inmates and 11 U of G students are enrolled in Hill’s workshop, which runs until the end of November.

“Prisoners have told me they want to write and asked if I could help them,” said Hill.

Previously, he volunteered for Book Clubs for Inmates, visiting clubs in federal penitentiaries across the country. “Some wanted to write a memoir, others a screenplay. There was a real hunger among some of the book club members to write.”

Hill has a deep appreciation for prison writing and is committed to fostering it.

“It is at the heart of some of the world’s most influential literary expression,” he said, citing Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X as examples.

“I want to encourage students – at the University and in prison – to believe that their stories are worthwhile,” said the author, who was raised by Daniel and Donna Hill, leaders in Canada’s human rights movement.

Hill’s workshop will help students explore autobiographical writing through first-person stories, opinion pieces or personal reflections. Students will study professional writers’ techniques and will examine published works from intellectual, ethical and artistic perspectives.

Animated group scene

Prof. Hill, right, took part in instructor training in order to teach in the W2B program.

“Whether your life has been a high-wire act or relatively sedate without major challenges, we all have something to write about,” Hill said. “People always have amazing experiences to share.”

That idea has also driven a memoir writing course he has taught during his three years at U of G. Writing about your life helps make sense of it and is a way to transcend challenges, he said.

“Narrated in the first person, the lived experience always engages the reader,” he said.

W2B began in 2011 at GVI and has since expanded to other Canadian provinces and parts of Europe. All classes are taught in jails, prisons or community correctional settings. Experiential learning is fundamental to the W2B teaching and learning process. All participants are peers, learning the class content together through innovative and experiential processes and discussion.

Shoshana Pollack is a Wilfrid Laurier University professor of social work and the co-founder and director of W2B Canada. She started her career as a clinical social worker in the former Kingston Prison for Women.

“During my years there, I met many women whose lives were marked by colonialism, racism, poverty and violence against women, all of which contributed to their criminalization,” she said. “So many of the women I met were intelligent, articulate, artistic, funny, powerful, political and creative. It was challenging to find an outlet for all their potential.”

Many of the imprisoned or “inside” students had negative educational experiences, she said.

“With W2B, they gain access to post-secondary education, study with students from the university and earn a university credit,” she said. “It is a learning community based on experiential activities, dialogue and collaborative learning.”

The classes can act as a bridge for inside students to continue post-secondary education upon release. Several have gone on to university and college, Pollack said.

Campus-enrolled or “outside” students find their assumptions and stereotypes about inmates challenged and their perspectives changed, she added. Those students often feel motivated to work for social change and social justice.

The author of 10 books, Hill has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, CBC Radio’s Canada Reads and the NAACP Image Award.

Hill said confidence is a big part of writing successfully – the confidence to believe that whatever you have lived has intrinsic value and is worth exploring in writing.

“You can have faith in your story and learn to bring it to life on the page,” he said. “Beyond the writing workshop, I hope the course offers a rich personal experience that opens up the lives of students.”