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Inside the number one state for incarcerating women, Ellen Stackable co-created a restorative healing arts program for imprisoned women whose voices are typically silenced. Poetic Justice gives Oklahoma’s incarcerated women the opportunity to engage with a writing partner from outside the prison, communicating through poetry, spoken word, traditional drawing, and drama classes.
Some of the participants were initially skeptical. Jax, a woman serving a life sentence, was concerned that Poetic Justice would be overtly religious, or a waste of time. She noted that due to budget cuts, few opportunities exist for women in prison to engage in any programs, much less an art and poetry program.
What Jax found surprised her. “I have an open mind, so I tried Poetic Justice. I found a group of women who were dedicated to us, and cared about our well-being. I felt cared about and loved,” Jax said. She completed every session of Poetic Justice since the first round in 2014. She notes that in Poetic Justice, “everyone is equal; it’s a safe space for us to find our voices.”
Creating a safe space for healing is exactly what Ms. Stackable hoped for when she co-founded Poetic Justice, the only program of its kind in the country. “I wanted to eliminate the hierarchy that typically happens in prison classes,” she said during an interview. “We are facilitators, not teachers. We are partners.”
With each new round, Ms. Stackable reminds the volunteers what life is like for the women who find themselves incarcerated. “Guards for the Department of Corrections only need to be 20 years old with a G.E.D or diploma, so we have 21-year-olds supervising women who are 50 or 60 years old with families.” However, this also creates a unique bonding opportunity for the women,” Ms. Stackable said. “I also see community in women’s prisons. I see a powerful sense of family.”
Sheree, another long-time program participant, agrees. “Poetic Justice creates connections,” she told BWST from a prison in Oklahoma. “Poetic Justice ignited a fire in me. It’s not just about me — it’s about everyone around me. I am grateful for the chance to speak for people who are voiceless.”
While the Covid19 pandemic has created barriers to communication, Poetic Justice has not slowed down. The program is now entirely distance learning, with partners exchanging letters that include poetry, ‘zines, affirmations, and writing prompts. The number of incarcerated women taking part soared to 120, up from 30 when the program was face-to-face.
And that is exactly why the program needs more volunteers, in particular volunteers who are Black women and women of Color. “Black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of White women; Native American women are incarcerated at three times the rate.” Ms. Stackable said, hoping to engage “a more diverse group of volunteers—women who will help each other feel safe to share their experiences.”
She also wants to take the program to prisons across the country, as well as into federal prisons. Expanding Poetic Justice means finding more ways to advocate for the incarcerated women. “People don’t know shit about jail,” Ms. Stackable said, with an ironic chuckle, despite living in the number state for incarcerating women. As far as volunteer requirements are concerned, there’s only one: “Be a kind human being,” she says. “That’s all we need.”