By expressing their thoughts on paper, some of the men locked up in the male re-entry program dormitory at the Lake County Jail are having their voices heard, perhaps for the first time.
The inmates are students in a creative writing program launched by the non-profit Write to Release organization. The goal is for the inmates to find an outlet for their thoughts and feelings, in hopes to find change within.
“We want to reduce recidivism through education and empowerment,” said Esley Stahl, founder and president of Write to Release.
“Many of the men who are in jail have not had a lot of opportunities in their life to express themselves in meaningful ways,” Stahl added. “Many carry a label that they’re bad.”
Stahl, who has been working to get the program into jails since last summer, plans to track where it takes participants once they are released from the jail.
“It’s been a slow process,” Stahl said.
In May, she began teaching the six- to eight-student class once a week at the jail.
Students read books and poems for the first half of the class to draw inspiration. The creative writing component happens during the second half of the class.
Stahl’s first day was “one for the books,” she said, admitting she didn’t know what to expect.
But she expected that. Her time as an adjunct instructor of English at the College of Lake County taught her that she’s always nervous on the first day of class.
The first day at the jail, however, included a 15-minute lockdown after she arrived.
Despite the initial uneasiness, Stahl said she has become enamored with the eagerness and excitement that her students show in class.
The students, she said, are respectful and polite.
“It’s like a regular class,” Stahl said. “It just takes longer to get to because of all the locked doors you need to get through.”
Unlocking the metaphorical doors in the inmates’ minds might prove to be more difficult, but Stahl said she is committed to making the lessons fun and challenging.
In addition to teaching the men creative writing and critical-thinking skills, she also aims to reach into their souls and draw out personal growth.
“Practicing communication skills and expression is empowering yourself. It’s having a voice regardless of your situation,” Stahl said.
Mark McCorley, the jail’s inmate program manager, said the program has been received positively.
The participants’ ages vary, and some are taking the course while awaiting trial. Other classes available in the jail include job readiness, cognitive behavior and GED preparedness.
But McCorley said he’s noticed that writing helps the men relieve stress while they wait for a disposition in their case.
“The class is very helpful. Writing and other forms of art are good outlets for stress and built up tension,” McCorley said. “They get to express those feelings in class.
“You never know when you’re going to find a diamond in the rough,” he added.
That was the case a few years ago when a GED graduate from the Lake County Jail was the highest scoring GED student in Lake County and the second highest in the state.
Stahl is inspired by the opportunity to help the men shed a criminal label and give them hope for a life they might not have known they could have.
And the Write to Release program is growing. In the fall, Stahl will start teaching at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.
The curriculum will continued to include poems, some from the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and his posthumously-released poetry collection, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”
Another class reading includes a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.”