Writers Find Their Voices Behind Bars
By Tom Walsh
ELLSWORTH — You won’t find it listed in The New York Times, but a new book written by inmates of the Hancock County Jail is a best-seller, at least locally.
The first press run of 400 copies of “Notes from Inside” sold out within a few weeks of publication in November, prompting a second run of 200 copies.
The 36-page paperbound book is a collection of poems, letters, short essays and other literary forms crafted during writing classes led by writing instructors recruited through Volunteers for Hancock Jail Residents (VHJR).
The book was printed at cost by Downeast Graphics & Printing and is being sold for $5 at Mr. Paperback on High Street in Ellsworth, at Blue Hill Books and through local churches. All proceeds support VHJR programming.
Publishing the book was an 18-month process subsidized by a grant from the Maine Community Foundation.
“The writing program and the publication were created to give jail residents a voice and to build connections between inmates and the community,” said Judy Garvey of Blue Hill, a long-time VHJR volunteer.
Most of the contributions to “Notes from Inside” are published anonymously, or with only first names or initials. That’s due to the stigma of writing from jail, Garvey said.
VHJR plans to publish a new collection of jailhouse writings later this year.
Jim Bergin, Garvey’s spouse, has taught weekly writing classes for male inmates off and on over the last three years.
“Some of these guys have an innate ability to write poetry that couldn’t be taught, while others are afflicted by the universal syndrome of not being able to get anything down on paper at all,” he said.
“Some write funny stuff, others very profound stuff. Generally, it’s pretty serious stuff. Because they’ve had a lot of things happen to them that weren’t very happy — personal loss, infidelity — they are uniquely qualified to do some interesting writing.
“They don’t write about how happy they were at the prom. They write from pain. What they write may not be terribly literate or well-organized, but the subjects they take on are interesting.”
Karen Saum, a former Bucksport resident now wintering in Florida, is a retired educator who has taught writing classes for women inmates.
“I try to pick up on an emotion that is going around and devise a way they can express and work through that emotion without being confessional,” she said.
When she teaches inmates, Saum doesn’t stress the mechanics of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
“I try to get rid of all that and let them express themselves through the grammar and diction they learned at home, not at school,” she said. “When you’re not checking everything for errors, some very rich language surfaces.
“The whole point is to give people a comfortable place to express themselves.”
Inmates involved in the classes look forward to the weekly, hour-long sessions.
“These classes give us insights into ourselves,” Mark, 36, of Belfast told The American. “And I’ve learned to better express my feelings through letter-writing without getting bogged down and without getting too wordy.”
Ted Olson, 53, of Lubec said the classes helped him to overcome “writer’s block,” an inhibition that makes it difficult for some would-be writers to put words on paper.
“I had plenty of ideas,” Olson said. “I just wasn’t aggressive enough about getting them down.”
Writing was one of his long suits in college, said Merle Crossman, 50, of Bangor.
“The class has allowed me to brush up on my writing skills,” he said. “It’s not only an opportunity to express my feelings on paper, but to read and discuss what each person has written.”
Karen Tibbetts, 34, of Franklin said the poems and stories she writes in class “come from my heart.”
“When I re-read the pieces I’ve written, I learn that I’m doing much better than when I arrived. Before, I was depressed, and now I’m starting to become happier, and the writing process, I think, has contributed to that.”
Tibbetts hopes those reading “Notes from Inside” include young people.
“I think it’s important for the younger generation to understand what we’ve all done and what it’s like to be in here,” Tibbetts said. “Maybe they will realize they don’t want to be in jail when they get older.”
Flo Pelkey, the jail’s community correction sergeant, said she’s “very impressed” by the impact the writing program has had on inmates since it began nearly four years ago.
“Inmates are not just using the program as an excuse to get out of their cells, but as a way of expressing themselves, which is great,” she said.
“This program provides a positive venting session. And, if it makes them a little bit better when they return to the community, well, that’s what it’s all about.”