Women's Prison Poetry

Words Without Walls, a book of poetry and drawings from women in Nova Scotian prisons, offers insight into troubled lives and a damaged system.

In her poem “No Man’s Land,” Astrid Literski writes, “On remand/I am my old country’s/No man’s land.” Diana L. Richard’s “Harley My Darling” is an epitaph for a young son “buried under the sun.” Sara Tait’s “Time” sums up her drug addiction in 18 painful lines.

Words Without Walls, a book of poetry, writing and drawings created by women in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside, Dartmouth, and the Nova Institute for Women in Truro, is fascinating, heartbreaking, amusing and frightening. Through first-hand accounts, the slim book, which existed as a zine long before its bound publication, also shows how our current prison system is failing these women.

The book came to be because of Books Beyond Bars, a local grassroots organization that since January 2004 has taken donated books and journals to these women, leading group-writing exercises on their biweekly Friday visits. Lugging bags of books, they used to take the route 52 bus out to Burnside, but now volunteers borrow friends’ cars to make the trip---consistency is crucial. None of the four BBB members sitting around the table at Alteregos Cafe on Gottingen are writers or teachers; most initially approached volunteering from a community social justice perspective. Although it’s not a new idea, this is one of the only organizations in North America that actually meets with prisoners.

Ellinor Tweedie, who’s been involved with BBB for four years since the organization first received clearance at Burnside, says, “The women in the prisons know about us now. When we first started coming in, they were, ‘What are you doing? What’s this all about?’ Now it’s ‘Oh, I know about you guys, you bring books and writing journals.’ They know about it and are so lending credibility to it. When we come they’re not skeptical, they’re ready to share and participate.”

According to Sonia Edworthy---BBB volunteer and co-founder of Anchor Archive Zine Library, along with Sarah Evans---the last time they visited Nova, “We asked ‘Does anyone already know what we do? Can anyone tell us?’ and a woman said ‘Well, you guys are anarchists!’”This makes all the volunteers, especially Capp Larsen, one of the more public figures associated with Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, laugh loudly. Larsen adds, “She also said, ‘It takes one to know one!’ She also identified us in the north end: ‘Oh, you guys hang out on Agricola Street. That’s where I am too.’ That’s it too---we’re there to support people in our community regardless of whether they’re in jail or not. Burnside is not in our community, but the people who are there, are. It’s a way to support people caught in an unjust system, and to bridge some of the gaps in programming thataren’t provided.”

According to the Elizabeth Fry Society, most inmates sentenced to less than two years go to Burnside, the only provincial prison that houses women. There are 48 beds designated for women, but the average number at any given time is 10 to 15. Divided into four living units, each woman is assigned her own cell. Most are serving time for poverty-related crimes like theft, fraud or drugs. The men’s section, built to hold 224 men, was recently in the news for its overcrowded conditions and double-bunking inmates on weekends. Some inmates, of both genders, are on remand or serving intermittent sentences. No wonder there is little programming available, unlike Nova, a women-only institution that at least offers vocational, educational and health services.“So what they do have is the bare minimum of facilities, where they have a couple of old, decrepit exercise machines, a shelf of Bibles and Readers’ Digest. Really not sufficient reading material,” says Edworthy. “There’s a gym shared with the rest of the male population, so they don’t have access to it very often.”Since recidivism rates are high, as they are across the country, many women return to prison, and to BBB, the only book-exchange program available. Evans says, “There are a huge number of people who are in and out constantly and so we know who a lot of the people are now. ‘Remember when I was in before I wanted that book? Can I get it now?’” Tweedie continues, “The political will or financial investment just isn’t there to put programming in place, or the resources to make it useful with some kind of value.” All agree that if given a choice, they would rather plead up, and spend an extra year in Nova than be sent to Burnside.

“It’s challenging because the women’s population is much smaller than the men’s. There’s only one chapel, one library, one gym and it’s a gender-segregated facility, so based on numbers and ratio, women get so little access to the teachers, to the library, to everything,” says Larsen. “The model of Burnside is not rehabilitation---it’s punitive. It’s to put people in a concrete box to punish them. It doesn’t work, especially women in prison being punished for something that is based on a cycle of abuse or trauma or poverty. You cannot be punished into not being poor anymore or having a history of abuse. It actually reinforces that cycle. Or people are self-medicating---people who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives use drugs as a way of dealing with it. It’s not a judgment call.” --------------------------

Alicia Frye’s drawing is of two dolphins frolicking under a large sun and palm trees. Devon Oakley draws a map, similar to an interior designer’s sketch, of SEG, or segregation, with the warning: “So when you think youre all cool walking down the hall/Till that certain person pissed you off and you go off on them all! So...here they come with hand cuffs, black gloves and a bag...Pack your shit your going to SEG...”“At the beginning, some of the women brought in poetry and asked if we’d critique them,” Evans remembers. “We’d say, ‘Hey, they’re really good! Oh sorry, we’re not poets.’” Edworthy thinks the fact that they’re more like peers and from a grassroots organization, rather than government representatives, is critical. “That’s what really allows us to have a very different interaction and dynamic with these women,” says Tweedie. “We’re not social workers; we’re not their parole officers. And they get really weirded when out they find out we’re volunteers.”The volunteers say that because of their peer relationship, the women feel open to ask questions and request books on a variety of topics, like pregnancy, AIDS transmission and housing. There are requests for lesbian poetry and fiction, and especially for self-help books, true crime from authors like Patricia Cornwell, blank non-coiled journals, large-print and adult content for beginner readers (generally the literacy rate is at about grade three to five). BBB doesn’t have a budget to purchase books, and so relies on donations (a list of requested titles is available at thecoast.ca). Bi-weekly workshops are structured with a formal set of writing exercises BBB finds in books or on the internet, which Tweedie says “can be really emotional but also therapeutic.” Sometimes they describe an object’s attributes, sometimes it’s stream-of-consciousness writing, or they cut words out of magazines to assemble new messages. There are poetry readings where everyone is encouraged to participate.“Sometimes they’ll talk about what it’s like to be in prison. It’s an extremely sophisticated analysis of what’s going. With a lot of clarity,” says Edworthy.“The women are really into sharing what they write, says Evans. “There’s a real sense of solidarity.”