The WGI conducted two workshops in 2018 at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum security state prison in Pendleton, Indiana that houses 2,000 inmates. The first took place in April, when 3 teams of mentors worked with a total of 18 writers, selected by prison administrator Jeff King (without whom this work would not have been possible). The second “follow up” workshop took place in September of 2018.
The workshops followed the typical WGI workshop routine: 2 days of writing exercises and sharing, with a catered lunch each day. The only real difference was that the participants didn’t have laptops, and only the mentors (and Jeff) were allowed to leave the grounds each night. Yet the sense of unity and determination was perhaps more intense than normal, with participants often writing about the experiences, mistakes and choices that brought them to prison, the learning curves they had been on since that time, and their dreams for the future. That said, there was also a fair share of genre pieces—from childhood memoir, to horror, to outright comedy.
Between the two workshops, inmates bonded together to form their own writing group, which served to widen the circle of writers at Pendleton. The WGI mentees becoming mentors to inmates who hadn’t been able to participate in the formal WGI workshop. In the wake of that development, the Initiative is seeking ways to expand this idea — both by continuing to send professional writers to the prison, but also with the express goal of empowering the participants to become teachers and guides in their own right.
As one mentor put it, of all the workshops they had been a part of, the Pendleton workshops were definitely the most personally impactful, in that they zeroed in on writing as an essential survival tool. Simply by showing up as a mentor and listening to those who so many have decided aren’t worth hearing from, they were reminded of what writing can achieve. Helping these inmates express their feelings, in a world where the expression of feeling is profoundly frowned upon, and listening to that expression, goes to the heart of the WGI mission.