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Writing workshop teaches female inmates to cope with emotions

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By Chris Mura

Bobbi Buchanan’s students can’t go home after she finishes her weekly writing class. They don’t have backpacks to bring or extracurriculars to look forward to. Buchanan’s students are the women of the Bullitt County Detention Center and part of her program, Female Artists Behind Bars.

Buchanan, of Cox’s Creek, was teaching a writing course for incarcerated men when she got a letter from her great-niece, who had been sentenced to Bullitt County, asking her to do a course for the women, who she said had nothing to do but go to church. With a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Buchanan is able to continue her weekly writing course for Bullitt County’s female inmates.

It’s not a blow-off class. “We write about pain a lot,” Buchanan said. “Not just physical pain, but emotional pain. We write about the barriers to recovery for them.”

The women respond to a prompt and are encouraged to share with others in an effort to make the course feel more like a support meeting than a strict classroom environment. They are assigned homework for the next week, and Buchanan reads and responds to every piece. At the end of the class, which lasts a little under a year, the women’s work will be made into an anthology.

The class focuses on recovery from substance abuse, which most of the women have been incarcerated for. According to The Sentencing Project, in 2015 Kentucky had the second-highest rate in the nation of the incarceration of women, most of whom are arrested for substance abuse issues or property crimes. Buchanan hopes by the end of the course, the women learn how to manage their emotions with writing instead of using drugs.

“A lot of them know the power of negative words, because those kinds of words have been used to them and about them all their lives. In the same way that words can be powerful in a negative sense, they can be powerful in a positive way,” she said. “If there’s one thing they take away from it, they come away knowing they can use words to change perspectives, to help people see things in another way.”

Buchanan sees writing as a two-step process. The first step, she says, is venting. The second phase is looking at it as a work of art and something that could help someone else.

She will read children’s poetry like Shel Silverstein’s work to the women in order to teach poetry as something accessible to help them better express their emotions.

“Some you see a key’s turned in their mind, something has opened up,” she said. “It’s neat to see them respond to poetry in unexpected ways, to really understand the power of words.”

As a Jefferson Community and Technical College professor teaching academic writing, Buchanan was already experienced at helping people express their emotions through words.

She was also experienced with dealing with substance abusers. Buchanan said both of her children are recovering substance abusers, and that her daughter would often disappear for long stretches of time with no contact. When she began to have students in her class that were using art and music to help get clean, she offered to start a pen pal program at the detention center. The administration wanted a teacher instead.

Buchanan has seen a difference in the women since the class began. She said they participate more and are more supportive when others read in class.

Recidivism statistics often seem grim, but Buchanan thinks they can be skewed by quiet successes. If writing helps anyone get clean and stay clean, she thinks it’s worth the effort.

“I really enjoy it because I feel like I’m doing something meaningful,” she said. “I feel like I’m giving back.”