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Vocies from the Inside of a Prison

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“I was a wild child,” said Lysette Navarro before writing in a prison.

Lysette Navarro grew up angry. When she was a teenager living in the north end of Springfield, Massachusetts, she often lay in bed at night and thought about killing herself.

She considered taking an overdose of her mother’s pills or borrowing a gun from a friend. But some inner sense of survival kept her alive. Instead, she says, “After suffering really horrible beatings and sexual abuse, I took out my rage on everyone else.”

“I was a wild child,” she admits. She was arrested for assault and battery for the first time at age fourteen. She had two children by the age of eighteen. But seven years ago, when a judge sentenced her to two years in the Hampden County Correctional Center, it may have been what saved her life.

For it was there, that she chose to participate in Voices from Inside, a creative writing workshop for women prisoners, which operates under the auspices of Amherst Writers & Artists, a non-profit organization whose innovative, healing methods of writing have worked, not only in jail cells, public housing projects and in youth-at-risk programs, but also in classrooms from elementary to graduate level, in convents and seminaries, and in support groups for the terminally ill.

Today, at thirty-four, Lysette Navarro has transformed her life. She lives in a different community than the one where she grew up. She is enrolled in college, and she co-facilitates a writing group for incarcerated women.

Several years ago, when she read her poetry to a group of 400 men and women at the annual program of the The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, which had awarded her a grant to take training in the Amherst Writers & Artists Leadership Program, she stood straight and tall, with head held high. She made eye contact with the audience, never hesitated, and read in a strong, steady voice.

She had reason to be confident. The writing program, she says, gave back her voice. “It was the first time I could say what I wanted to say, needed to say, without being judged, without fearing the consequences. The two hours I spent writing every Sunday in that prison were the two safest hours of the week. I was treated as an equal.”

The Amherst Writers & Artists method of writing was developed in 1981 by Pat Schneider, the author of Writing Alone and with Others, and is the subject of an award-winning PBS documentary; Tell Me Something I Can’t Forget.


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