The following was written by Sara Blair Matthews, who served as PEP’s first Creative Writing Instructor this past summer. .
I’m willing to wager that I have more prison experience than the average twenty one year old. I’ve been in four different units, interacted closely with around eighty prisoners, and have taught three creative writing courses. I’ve walked through metal security detectors more times than I can count, encountered dozens of questioning stares from guards, and have even gotten to walk across a few prison campuses on my own. My family and friends have gotten used to hearing, “I’ll call you when I get out of prison” or “I had an amazing day in the unit!” However, few, if any, of them truly understand what it’s like to interact with incarcerated individuals day in and day out and see how they can change not only their lives but also the lives of volunteers each and every day.
After we met at a prison education conference, PEP’s CEO Bert Smith offered me a job with PEP. He felt that my passion for writing and innovation in starting a creative writing course at Muncy women’s prison (near my alma mater Bucknell University) could be an asset to PEP’s curriculum. After learning more about the company from my father, who had volunteered as a mentor a few years back, I eagerly accepted his offer and set about creating a syllabus that incorporated my love of literature and writing with PEP’s governing philosophy and driving values.
Although I had previously taught two creative writing courses at Muncy Women’s Prison, I was nervous about leading this course at a men’s unit. I wondered if they would be as open as the women were about sharing their stories and exploring their emotions. I scrutinized my syllabus and wondered if they would balk at some of the more dense readings like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or poetry from Shakespeare. I prayed a lot in the weeks prior to my class and asked God to be with me during this time. I invited him into my heart to teach these men the power of mastering their emotions as well as their past and present through the writing process.
I immediately found that the men in my class were extremely open, intelligent, and eager to soak up what I taught them. They began to open up to me through their writing, and I grew more and more amazed by PEP’s ability to transform these men’s past traumas into power and determination to create a better future for themselves and their families.
Near one of our last classes, one of the guys asked me if they would all be getting certificates for completing the course. I told him that they would and that I was working on putting them together over the next few days. I told them it would be a great thing to show to future employers or maybe hang in their offices one day. The man who asked the question said that yes, this was true, but he really wanted the certificate, so he could have my signature on record. He said, “I know you’re going be a big shot writer some day, and I want to have proof that I took a class with you.” All the men chimed in and said “Yeah, remember us when you make it big.”
It was such an amazing moment for me- to look around the room and see all their love and support. I remember thinking that only my very closest family and friends were this vocal about their belief in me, and it rendered me speechless that these men were so appreciative and cared so much. I knew right then and there that if they channeled this much positivity, support, and love into their relationships on the outside that these men would make it out of the prison gates and into God’s everlasting kingdom.