Student Reaches Out to Incarcerated Women

Posted: May 3, 2006

Frances Perkins Scholar Kim Keough '06 has spent her final semester at Mount Holyoke assisting Simone Weil Davis, visiting associate professor of English, in teaching Inside-Out in Hampden County: Prison Literature and Creative Writing. The innovative course brings together incarcerated students and students from the Five Colleges in a classroom "behind the wall" at the Hampden County Community Safety Center, a day reporting facility in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Keough, an English major and philosophy minor, trained as a writing workshop facilitator with Amherst Writers and Artists and Voices from Inside, a western Massachusetts creative writing program for incarcerated women. In June 2005 (by way of a proposal written by Davis) she received funds from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities to attend the Summer Training Institute offered by Temple University's Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in August 2005.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program has been offering mixed population semester-long courses to college students and the prison population since 1997. The Summer Training Institute exposes trainees to curriculum development, group dynamics and protocol, as well as dialogue on how mixed community courses can transform ways of thinking about education.

As conceived by Davis, the Inside-Out course melds the exchange of creative writing with analysis and discussion of published prison memoirs appropriate to a literature course. Five College students receive course credit toward their degree. The incarcerated women receive a certificate of course completion, which can aid in parole.

When she came to Mount Holyoke, Keough's interests included writing and teaching in a nontraditional setting, though she didn't yet know what that meant exactly. In the spring of 2004, at a Five College poetry reading, she met Carolyn Benson, the codirector of Voices from Inside. As Benson described the program, the philosophy of the facilitator as opposed to the teacher, a person who comes with exercises and writes along with everyone else, appealed to Keough, as did "giving women in jail a chance to write and hear their own voices." A year later, she took Davis' Prison Writing class that looked at the memoirs of political prisoners and women in prison. Halfway through the course, Davis invited the director of Voices from Inside to come to the class and do an outreach presentation. Watching her classmates react to the stories of formerly incarcerated women deepened Keough's conviction that bringing education to women in jail was as important as bringing the women's experiences and ideas to outside students. Discussing works from Oscar Wilde to Dostoyevsky to Jarvis Jay Masters, the inside students share insights that illuminate the commonalities of incarcerated people across centuries and circumstance.

"Mount Holyoke women are excellent analytic readers and can talk about any piece of literature," Keough said. "But this is a different level. This is experiential [learning] added to academics, which explodes into amazing exchanges, and you leave the class feeling like you've opened some part of your brain that wasn't open before."

Though she holds out the possibility of pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing, Keough will work full-time next year for Voices from Inside as a facilitator and outreach coordinator.

Related Links:

Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Frances Perkins Program