Bethel writing class helps unheard group find a voice

Prison class eye-opening for students and teachers

Jan 5, 2015 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Whatever Ami Regier, Bethel College professor of literary studies, might have expected from venturing into prison, it wasn’t that the experience would make her a better teacher and person.

Bethel College senior Will Shoup, left, and Ami Regier, professor of literary studies, talk over their first real workshop experience held with a group of inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility, part of an arts in prison project Regier and Shoup are carrying out. — Melanie Zuercher/Bethel College

Bethel College senior Will Shoup, left, and Ami Regier, professor of literary studies, talk over their first real workshop experience held with a group of inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility, part of an arts in prison project Regier and Shoup are carrying out. — Melanie Zuercher/Bethel College

Regier has been traveling to the East Unit, a minimum-security section of Hutchinson Correctional Facility, regularly since last spring. This fall, Will Shoup, a senior literary studies major, joined her.

Regier began the class, coordinated through the Prison Arts Project of Offender Victim Ministries in Newton, after a letter from a group of HCF inmates ended up on her desk.

In fall 2013, Regier received a moving letter addressed to the Bethel English department asking for a writing course that would include grammar, poetry, fiction and drama.

Though Regier felt like she didn’t have time to take on a new project, she couldn’t get the letter out of her mind.

“I took [it] seriously,” she said. “I thought it was really true that in a nation with the largest incarcerated population in the world, writing skills would be truly important for the future of persons needing to reconstruct their lives with employment.”

Regier worked with Offender Victim Ministries to craft a proposal, which HCF approved. The class started in April.

Renewing experience

The project was one of the reasons Will Shoup decided to transfer to Bethel from Wichita State University.

“My interest in working with prisoners stems from a friend who does prison ministry in Pratt, where I’m from,” he said. “When I came [to Bethel], I was awarded a Service-Learning Scholarship, and I wanted to do something I felt strongly about.

“I talked to Ami, and she said she would welcome help. I’m a creative writer — poems, short stories; I’m working on a novel. I thought I could be useful, and I think I have been.”

When Regier began the writing class, she agreed to one eight-week session — but ended up enjoying it so much, she signed on for another class in the fall.

“It was renewing,” she said. “It made me want to be a better teacher.

“The men say they can’t speak and relate and talk about their lives outside the classroom — it is a ‘human space,’ where people support each other and value their time together.

“I’ve told them a certain percentage of college students under-value or under-appreciate that. I’ve gained a new appreciation of the meaningful space [that is] a college classroom.”

Shoup uses language similar to Regier’s when considering his prison experience thus far.

“I’m constantly amazed and surprised — in a lot of ways, [HCF students] are so much more interested and animated than ones [in college classrooms],” he said. “It’s rejuvenating. They want to be there, and they want to learn.”

Rare vulnerability

For their last session before Christmas break, Regier and Shoup used a true workshop format for the first time, though the class, which averages eight to 10 men, had already done group responses to class writings a number of times.

“There is a lot of vulnerability, willingness to share and to share emotionally, which I rarely see in classes on a college campus,” Shoup said.

Although the class has not required writing within certain genres or structures, two of the attenders have begun life-writing projects, and two more plan to start.

“These folks are also saying writing is helping them make better behavioral choices,” Re­gier said. She hopes that is true.

“Doing this [prison class] is helping me understand the research I’m making my poor, tortured [Bethel] freshmen do on the health benefits of writing,” she said. “It could actually help with mental and physical health.”

Shoup says his own writing has benefited from the interaction with class members.

“It helps challenge me in form,” he said. “A lot of these guys don’t have a background in structure — they’re just writing. There’s a kind of freedom in that . . . not worrying, Is this an essay or a poem? or Is this poem a sonnet?”

Regier doesn’t describe herself as a “people person,” but that might be shifting a little.

“Normally, I would rather e-mail someone than talk to them in person. But here it feels important to shake hands,” she said. “The guards wear gloves and choose not to make direct contact, so Will and I make a point to shake hands when we come in and when we leave. It’s clear there’s a connection there.”

Shoup agreed that the inmates have a thirst for genuine interest in what’s on their minds — something they don’t get from guards, other prisoners and day-to-day routines.

“Our [HCF] students want to write,” Regier said. “They feel unheard and they desire to have a voice.”


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