Doing Time: Writing Workshops in Prison by Carole Glasser Langille

I decided to put a hold on this book after my interview with Chris Benjamin; Doing Time is one of the books he had recently read and recommended. (He had also spoke highly of Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are, and that turned out well!)

I was surprised by how invested in this book I became, right from the beginning. I loved Carole’s honest and gentle way of telling us about her time spent giving writing workshops at the prison, her interactions with the guards and social workers, and her conversations with the inmates.

In Carole’s pitch to the prison about her idea to give workshops, she explained, “I wanted to inspire inmates to write about what mattered to them. Writing clarifies thoughts… and when thinking is clearer, actions become more comprehensible.” And “Every creative act is empowering, generating energy and self-worth.”

Carole’s passion for poetry is contagious. (Included at the back of the book are the poems used in the prison workshops.) Here are a few other tidbits about poetry from the book…

… poetry makes visible what cannot be seen. Because poetry takes familiar, everyday occurrences and reveals them to be extraordinary.

Poems are not essays written to persuade, they’re discoveries…

Often it takes several readings to comprehend a poem… and even when we don’t grasp it entirely, something about the poem can touch us and ring true.

Carole was able to draw many of the inmates out of their shells by way of poetry and creative writing. They read and discussed poems at the workshops and then wrote about things from their own lives and experiences with prompts from Carole. They wrote about their childhoods, their families, their partners, their children. I was delighted to be getting insights into the poems, but was especially interested in the personal stories that came out of the workshop sessions. Carole’s time in the prison resulted in some surprisingly intimate pieces of writing.

The men and women imprisoned behind these walls are Nova Scotians who, for the most part, had tough childhoods and hard lives and it was wonderful to see that Carole wrote about them with care and the acknowledgment that they are more than just the crime they committed. She quotes Bryan Stevenson: “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done…”

Jails prove that we have failed each other again and again.

Scattered between the chapters of Doing Time, Carole cites disturbing prison stats and anecdotes, including the overuse of solitary confinement, little support for women with children, the high rate of Indigenous and Black Nova Scotians in our prisons, the lack of therapy for inmates, as well as over-crowding and understaffing. Some inmates have been in and out of prison since they were children.

Many of the inmates who took her workshop thanked Carole for coming in to spend time with them, but Carole feels she got just as much out of the experience as they did.

I learned that everyone has a story to tell, a powerful, moving story. And people care about these stories. But most will never be heard.

Each week, when I walked down those windowless halls, the iron doors clanging behind me, I felt again and again that the pain and longing in that crowded building created a spiritual intensity that made this a holy place, a dwelling whose inhabitants must be appreciated and treated with care. I had the privilege of hearing many of their stories. I wanted to honour them for their trust.

Further Reading:

Carole Glasser Langille

The Miramichi Reader: “I think the most telling value of these prison writing workshops comes from an inmate who participated in them. He said he enjoyed writing because “he can write things that hurt too much to say aloud.”

Atlantic Books Today: “Inspired by Wallace Stevens, who said that the role of a poet is “to help people live their lives,” Langille wanted to bring a new form of rehabilitation to individuals who may not otherwise choose poetry as a therapeutic tool.

17 thoughts on “Doing Time: Writing Workshops in Prison by Carole Glasser Langille

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    I’ve read just enough on this topic to know the value of writing workshops in a prison setting. It sounds like Langille is doing some great work. At least in the U.S., I think funding cuts and the growth of generally more punitive attitudes have done much to weaken or eliminate programs aimed at rehabilitation rather than retribution.
    I’d be very interested to see that list of poems!

    • Naomi says:

      I might have included a photo of the list, but it wasn’t just a list of the titles – it was all the poems written out! Which makes the book even more of a treasure. I should have mentioned a few of the authors, but now the book has gone back to the library…
      I fell in love with the author’s project and this book – if you’re interested in the topic, it’s definitely worth checking out!
      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Such good work! This reminds me a little of Anne Walmsley’s The Prison Book Club, a memoir of the author’s work with male prisoners, in which she talks movingly of the exchanges in the book group’s sessions. Everyone learnt from each other, including her.

    • Naomi says:

      I thought there was a similar book out there, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I think that’s the one! Thanks! 🙂

  3. wadholloway says:

    I don’t read let alone review much poetry but I recently did a book of collected (Australian) Indigenous verse which apparently included some poetry from prison writing programmes.
    Prisoners respond to being treated as human, when they are so often not. A policy that beggars belief when you consider Australia was built on the endeavour of reformed convicts.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t read a lot of poetry either, which is why I feel like I got a lot out of the parts where they were all discussing the meanings of the lines. And the exercises she set for them sounded like fun!

    • Naomi says:

      That’s the one that really struck me, as well. Often I feel like I’m not quite getting it, but for some reason I want to read on!

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve heard of some other books about doing writing workshops with prisoners, especially Wally Lamb’s. I know Mira Ptacin also teaches creative writing to women prisoners in Maine. The closest thing I’ve read to this is Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo, set in Arkansas.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m always happy to have your suggestions! I had no idea Wally Lamb had written a book about it – I’ve added it to my list! 🙂

  5. annelogan17 says:

    This sounds like a fascinating book! I’d love to see more programs like this in prisons, I think letting people shine through their creativity is an obvious path to healing for many. Along with giving them lots of varied reading material of course!

    • Naomi says:

      After what the author had to say, it just seems so obvious that it’s super beneficial. Too bad not everyone sees it that way.

  6. Susan says:

    I would think writing workshop for the prisoners would be very helpful …. and I’m sure the author has much insight with them. ps. I have a Canadian author for you Shaena Lambert …. I just finished her novel Petra … was pretty taken with it …. i still need to review it (soon)

  7. buriedinprint says:

    I’ve read a few essays on this topic; it’s not uncommon for writers who are interested in community work to reach out in this way and I guess for those who write to make sense of things it just makes sense to write about the experience. What I don’t understand, and maybe I just have to read more of the book, is the idea of her comparing the prison to a “holy place” because of a spiritual intensity? It just seems like something one would say if they were free to go in and out of that space according to their will, doesn’t it?

    • Naomi says:

      I’m honestly not sure what she means by that, either. What I imagine, though, is that she feels such a privilege to be let in week after week to work with the inmates. She’s certainly not allowed to just walk in. She even talks about how, at first, the guards would make her wait–she felt, intentionally–until she learned to be more patient to be let in.

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