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Students in MMC’s Prison Education Programs Find Strength and an Audience with New Publications

MMC’s college programs at the Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities have reason to celebrate this spring, with some half a dozen students seeing their poems, essays, and articles published by national media and literary outlets.

Student work appears in the latest issue of Mend—a journal affiliated with Syracuse University that features the writing of current and formerly incarcerated people—and in recent months, has been published by the online magazine Slate. Students have also landed bylines in “Life Inside,” a weekly series of first-person essays from people who live or work in the criminal justice system published by the nonprofit news organization The Marshall Project, and found a home at The Carson Review, MMC’s literary journal, which comes out in April.

MMC has been the sole degree-granting institution at Bedford Hills since 1997 and has awarded degrees at Taconic since 2019. In many cases, the published work was created as part of an MMC course requirement and submitted with the help of Bedford Hills and Taconic professors.

For several students, it marks the first time they’ve been published—and the experience is helping them to realize not only their talent but the desire of people on the outside to know more about them and their lives. That does not mean, however, that the students write only about their prison experiences; indeed, their pieces often reflect social issues that are important to them.

For example, Maryana Kayumova, who remembers being perceived as “foreign and different” when she came to the United States from Russia at 12, uses her work to explore the immigrant experience. Her poem “Naturalized into Someone Else,” written last summer in Taconic’s Contemporary American Women Poets course, excavates her memories of a naturalization ceremony she and other immigrants participated in and how they grappled with their new identities. At one point during the ceremony, an immigration official called out what sounded like a really white name at least five times before one of the brown-skinned ladies in the first row realized the official was referring to her and responded to her new American name. “Everyone burst out laughing,” writes Kayumova.

The Carson Review has accepted the piece, while a second poem, “Forever Foreign,” was published in Mend. It draws on Kayumova’s study of Zora Neale Hurston in a Harlem Renaissance course. Kayumova describes her feelings upon reading Hurston’s words, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and relates the text to her own experience. “I feel most foreign when I am thrown against any background,” she writes.

Fellow Taconic student Jennifer Martinez has had two poems accepted by both Mend and The Carson Review. The first, “Lady Lazarus,” was inspired by the same Contemporary American Women Poets course class Kayumova took, while the second, “18 Years of Infirmity,” describes her struggle with depression and the conditions that brought her to prison.

Meanwhile, Sara Kielly was selected by Slate to write a first-person account of how technology is impacting incarceration, along with two other justice-involved people. Kielly writes regularly about prison life and could not resist using irony to describe a typical experience with JPay, an IT and financial company that purportedly makes prison services more convenient. “I check my messages on the JPay kiosk and see that the JPay representative had denied my request for a refund for Charlie St. Cloud. The rep says their system shows that I watched the movie and therefore I cannot receive a refund, and he then goes on to explain that I should reboot my tablet and check to make sure my headphones are working correctly. I’ve already done these things, and the issue is neither my tablet nor my headphones. The movie has now expired without me being able to actually watch it.”

Among Bedford Hills students making their publishing debuts are Tiffanie Irwin, author of “I Know ‘That Which the Soul Lives By,’” another thoughtful response to Hurston’s work, and Annie Trovato, whose poem “Contemporary Art,” was inspired by an Art and Writing course she took last fall. The class, she said, showed her how writing about art can intensify its impact on individuals and society. Both will be featured in The Carson Review.

And students of all experience levels said they have been inspired to keep writing. That includes Bedford Hills student Geri Erwin, author of the poem “Clarity,” about the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, which will appear in The Carson Review. Released in December 2023, Erwin said she intends to pursue a professional writing career that allows her to advocate for disenfranchised people. Kayumova and Martinez, who are both set to be released this spring, said they intend to continue submitting work for publication on the outside.

 

Worth the Effort

Last semester, Susan Chira, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, visited students enrolled in Taconic’s Writing 101 course. The Marshall Project was founded in 2014 to bring current and accurate information about prisons, incarcerated people, and the actions of law enforcement officials to the public’s attention in a way that conventional media was not doing. It has since garnered awards and recognition as an organization encouraging criminal justice reform.

When a student pointed out that most of the essays published by incarcerated people in the organization’s “Life Inside” series were written by men, Chira noted that was not only because men make up a majority of the country’s incarcerated population but because “we do not get enough submissions from women.”

That was a challenge Samantha Vantassell could not ignore. During the spring and summer semesters, Vantassell worked on an essay about her experiences, and on February 16, her piece, “I Never Thought I Could Fall In Love With a Woman. Then Came Prison” was featured in “Life Inside.” It was the first time anyone from either of MMC’s satellite campuses was published by The Marshall Project. Although the essay is a poignant reminder of the loneliness and isolation incarcerated people experience, it’s also a love story that depicts how Vantassell’s life was changed because of her relationship with someone she met at Taconic.

Still, despite the successes of Vantassell and many other student authors in MMC’s college programs, advocates note that writing and getting published from prison is an arduous process. Students cannot access the Internet, so the only way they can discover submission opportunities is through the periodicals brought in by faculty and College staff. Their only access to word processors is in the College Learning Center; furthermore, much of their day (often up to 10 hours) is not theirs to schedule, giving them little time for ordinary tasks, much less creative writing. Moreover, students must physically mail their submissions, and the cost of postage is not insubstantial, given that they earn an average of 25 cents per hour working in prison.

For students whose pieces are published, however, the effort is worth it. Many are mothers, and being able to share something they have published with their children is a way for them to model the value of reading and writing. Other students mail copies of published work to family and friends, a source of pride to offset the sorrow of being apart. Indeed, last April, when Martinez won the poetry award at MMC’s annual Honors Day, her brother traveled from Philadelphia to read her work at the event. The next day, he told her that he had never been so proud of her.

Moreover, creativity is contagious. As word of peers’ success in publishing spreads throughout the facilities, more students have been asking their professors to read their creative work and are finding editors and writing mentors among their classmates.

There are plans in both facilities to form a creative writing club with an in-house publication, connecting more fledgling authors with the power of the pen to heal and transform, the way it has done for students like Martinez. “I am a new woman,” Martinez said. “I now know my worth and my talent, and I want to use it to communicate and to help others recognize the power of art.”

Published: February 28, 2024