Alta Live: Writing Behind Bars

How might new voices from inside prison expose, enlighten, and transform the way we see the world on the outside?

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How might new voices from inside prison expose, enlighten, and transform the way we see the world on the outside? We’re about to find out. The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison provides insights, inspiration, and advice from dozens of expert contributors. Caits Meissner, editor and PEN America director of Prison and Justice Writing, and Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black, join Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin for a conversation on how this new book came together, why it can change the way incarcerated authors write, and how it might work as a creative resource for anyone with a story to share.

About the guests:

Caits Meissner is director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America. Before joining PEN America, Meissner was an integral team member in developing community arts and education programs for organizations such as Tribeca Film Institute, the Bronx Academy of Letters, Urban Arts Partnership, the Facing History School, and the Lower Eastside Girls Club. She has taught, consulted, and cocreated extensively for more than 15 years across a wide spectrum of communities with a focus on prisons, public schools, and college classrooms at the New School and the City College of New York. Previously, Meissner served more than 500 women worldwide in an original intensive online writing course that matured into live programming, including a reading series, courses for incarcerated youth and adult women, and state-sponsored cultural exchange in Malaysia.

In 2017, Meissner reenvisioned the concept of a book tour for her illustrated poetry collection Let It Die Hungry (the Operating System, 2016), pairing public speaking engagements with opportunities to work with incarcerated writers across the United States. She was awarded the Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Creative Writing, an Educational Enrichment Award, and the Teacher-Writer Award. She is deeply invested in the transformative, restorative, and change-making capacities of imagination and creativity.

Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison from Spiegel & Grau. The book was adapted into an Emmy Award–winning original series for Netflix, which ran for seven seasons.

Kerman collaborates with nonprofits, philanthropies, and other organizations working in the public interest and serves on the board of directors of the Women’s Prison Association and the advisory boards of the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship, InsideOUT Writers, Healing Broken Circles, and JustLeadershipUSA.

Kerman has spoken at the White House on reentry and employment to help honor Champions of Change in the field, as well as on the importance of arts in prisons and the unique conditions for women in the criminal justice system. She has been called as a witness by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners and by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to testify about the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Kerman has also testified for the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security about conditions for women and girls in the criminal justice system.

She has taught writing in Ohio state prisons as an affiliate instructor with Otterbein University.

About the book:

The Sentences That Create Us provides a road map for incarcerated people and their allies to have a thriving writing life—behind bars and beyond the walls—that draws on the unique insights of more than 50 contributors, most themselves justice-involved, to offer advice, inspiration, and resources.

Based on the philosophy that writers in prison can be as vibrant and capable as writers on the outside, and have much to offer readers everywhere, this book aims to propel writers in prison to launch their work into the world, while also embracing and supporting the creative community within the walls.

Threaded throughout the book is the running theme of addressing lived trauma in writing and writing’s capacity to support an authentic healing journey centered in accountability and restoration. While written toward people in the justice system, this book can serve anyone seeking hard-won lessons and inspiration for their own creative—and human—journey.•

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