Hamline News

Unlocking Creativity


By Julie Carroll

Imagine if you were judged by the worst thing you did in your life. That was it. No other consideration of who you are. What would that be like?

It’s a question that moves Nell Ubbelohde MFA ’12 to do something many would consider radical—dangerous even.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August, Ubbelohde waits patiently for a man behind thick glass to buzz her into a windowless room. Another man stamps her right hand with invisible ink and asks her to sign in. More waiting. After a second gate slides open, Ubbelohde steps into a hidden world most people know only through television and movies.

Inside the Minnesota Correctional Facility–Stillwater, inmates glance curiously at the woman with long gray hair as a guard escorts her through cavernous corridors to what could pass as a college classroom with its rows of tables and computers. DETERMINATION and SUCCESS posters line white walls.

Men young and middle-aged, black, white, Asian, and Latino, gather around tables arranged in a rectangle at the front of the room.

“What up, Nell? What’s the dilly-dally?” one of them greets his teacher. Ubbelohde chats with the students, asking them how they’re doing and what’s new, before getting down to business.

It’s the last day of a playwriting class Ubbelohde teaches, and her students are eager to present the plays they’ve been working on for several weeks.

One reads aloud a scene about a boy who visits his father in prison, launching the class into a discussion about techniques for communicating emotion through dialogue and action. Another student presents a scene about a tutor who helps a hostile young inmate earn his GED. It’s based on a true story, he reveals.

Transforming lives

Ubbelohde’s playwriting class is one of several creative writing courses taught in Minnesota prisons by volunteers of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW), an independent project that began at Hamline University in 2011. Aware of Hamline’s reputable Master of Fine Arts program, MPWW founder Jennifer Bowen Hicks tapped the program for volunteers. People packed a room to hear her vision.

Since then, the all-volunteer organization has taken off. Hundreds of men in penitentiaries throughout the state have completed MPWW courses in genres such as fiction, essay, poetry, oral story telling, children’s literature, and fantasy. Fifteen instructors, 22 mentors, and a handful of others from Hamline and the broader literary community currently volunteer. Recently, the group raised funds to pursue 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which would enable MPWW to expand further.

Inmates have described the program as “life-changing.”

“Class was always the highlight of my week,” one MPWW student says. “Not just because it broke up the monotony of doing time, but because every Friday from 1 to 4, we weren’t felons or inmates or convicts or offenders. We were students and critics and essayists and so-so poets and storytellers. The class offered us something rarely found inside the razor wire: dignity.”

A Stillwater inmate says writing classes help him cope with the solitude of prison life. 

Another, who earned his bachelor’s degree in prison, continues to pursue a passion for writing through MPWW classes. Now he tutors other inmates in the prison’s literacy program. “To have a connection with somebody from a university is amazing,” he says. “It enriches our humanity.”

Self-improvement is a common motivator for the men who take MPWW classes. “I want to be a father that can lead my children by example,” one of Ubbelohde’s students says. “In order to have metamorphosis, you have to have an education.”

After inmates have completed a writing class, they can request a mentor to provide additional feedback on their work through mail correspondence. Anika Eide MFA ’12, graduate program assistant for The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline, coordinates the mentorship program and serves as a mentor herself. 

Eide has never met the man she corresponds with and has chosen not to know his crime; however, the partnership has enriched both of their lives, she says. “Transformation” is a word she uses repeatedly when talking about the program.

“I can say with no hyperbole that MPWW has transformed me, my approach to writing, and my identity as an artist,” Eide says. “I’ve been working with my mentee now for over two years, and with each exchange, I think to myself: This is how art transcends boundaries. This is how art can touch on universal human experience while fostering individual growth.”

Still, some might question: Why spend time volunteering with murderers, rapists, and other felons?

“One thing I’m proud of about our MFA program is that people in it aren’t just driven by their own work,” Eide says. “We also see the larger context of putting art out into the world and the transformative possibilities that it has for people. … In prison, they’re called offenders. In our mentorships and in our classes, they’re called writers. That can make all the difference.”

For Ubbelohde, who has taught classes at several correctional facilities, the answer is simple: “I don’t feel like you can throw people away.”

That doesn’t mean she disregards her students’ criminal histories or the suffering of their victims. However, she chooses to focus on the men’s future rather than their past and the potential each one has to better himself for the good of society.

To enroll in MPWW classes, inmates must be invited by their prison education director. Requirements include a GED or high school diploma, 10th-grade reading level, and clean behavior. Any problems, and they’re pulled from the class.

“I’m not dealing with who they were when they committed their crimes,” Ubbelohde says. “They’ve been working in programs, going through treatment, dealing with their issues. They’re really looking for, within their limited realm, ‘What can I do to make amends, to be a better person, and help other people?’”

Ubbelohde is co-teaching her next MPWW class with Peter Pearson MFAC ’12. “It’s definitely one of the most exciting [classes] I’ve done so far,” Pearson says. The two learned from conversations with Department of Corrections staff about a scarcity of reading materials for Minnesota inmates with low literacy levels. In response, they designed an advanced, multi-facility course in which student writers and artists create an anthology of short stories for use in the prisons’ literacy programs. Inmates at the Moose Lake facility will be in charge of layout and production as part of their publishing vocational program. “As far as we know, it’s the first such project in the country,” Pearson says.

The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop benefits the state’s prisons in other ways as well, according to Patricia Pawlak, education director at Stillwater. “There’s harmony and a common goal among men of all different backgrounds,” she says. “They’re getting to know one another and to realize that we really aren’t all that different from each other. This is not a common occurrence in prison. The benefit to the inmates becomes a benefit not only for the prison, but also for society.”

10,000 hearts

“With nearly 10,000 inmates confined in Minnesota prisons, how can one person make a difference in the system? [Bowen Hicks’] answer was to walk into Lino Lakes Correctional Facility and teach six of us about writing.”

So begins a public reading of inmates’ work through vicarious voices at Hamline University in September. Friends and family of inmates, MPWW volunteers, community members, and prison staff fill a room in Klas Center, some of them tearing up as an MPWW student’s words are read.

The writer recalls the first time his work was read to an audience outside prison walls. “The night my stories were read at Hamline, I sat alone in my cell and read them out loud. I knew that somewhere out there in the world beyond the fence, my words were touching people’s hearts. When I called my family that night to hear all about it and received the audience comment cards a couple weeks later, I felt the warmth of the outside world reaching back.

“To most people, prisons don’t exist,” he continues. “They are places where criminals are sent to and forgotten about until they have paid their debt to society. But as my words are read to you, close your eyes and picture 10,000 hearts beating in cages. These stories and poems are a glimpse into just a few of those hearts.”