Prisoners Find Their Voice in Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop

Written on 07/13/2021
Edward Lyon


Of the many prison wardens she wrote proposing a volunteer program to teach prisoners, she finally received a positive reply from the warden of the Lino Lakes state prison.

The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) was off and running.

The program rapidly gained popularity. The first workshop created such a demand that it took another seven instructors to handle the second class. Prisoners wanting to participate usually exhausted the openings within minutes of registration announcements. The MPWW has expanded to the point that it is held in every adult prison in the state, making it the largest program of its kind in the country as of 2021. Participants learn to write poetry, fiction, nonfiction and plays.

In one of their most recent projects, Bowen Hicks and her fellow instructors began inserting rolled-up poems from students into clear plastic containers then vending them for fifty cents each in hand-cranked machines similar to those that dispense gumballs. Like the workshops themselves, demand for these poems has soared with more than a dozen of them dropping verses across the state, from Minneapolis all the way to Northfield.

Workshop graduates are welcomed to apply to further work on their skills through MPWW’s mentorship program. Educators, writers and editors who, for one reason or other, are unable to teach in-person classes in prisons, work as mentors to prisoners through the mail. Mentees submit up to 40 pages of work to their assigned mentor monthly. Mentors supply exhaustive feedback with suggestions, give assignments and suggest reading materials as part of the program.

Many graduates have gone on to have their work published and win writing awards from organizations such as PEN America. Located in New York City, PEN America has existed since 1922, with a focus on advancement of literature and human rights, and has bestowed awards to many MPWW graduates.

Despite the jaded views and negative stereotypes many bigoted people have of prisoners, Bowen Hicks reports her students in prisons are serious, curious, creative, and work hard expand their writing crafts. As to classroom interpersonal interactions and relations, she stated “Many people on the outside may also be surprised by how generous our students are to each other.”

Testimonials from students reflect the success of the program. One former student stated that, “While incarceration is often voiceless, MPWW gives us the opportunity to have a voice. Writing gives value to our lives and allows us to see we are bigger and brighter than one felony.”

Writing is a humanities discipline. Studies have proven that people with humanities-centered educations are more receptive to and empathetic to others, making the MPWW program perfect for prisoners (See PLN, Oct. 2020, p. 40).

Along with founding MPWW, Bowen Hicks is an award-winning author whose work has been featured in literary publications including The SunOrionThe Rumpus, and Kenyon Review