Sarah Elkins get creative with inmates

Sarah Elkins in the garden of Stella’s Restaurant
Sarah Elkins in the garden of Stella’s Restaurant

With a grant from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Endowment for the Arts, Sarah Elkins takes on the task of bringing a humanizing element to the rehabilitation of inmates by way of a creative writing class within the walls of the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution (BFCI).

Elkins, a freelance writer living in White Sulphur Springs, was asked by former employer Carnegie Hall if she was interested in this adventure. She dove in head first and the class started in May 2013. This is an effort to have Teaching Artists in federal prisons and Sarah is considered an Artist in Residence at the prison.

What is it like to enter a federal prison to teach a creative writing class? Sarah explained,” I was scared to death; and I was thinking about whether anyone would participate and be open in the class.” A thoughtful student asked Sarah why she was so nervous. He went on to say, “Don’t you know that you are in the safest medium security federal prison in the country? Relax! This is the care-bear of prisons.” This inmate has since served his sentence and been released.

With anxiety put to rest, Sarah got on with the curriculum of teaching writing skills to very attentive engaged students. Poetry and short stories in the way of memoirs is the main focus of the twice a week evening class. Writing the stories from truth is what Sarah demands of her pupils. They comply. Sarah says, “Federal inmates are some of the most profound thinkers and artists, with many poignant things to say.” And what they clearly demonstrate with their writing is, “that they are drowning in shame.” Almost all of her students are fathers, and have expressed through writing about personal truths how they feel about the decisions they have made thus far in life.

To be eligible for the class, inmates must have their high school diploma or have acquired their GED and then enrollment was on a first come basis. The class is full.

Musician Adam Degraff recently spoke and performed for Sarah’s class. She says, “Adam spent two hours performing for and talking with my students at FCI-Beckley.” She said there was too much awesome in the room. “Adam is a genius. My students listened to each other, improvised with each other, and I think the smiles in that room could do insurmountable things …like maybe even reform a broken system.”

DeGraff adds, “Why is it that after spending two hours playing at a political function do I feel hopeless and like I need to take a shower, but after two hours of playing for and with a bunch of convicted felons do I feel uplifted and inspired? I think it must be an issue of honesty and integrity. Gentlemen of the Beckley Federal Medium Security Prison that will never read this, y’all are all-right!”

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