In February of 2016, Jennifer Lackey, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, where I teach journalism, invited me to speak to a class she teaches at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison an hour outside of Chicago. Her students, fifteen men, were all serving long sentences, mostly for violent crimes. Some will be at Stateville until they die. I talked with the students about storytelling, and had them complete an exercise in which they described their prison cells.
I was so taken by what they wrote that I suggested that they develop these stories about the space which for some had been home for twenty years. Over the next ten months, I worked with them from draft to draft to draft. The process was not without obstacles. Sometimes, Jennifer couldn’t return my marked-up drafts because the prison was on lockdown. One student missed class for a month because, after surgery, he had to wear a knee brace which the prison considered a potential weapon. Another student was transferred to a different prison. (I continued working with him by mail and phone.) One despaired at my comments and edits, writing to me, declaring that “this must be my last draft because clearly I’m incapable of doing it correctly.” But with encouragement and gentle nudging they kept going.
Five of the pieces appeared on The New Yorker’s website, and then we hired actors to read their essays for this podcast, Written Inside. A big shout out to Colin McNulty who produced the series.