Written Inside

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.

 
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A Silent Piano

Demetrius Cunningham learns to play piano by practicing on a keyboard made of cardboard.

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At War With The Roaches

Oscar “Smiley” Parham’s war on an army of insects in his cell ends up being about something much more.

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On The Move... Again

Howard Keller, Jr. meets his 37th cellmate.


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I Am A Recluse

Marcos Gray considers the consequences of isolating himself from other prisoners – and from his family back home.

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A Friend

In prison, it’s important not to allow anyone to get to close to you. Then Michael Carlos has an unusual experience: he makes a friend.


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A Place Kept Clean

Ramon Delgado reflects on his obsession.


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What Isn't Here

No privacy. No space. No quiet. William Jones describes his prison cell, which is notable for what is not there rather than what is.


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 Illustrations by Keara McGraw for WBEZ

Illustrations by Keara McGraw for WBEZ

A Visit From An Outsider

James Trent has an encounter he’ll never forget. (Plus, an interview with me and Jennifer Lackey who first invited him to the prison.)

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