Best Self Magazine

Writing From The Inside Out: Incarceration Through The Lens Of Humanity

Writing From The Inside Out: Incarceration Through The Lens Of Humanity by Gretchen Primack. Photograph of a barbed wire prison fence by Robert Hickerson.
Photograph by Robert Hickerson

Inspired by those locked away and too often forgotten, one woman shines light on incarcerated men through education, poetry and hope

I remember the first time I shut the classroom door behind me in a maximum-security men’s prison. I don’t remember it because it was frightening — it wasn’t. I remember it because I felt at home. I was in the right place. 

Between the chalkboard and the barred windows, I found 15 college students waiting for me. They opened their notebooks and we began our discussion. About five minutes later, there was a voice on the intercom. Somehow, two and a half hours had passed, and it was time for me to leave. I didn’t want to.

Those students wrote me papers about Erich Fromm’s ideas on disobedience, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s deft use of Thomas Jefferson’s work, and MLK, Jr.’s rhetorical choices. One of my students started his college career writing about Plato’s cave in my class. He finished his coursework with a 100-page senior project about feminism and Shakespeare a few years later. 

That first class met almost 15 years ago. I’m still teaching in prison. Most people who

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