Freedom in the words
By Dante Anthony Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jason Toombs' hands steady the papers he's clutching. His name is called -- on this day, an invitation, rather than the more typical order.
He shuffles to a microphone in front of his teachers, his comrades -- and others monitoring the room. He breathes deeply. His voice shakes. But when Mr. Toombs reads aloud from two pieces he's written -- recounting grim realizations from his time in the courthouse "bull pen" -- he finds a rhythm.
"Obviously I'm fighting the system, but who am I really fighting?" Mr. Toombs, 30, said, his voice reaching a crescendo. "I was trapped in what I ignorantly built. Now I'm on the outside wondering, 'How in the hell am I going to tear this thing down?' "
The room applauds. As he smiles, Mr. Toombs appears to recognize -- despite a rap sheet for serious crimes dating back to his teens, and his current incarceration on pending charges of robbery, drugs and aggravated assault -- that he still has the freedom to tell a story. It's a recognition shared by the students around him, uniting them beyond the identical red scrub suits they wear.
At their "final reading" last month, these inmates at the Allegheny County Jail presented polished writing samples produced in the nonfiction class they've completed -- minutes before guards escorted them back to their cells.
Candidates from Chatham University's master of fine arts program in creative writing started teaching two gender-separated writing classes for inmates this summer in a collaboration both sides intend to continue. The eight-week nonfiction class -- in which some students eventually wrote poetry and fiction as well -- met for three hours once a week, with as many as 15 men and 15 women attending per week.
"When I decided to go back to school for a creative, artistic pursuit, I felt conflicted about it," said Sarah Shotland, 28, an MFA student specializing in fiction writing.
Creating "art for art's sake" often can be isolating and selfish, she said, and she was interested in working with groups of "under-represented," or disadvantaged people.
So when Sheryl St. Germain, the director of Chatham's MFA program in creative writing, mentioned in a meeting that she once taught creative writing at a women's prison, Ms. Shotland was inspired to get involved with a similar program.
She initially approached halfway houses and mental health facilities, but she and others from Chatham sought to collaborate with the county jail after learning it already offered creative writing courses.