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Oral Imaging Before the Writing Begins

When you form a writing circle behind bars, you may find people who have been set against one another in the past thrown together in the group you are assigned.  It is not uncommon that members of the same family, who have been estranged for years, will appear. Within a single workshop, you might find people whose lives have been ruined by drug deals and drug dealers who have made the choice to have power over the drugs that destroyed their families. The same thing will be true if you are working with people in reentry, who may know one another far better than you will ever know them.  


How then, do you prevent the retelling of stories in ways that may be defensive or harmful, that will either flood the reader or listener, or hold back so much that no one will be able to be engaged?


  • How do you help each group member shape a story of power that will help reading strangers to walk a new path?  

  • How do you focus the group collectively in looking at the larger picture, of cycles that need to be broken, and societal failing and systems change.  


Whether you are working with 20 or 30 people crowded into a recreation room with a guard or two sitting on the sidelines, or with a single prisoner, making contact in whatever way you can, the technique will be the same, 

  • to back into each individual story through a discussion of the change that each member wants to see, while asking each speaker to imagine a moment or scene from their life that will help a reading stranger understand the need for that change.    


Over the years of conducting workshops in carceral settings, we have found this approach breaks the ice between members, so that they are able to forget they are rival gang members, estranged family members, or others who are threatening.   


Or, if they are strangers it allows them to back into the more personal parts of their stories slowly and deliberately, in a way that will allow them to stay safe while building on their particular strength and power.  

See how other facilitators framed their own relationships to the command, “If your words had the power to change a heart, mind or policy."

What is the change that you

would like to see? 

Continue to listen to

Victoria and Margarita

We invite you to read this article on witnessing through memoir, which will take you into our work in Riverhead Correctional Facility, where our work with women behind bars began.

Reflection #2

Oral Imaging Tools

Now we are going to ask you to return to the “Stories to Experience and Share” section our Library to pick out five additional stories that you might consider using on your first day, to dare your writing circle to think big about the changes that they’d like to see. 

It is fine if you return to one or all of the five you selected for lesson one. 

How might you talk about each story?  Remember again that your responses on these reflection documents are only for you.  So keep them as free-wheeling and brief as you wish.   

If you are working with a partner or team, please share your responses before you go onto the next lesson. 

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