on silence

Silence. What a double-edged concept. Every year I hold a workshop around the topic,  framed as “Refusing Silence.” Yet even so, every year writing comes out on both sides of silence: the heavy hand that imposes an unwanted internal reality vs the spacious opening for reflective growth and nurture.

Like anything, it is not so simple, Nor are the realities of silence either/or, one extreme or the other. I am reminded of this again and again as I hear stories about silences we carry, silences we suffer, silences we impose, silences we seek. Last week at this time, I had the privilege of speaking to an assembled group at Three Cathedral Square, a Burlington assisted living/retirement community. They wanted to learn more about writinginsideVT and to hear from the incarcerated women who so eloquently write inside prison walls week after week.

I opened with a poem called “Silence” from our 2013 book, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write. Following a chance to check in with what resonated for each of the dozen participants seated in a circle with me, I invited them to think about a silence in their own lives — whether self- or other-imposed — and to consider its lifelong impact on them. And the stories poured out, going back as they will to early experiences of shaming, belittling, being made to feel less-than, invisible, devalued … from men and women alike.

These stories were also interspersed with heartening follow-ups: the shy one who started to speak up against unequal pay at her workplace; the one who would now take positive action in the face of political repression; the one who found her voice after being told silence equalled ‘being good’ … the bullied and marginalized who discovered through writing how to create an identity that would serve them as adults … the misunderstood who just wanted loving acceptance …

Sadly, these very personal stories of otherness and loneliness and despair are all too universal. Certainly they are often the stuff of which the incarcerated write. And yet here I was in the middle of a cross-section of the never-incarcerated. After we shared our own stories, I read more from the book, perhaps another ten or so pieces covering a number of topics. These wonderful elders were spellbound, grateful, engaged and encouraged by the wisdom and perseverance of ‘our’ inside writers. As are all of us who walk into the echoing corridors week after week to witness the power of the written word to promote awareness, growth and change.

As is my usual custom, I followed up the session by creating a ‘found poem’ from the few lines I jotted down while listening to others read. I know you’ll find yourself in here, too.



Silence can be scary,
a feeling of endangerment
that imprisons because of what has happened in life.
A repressed childhood, a lot of secrets —
imposed silence feels like being unseen.
Like Sunday School – ‘you need to be quiet to hear’ –
or feeling an outsider in a new school.
It hurts to keep so much inside over the years,
not expressing yourself;
waiting to vote, getting out of line without saying anything
because I didn’t own property;
the shaming and belittling of
who do you think you are?!?

Lying in bed, I just wanted Mom to hold me.
I’ve never been much of a talker;
I’m very shy, just listen.
I still don’t like to speak.
And yet – inside silence is an opportunity
if I can really listen.

As a 12-year-old, I found my voice through writing,
forced to find myself.
As an employee, I started writing letters,
speaking up at meetings
for equal pay;
today I would call the Board of Elections.
I’m vocal, I’m not retreating.

Silence can be scary, either way.

[poem ‘found’ from lines shared at our 2/1/18 conversation about writinginsideVT]

annual appeal

rise TD

art by TD

‘I rise to be a better me,’ CP,
wiVT participant

Like Maya Angelou, wiVT writers  at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility rise from their pain, their fear, their history. Last month, 25 community guests witnessed their voices raised with determination:

They’re taken my true meaning,
the light that lives in me
eclipsed by ugly rhetoric …

I sit, I burn, I crumble.
Still, like dust, I rise.
I rise to be a better me …

Our writers welcome the weekly space for engagement, reflection, comfort, healing. Their writing transforms personal suffering into shared experience. As they make meaning of their lives, they learn skills — accountability, respect, confidence — that help re-entry and re-integration into their communities upon release. By sharing their stories, they help you understand who they are, how prison impacts their lives — and how you impact them.


Any amount you can give is greatly appreciated toward our goal
of $12,000 and is fully tax-deductible.
Please make your check payable to SBCJC – wiVT
19 Gregory Drive, South Burlington, VT 05403
  • weekly skill- and community-building
  • community education via our writers’ blog
  • publication of participant work and public readings
  • team training for program integrity and uniqueness
  • encouragement to each writer to rise into their best self
With heartfelt thanks to ALL who support our mission to ‘bring incarcerated women’s words from inside – out.’
swb copy
Sarah W. Bartlett, MA, Founding Co-Director

Meghan Reynolds, MFA, Co-Director

Melissa Pasanen, Kristin Brownlow, Kassie Tibbott, Kathryn Baudreau, Tobe Zalinger, Dorsey Naylor, program assistants.

P.S. This year we started two ‘writing outside’ groups for justice-involved women in South Burlington and Randolph. W VT College of Fine Arts intern has devoted the fall to gathering writings from the past few years for LIFELINES, which we plan to publish in 2018 . Thank you, Bianca!! Stay tuned for publication details as they unfold.

Thanks to generous individual support from you, our donors; grants from Bari and Peter Dreissigacker, The Richard E. and Deborah L.Tarrant Foundation, Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, Inc. and Serena Foundation; and our home organization, South Burlington Community Justice Center (SB CJC), we are able to continue providing this unique program to Vermont’s incarcerated women.

college education in prison

It’s happening. Here. Now. The very work that Meg and Sarah proposed over two years ago. The very work that many colleges and universities around the country as well as the state of Vermont have talked about, mulled over, studied for, planned. The very work that required a consortium to bring to reality.

University of Vermont is taking the lead with one of our advisory group members. She needed to step down from helping us in order to do this. Go, Kathy Fox! And go, women inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility currently studying Justice within a rigorous college curriculum.

our new affiliation

sbcjc-logoYou may have read recently about the new affiliation between writing inside VT and the South Burlington Community Justice Center. We are so very excited about this new development. But why should you be?!

The SB CJC, as one of 20 community justice centers throughout the state, “provides opportunities to address crime and conflict as a community, at the local level, through a restorative justice approach. The SBCJC is a department of the South Burlington Police Department of the City of South Burlington. ”

Restorative justice focuses on healing and rehabilitation. In the same way our writing inside VT circles collectively establish a foundation of values and guidelines before entering discussion, so do the many applications of restorative justice. As the newest program in the SB CJC family, wiVT shares a philosophy of righting wrongs by building and repairing relationships, addressing harms in a holistic way, and balancing the well-being of each party along with the community as a whole.

Finding this ‘home’ has been a major part of our past year’s mission. along with diversifying our funding base. Both are part of a broader goal of becoming sustainable into the future. A modest base grant of $5k from the Department of Corrections means we have just $15k to raise to cover our annual operating expenses.  And we provide SB CJC immediate access to inmates so they can start planning program connections for return to their communities.  Once women are out, wiVT will be able to provide continuous support and programming through the SB CJC.

Now do you understand why this is such an important move for us? !?Going forward, there will be other mutual advantages, and we will keep you apprised of them. But for now, please join us in celebrating this perfect affiliation of programs, approachess and goals!!!

In the next few weeks, we will be sending out our second annual appeal for support of wiVT. If you would like to be included in that mailing, please be sure to let us know by filling out the contact form with your email information.

Thank you for your continuing interest in, and support of, writing inside VT.

writing with mentors


Mentor/mentee pair sharing a moment at the 2013 book launch of HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write

For the past several years, we at writing inside VT have offered a monthly writing group inside CRCF for those women with mentors trained through the mentoring program at Mercy Connections. While not formally associated with that program, writing inside VT has helped established strong bonds between mentors and their mentees by providing time and space for them to become acquainted in a structured setting.

As with all writing inside VT groups, we open with a poem – generally one that explores a seasonal theme – and move into writing time. Initially, writing is shared between mentor and mentee, followed by about 45 minutes of visiting time. Following this paired sharing time, we  invite each woman to read her words within the larger group – usually 12 to 18 around the circle.

Popularity of the mentor/mentee group has only increased with the years; mentors have asked if they can come to a group even if they no longer have a mentee inside! Or they ask if they can participate together on the outside to help maintain the bonds established on the inside. We continue to explore these possibilities, and have recently approached Mercy Connections to consider connecting our program more directly to theirs.

We have always taken July and August off from the mentor/mentee writing groups due to scheduling difficulties during the summer months. Therefore, this post honors the experience of the mentor/mentee writers inside CRCF with a sampling of their comments about what they most appreciate about writing inside VT:

I appreciate how creative, intelligent and serious the other members of the group are.

I appreciate most seeing my mentor and being able to leave my unit for a fun creative group.

Love the sharing; love the writing; love being with my mentor; love being with these brave women.

Spending time with people who care and understand.

I love the structure/ritual of the group. Thank you.

Sharing my thoughts in a non-judgmental environment.

I can open up and write down my feelings.

The gifts are an opportunity to see mentee; be vulnerable with each other; share words/advice/experience through our writings.

Gifts – the opportunity to enter the world – one step in – of so many newly known women. The opportunity to experience a structured writing session. The opportunity to get to know my mentee better.

To be real with people, just to be able to smile and have people hear you.

I feel lighter now because I’ve shared some of my hopes and fears with others. And in doing so, I shared them with myself.

These sisters are amazing human beings. They inspire me.

There is always something/many things new I learn.