reflections on ten years inside

Twelve years ago I approached the idea of taking a writing program inside Vermont’s women’s prison, based on my feminist-leaning creative writing project in the greater Burlington community. Support and enthusiasm – from the women themselves to prison administrators to community organizations – has only continued all these years later.

Deeply imprinted on my heart are the faces and words of hundreds of women who sat with us weekly for two-and-a-half hours year-round. I can still envision the scene: pens poised above sheets of paper waiting to be filled with their dreams, their regrets, their challenges, their determination to learn and to grow beyond their current situation. The thread of continuity was our regular presence, as well as our insistence on mutual respect and honesty. I will always remember the women’s fierce loyalty to our writing evenings, our practices and the shared need for a lifeline that writing provided to so many over the years.

Indeed, writinginsideVT has been called a lifeline by a number of our writers. This legacy is apparent in those who have gone on, outside, to write; those who continue to keep in touch; and those whose words appear in the compilation “LifeLines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out.” Intended as a starting point for discussion of the major and pervasive issues facing incarcerated women, “LifeLines” has just been re-released. It is my fondest hope that it will be read and discussed by educators, policy makers, criminal and social justice advocates and reformers of all kinds. That it will provide significant input to meaningful discussion and policy-making. That the women whose struggles are openly shared within those pages will live to know their words mattered – not only to them, and to us, but to the wider world as well.

With the re-release of “LifeLines” our program is also in transition. writinginsideVT, like many programs, has changed due to the pandemic, staffing changes, and prison policy. As a result, our work has moved, under the able leadership of Kassie Tibbott, Esq. to a more external focus on advocacy and legislative reform. What we know from our years inside is that the same issues of poverty, lack of education and abuse of all kinds bring women inside – again and again – and that changes on the outside are needed to solve these problems at the source.

The stories are heartbreakingly similar year to year. In this way, “LifeLines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out” remains as relevant today as when the writings were first penned. What must NOT remain the same is the system that perpetuates the need for such writings. And so we continue to collect and to share stories of our dedicated writers; to make the case for reform; and to urge all of us to work tirelessly toward the changes we know are long overdue. We thank you for your continued support.

-Sarah W. Bartlett

life lines is launched!!!

Friday evening April 12 found a crowd abuzz with excitement and anticipation moving through pre-reading refreshments and answering questions about self-care. And then came the readings.

Conducted like any traditional read-around, in Women Writing for (a) Change parlance, we made a few introductory remarks followed by a series of readings from the newly-released book, “LifeLines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out.” After two readings from each of 8 writers, the floor was opened to questions and discussion.

But the final proof that this book has already achieved its stated purpose – to stimulate community action and advocacy on behalf of the outdated criminal justice system with particular emphasis on women – came as folks filed out for refreshments and the opportunity to purchase the book to be signed by one of the writers or editors.

We have a practice of asking a question of our listeners after they have had a chance to absorb the words swirling about them for the previous half hour. This time, the question was ‘On hearing these words, how are you personally motivated to respond?’ Responses are far too numerous to list here, but can be found on the page about LifeLines on this site. To whet your curiosity, here are just a few:

  • I am curious to learn more about current legislative efforts and how my senators and representatives are contributing.
  • I see parallel needs in the halls of local schools that act as pipelines channeling youth who see no other example and feel no strong anchor at the other end of their lifelines. How do we halt this self-perpetuating cycle?
  • Advocacy work – calling legislators and staying aware of the changes that are happening so I can offer input and speak on behalf of the women inside. More education and better physical and mental health treatment.
  • I wish these readings were presented more often and in different cities and venues, including the State House. So valuable, enlightening, and inspiring.
  • I’m reminded of the power of good teaching, learning, and listening. I’m inspired to create a learning environment that has unleashed the power of the human spirit as this program (these people) have.
  • Get the right people at the table to design a new system.

it’s happening …

Life Lines frntandbk Cover for PR“LIFE LINES: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out” is at the printer … Reviewers are reviewing it … We have a page on the publisher’s website … Our writers are geared up to share their words at the launch on April 12 in Burlington VT … Love Local Catering has planned a lovely spread …

We look forward to seeing you there!


it’s official…

is in press!

This project has been in the works for nearly two years. Following the success of “Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write” (Orbis Books, 2013), co-edited by myself and Marybeth Redmond, our writers inside have repeatedly requested a second publication. Not only for the validation of seeing their words in print; or the validation of being read outside the walls; or even the prospect of sharing their words in person if they were released by the time of the launch.

Their ongoing motivation has been to voice change to a system that no longer serves the needs or goals of its current population. Clearly, not all the onus lies with the correctional system – there are challenges aplenty with addiction treatment and mental health services more broadly, and clearly better coordination, definition and availability apply to both. Nonetheless, corrections is where these writers of ours currently reside. This is the system they must navigate, survive, recover from. In addition to all the other issues they are facing due to the reason(s) for their incarceration in the first place.

The creation of “Life Lines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out” has, like the proverbial successful rearing of a child, been a true community effort. Of course, the writers themselves, with their passion, dedication to attending writinginsideVT circles, and honesty about themselves are the foundation on which it all began.

VT College of Fine Arts provided us an intern for a full year! Bianca Vinas joined us as a fabulously sensitive ‘outside’ reader of works from writers she had never met, assuring that the works chosen would carry the strongest message. Kassie Tibbott, Esq, newly-minted from VT Law School and ongoing assistant to the writing became researcher par excellance to gather facts, keep us organized, and provide a sounding board for our overall planning down to specific details. Meg Reynolds, long-time wiVT co-director, poet and artist, thoughtfully provided ink drawings that defined the five sections of “Life Lines.”

Now we have an April 12 launch date to look forward to and hope to see you there!

writinginsideVT as life line


courtesy of

For the ten years we have offered writinginsideVT to women incarcerated in Vermont, we have heard it over and over again. How these weekly opportunities to write and share what is on each participant’s heart, with respect and without judgement, have provided a lifeline through incarceration. For some, it is the first time they have been heard, or even discovered they have something to say. For others, it is a chance to unpack the pent-up frustrations, griefs and crushed dreams that inhabit the underbelly of their daily routines inside.

No matter the content, the fact remains: writing offers a way to re-write (and in the process re-right) past decisions and choose a new path going forward.

The respite our writing sessions offer inside (where, unfortunately, many women remain who would otherwise be receiving treatment for their illnesses) is undeniably healing, hope-producing, enlightening, confidence-building. In short, in the context of epidemic drug abuse and dearth of mental health treatment programs, the moments of quiet reflection, sharing and validation amount to … well … a lifeline for many.

As founding co-director, I have been deeply humbled across this past decade to witness acts of transformation through the safe community we have co-created with our writers. To honor those for whom the program has provided a link to re-visioning a future, I have received funding from BCA Community Fund to publish a BCA_logo_Kcollection of writings. Life Lines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out will be released in late March by Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, VT. The book and its public presentation will provide for community discussion and advocacy on behalf of the challenges faced daily by these writers.

Stay tuned for updates on the book and its launch. Meanwhile, thank you for your interest in and support of our work over the years.