By Devin Hiett
Each class begins with the students setting rules on how they can make the space a refuge for writing and sharing their work. The teacher leads intentional breathing exercises and tries to lighten the mood with an icebreaker activity. Once the women seem less nervous, volunteers help prompt ideas and soon it comes time for the main event: The women begin to write.
Ellen Stackable has dedicated the past 20 years of her life to helping students find their voice through writing. She has taught English at the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences since 2001, but the women in this class differed from the sea of teenage faces she typically spent her days with. They were more inquisitive than her usual students, more appreciative and often more willing to take a risk even though some of them had never written before.
Stackable hoped her classes would serve as a safe space and beacon of hope for these women. She wanted to help some of the most voiceless women in society find their voices―women in prison.
In 2014, Stackable founded “Poetic Justice,” a nonprofit that offers restorative writing workshops that emphasize hope, voice and the power of change to incarcerated women.
“Our classes are looking at who you were, who you are today, and who you want to become,” Stackable said.
Poetic Justice launched in the Tulsa County Jail in March of 2014 as a small operation that included Stackable and a team of about five volunteers who came to the jail twice a week to teach classes. Over the past five years, they have expanded to every women’s prison in Oklahoma and reached over 2,000 incarcerated women.
The classes last for six to eight weeks and the Poetic Justice volunteers collect the women’s handwritten poems each week to type up. On the last week of class, volunteers spend their own money to print the collection of poems in the form of a book they hand out at graduation. It was important to Stackable that the women in her classes would be able to tell friends and family they are officially published poets by the time they graduate from the Poetic Justice program.
“It’s amazing. For a lot of them, not only have they never seen their name in print―many of them have never finished anything before,” Stackable said.
Stackable’s efforts to bring healing and meaning into the lives of women in Oklahoma prisons led her to being honored as a top 10 CNN Hero in 2018. But if you ask her about the award, or about her Tedx talk, she will humbly reply: “It’s not about me. It’s about getting the story of these women to other people because honestly they inspire me.”
It all started in 2013 when Stackable was doing research for her graduate thesis at OU. She learned that Oklahoma imprisons women at twice the national average, at a rate of 151 out of every 100,000 women. That’s more women per capita than any other state in the country―a record Oklahoma has held for almost 25 years. She was also disturbed to learn that roughly 80 percent of these women are locked up for nonviolent offenses.
Once she realized how severe the issue of women’s incarceration was in her home state, Stackable knew something had to be done, although at the time she had no idea what that “something” would be.
A passionate writer and teacher, Stackable said she has “always been hardwired with the power of voice and helping students find their voice through writing.” So that’s where she started.
A Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences colleague told Stackable about a spoken word poetry night he was putting on at the Tulsa County Jail and she thought this was perfect. She attended one of the poetry nights and asked if anyone was working on a similar program with the women―but was told no. Going by the jail’s rulebook, women were allowed to help with men’s classes but men were not allowed to assist women’s programs, so her male colleague was unable to extend his spoken word nights into the women’s sector of the jail.
Stackable began brainstorming a program she could bring to the women in Tulsa County Jail. While she enjoyed the spoken word poetry nights, she wanted to create a program for incarcerated women that was “more therapeutic and restorative,” since the majority of women incarcerated in Oklahoma have been victims of domestic and childhood abuse.
She felt that if she was going to truly make a difference in these women’s lives, she would need to cultivate a safe place where women could overcome their trauma and pain and open up to one another.
“The reason I love poetry is it has this wonderful no-rules writing style so even people who have never written before find themselves writing,” Stackable said. “And as they start to write from the heart, pen to the page, healing inevitably comes and so does an incredible eloquence.”
Many of the poems written during Poetic Justice workshops focus on transformative moments and self-reflection, like the piece entitled “Dear Younger Me” which reads:
“There will come a time in your life when you think that life isn’t fair and you want to quit.
Don’t do it.
It gets better.
There will be a time in your life when you think the bad people in your life won’t go away.
Don’t do it.
It gets better.
There comes a time in your life when you fall deeply in love, but the love of your life doesn’t feel the same.
Please don’t do it.
It does get better.
There comes a time in your life when you break, and you think that your life isn’t worth living. Please don’t do it.
It really does get better.
There comes a time in your life when you are urged to slow down and are eventually forced to stop. Find the glue and piece yourself back together. Spend time finding yourself, and then thank God that you didn’t do it, because it did get better.
Because you got better.”
The poem was authored by a woman known as M.G.―Poetic Justice uses only the author’s initials for identification once their work is published.
Although Stackable now boasts that people “would be blown away at some of the poems these women write,” she did not initially anticipate how talented many of her students would be when she launched Poetic Justice.
Walking into the Tulsa County Jail five years ago, Stackable said she came with “all kinds of implicit biases” that have since proven unfounded.
“I assumed they would not be very literate, and I was wrong,” Stackable said.”I assumed I would feel unsafe a lot of the time, and I never did.”
In fact, Stackable said that throughout her 20 years of teaching, incarcerated women have been the best, most gracious students she’s ever had.
“They are so grateful, they’re so focused in on the moment, so attentive and it makes it hard sometimes honestly to go back to teach high school the next day,” Stackable said. “Like you guys, you don’t know how lucky you are.”
Hannah Al-Jibouri, president of the Poetic Justice board of directors and volunteer coordinator, was a student of Stackable’s during her high school years. After high school, Al-Jibouri attended Hendrix College before moving back to Tulsa to teach elementary school. She was scrolling through Facebook one day when she came across a post from her former English teacher asking if anyone was interested in accompanying her to the Tulsa County Jail to teach writing classes.
Al-Jibouri was part of the original group of women who helped launch Poetic Justice, and she had no idea what to expect the first time she stepped into Tulsa County Jail.
Five years ago, she could never have anticipated the deep connections she would cultivate with many of her students. Often, the most challenging aspect of her work is remembering to focus on the positive changes she is helping create in these women’s lives rather than dwelling on the unfair circumstances that landed many of her students in prison to begin with, Al-Jibouri said.
“I could choose to get really jaded, but the truth of it is to remember what do I have in my control? What power do I have and how am I using that power? Yes, sometimes of course it’s very difficult, but rather than staying in that state you have to think OK: How can my power help in this situation to make it better,” Al-Jibouri said. “It’s a lot of learning how to balance those feelings because they’re very real, they’re always there, they never leave.”
For Al-Jibouri, the most fulfilling part of working with incarcerated women is getting to know them on a personal level and forming meaningful relationships with the women―women like Sophia Carbajal.
Carbajal had been incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center―a maximum security prison in McLoud known for having the highest sexual violence rate of any female prison in the country―for almost five years when she met Stackable in November 2016. The pair met only three days before Carbajal was issued parole.
Most of the women incarcerated at Mabel Bassett at the time were familiar with Stackable even if they hadn’t taken her classes, Carbajal said. This was largely because of the fact that Poetic Justice filmed their documentary “Grey Matter” there.
Stackable believes it’s not a coincidence that prisons are often situated in rural, sparsely populated areas. It’s intentional because people don’t want to see prisoners. People don’t want to know what’s happening, Stackable said.
Mabel Bassett, which is located in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, near McLoud is no exception. That’s part of why the Poetic Justice team chose to film their documentary there.
“It’s harder to throw somebody in a prison in some rural place that you’ve never seen if you start to see them as human beings,” Stackable said. “If people could recognize who these people are―that they’re not just people who have done something wrong so they deserve everything that’s coming to them, but people who have done something wrong who almost always regret it and want more than anything to live past that.”
The film explores how Oklahoma, the nation’s prison capitol, leads the country for female incarceration rates. It was created to show the public how writing has served as a creative, therapeutic outlet for the women at Mabel Bassett. The documentary features interviews with legislators, employees and volunteers at the prison, as well as currently and formerly incarcerated women.
Carbajal, who struggled with substance abuse and was sentenced to prison for drug trafficking charges, said programs like Poetic Justice are essential to helping incarcerated women be able to express their feelings and discover where their struggles come from.
“Most of the women that I was incarcerated with have gone through such abuse, such trauma that has haunted them for a majority of their life which caused them to start with drugs and alcohol,” Carbajal said. “And these women in prison, many of us had that in common. I think they need counseling, they need more programs that will help them have healing through all that they have been through.”
At 39 years old, Carbajal was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was released on parole five years into her sentence and now works as the manager at She Brews Coffee House in Claremore, which employs formerly incarcerated women and helps give them the second chance Carbajal feels she was given.
Carbajal believes that if more incarcerated women have access to programs like Poetic Justice, they will be able to reunite with their families and hold steady jobs once they’re released from prison, just like she has.
“It’s hard for many who have been abused to verbally express what we went through and writing helps you. It’s a form of release, and it’s a form of healing,” Carbajal said. “It’s just amazing the work Ellen does. That someone could be a voice for the voiceless.”
Carbajal has accompanied Stackable to events to talk about what it’s like to be incarcerated and share the power of voice and writing. Stackable hopes that Poetic Justice will help more women like Carbajal work through their trauma to find healing and lead fulfilling lives outside of prison.
Poetic Justice currently offers writing workshops in Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Muskogee County and Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. They also offer classes at Las Colinas Detention Facility in San Diego, California and at La Esperanza in Tijuana, Mexico.
Stackable’s long-term goal is to bring restorative writing programs to every facility in Oklahoma and create a foundation that will allow others to start these types of programs throughout the country.
Back in 2014, Stackable thought she would be the one helping her students heal, but she has since learned that healing goes both ways.
About a month after her mother passed away, Stackable went to class at Mabel Bassett―not realizing her students had somehow found out about her mother’s death.
When she arrived at the prison, a group of around 25 women were waiting for her in the yard, ready to shower Stackable with love and affirmation.
“I think what got to me is that they don’t have that luxury themselves. They don’t get to be at the side of a family member when they die, they don’t even really have space to mourn, and yet they were willing to extend that to me,” Stackable said, “It was really, really touching. As somebody who grew up with five brothers and no sisters, I felt like I had sisters.”