Sara Blair Matthews: Teaching creative writing behind bars

Ben Kaufman


Have you ever wondered what being inside a prison is like? Everyone sees prisons in television shows and movies, but no one can truly understand the complexities of the system without stepping inside to see for themselves.

Most people would be too intimidated or scared to venture near a prison, but Sara Blair Matthews ’15 frequently volunteers at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Muncy, an all women prison, to teach creative writing to inmates.

SCI Muncy is one of two all-women penitentiaries in Pennsylvania. What started as a training school for impoverished women in the 1920s turned into a correctional institute in 1953. SCI Muncy is in charge of programs like Female Diagnostic and Classification Center, Capital Case Inmates, and Close Security.

Matthews has been involved with volunteering and working at the prison since taking her first-year Law and Society sociology class. Since then, she has been trying to find ways to get involved with helping out at not only this prison, but also one near her home in Houston. This past summer, she wrote articles for a nationwide prison magazine. This required her to speak with prisoners about their experiences so she could share them with the public.

Matthews became re-involved with Muncy this year by talking to Troy Edwards, the Muncy’s Reentry Service Coordinator. Matthews said that he was enthusiastic to have her volunteer, as they are always looking for help, especially in teaching unconventional subjects to the inmates. Edwards said he is excited about University students getting involved and volunteering at Muncy.

“Community involvement in the incarceration process is a must,” Edwards said. “Having the Bucknell students involved at Muncy provides our population the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with outside entities, and develop positive relationships … oftentimes, their first positive relationship.”

Edwards told Matthews that she could teach whatever she wished, and instructed her to choose something she was passionate about. Edwards encouraged her to let her passion show through her teaching.

“I knew that I would enjoy teaching creative writing,” Matthews said. “I have always been interested in the subject, especially in regards to poetry. I also thought it would be worthwhile for the inside students, and I felt it would be a good outlet for them to express themselves.”

When Matthews brought the idea to the school, she got a faculty member to advise her on the project, which also enabled her to count the project as course credit. She turned to Professor of English Ghislaine McDayter, who excitedly agreed to help her out.

“She needed to find an adviser to help her and I was very happy to step into the role since I thought the project was so innovative and important,” McDayter said.

Matthews looked forward to teaching because she knew her class would give the inmates a unique experience.

“Specialized classes like these are rare,” Matthews said. “They mainly do life skill classes, like GED classes in prisons, so this is a good way for the prisoners to engage in something different.”

Matthews’ creative writing class started at Muncy in September. Her classes take place once a week and last an hour and a half. To open class, Matthews begins by having a discussion with her students about the past week, including discussing the previously assigned homework. She then gives them writing prompts for them to explore and discuss.

“My classes are discussion-based,” Matthews said. “I act as more of a proctor than a teacher.”

Matthews said her class started with 17 students, and has dwindled slightly to 10 consistent students each week. Of the returning students, Matthews said they are very supportive of one another.

“Everyone is happy for each other and encouraging of each other’s work,” Matthews said.

Even outside sources can see the positive effect of Matthews’ project.

“The impact of Sara Blair’s work at Muncy was felt on day one,” Edwards said. “The positive culture she’s created and fostered through her involvement at Muncy is exactly what our population needed, and is directly in line with the Department of Corrections’ goals and objectives relating to Re-entry Services.”

The students in her class are obviously different from University students. Matthews said that the students are a mix of people who have been convicted of numerous crimes. The inmates include a range of people, some who will be released soon and some who have life sentences.

There were two requirements to join Matthew’s class: inmates had to be on good standing at Muncy and could not be released from the prison before the course ends on Dec. 10.

Despite the history of her students, Matthews said that she has never felt scared or intimidated during her time teaching. The classroom is simply an open room with no guards. She said there are offices outside of the classroom that are looking in, so if anything were to happen, officers would be ready to help. Matthews said that it is usually just her and her students in the classroom, and that she has never felt threatened by her students.

“I never felt intimidated or like I didn’t trust them,” Matthews said. “They respect me and what I have to say. Plus, most of the people are choosing to be there, so they are just grateful that someone from the outside is taking time out of their life to teach them.”

This nine-week course culminated in a final reading showcase that was held on Dec. 3. Matthews said that each of her students read a five or six minute sample of their work from the semester. The audience included other class members, and even friends and family, some of whom traveled across the country to hear the presentation.

“The final reading was phenomenal,” Matthews said. “The women in my class really reached deep with their work and weren’t afraid to share their personal stories. It was a really powerful reading, and I think their friends and family were blown away by what they had to say. I know I was.”

In the future, Matthews said she wants to get more students involved in the teaching. Her goal is to start her own club with the help of the current Empowering Voices club. She also plans to work with the Office of Civic Engagement, where students could meet as a group after each visit to discuss the impact of their experiences.

“The Muncy project initiated by Sara Blair is a fabulous way for students to learn about themselves, their community, and our judicial and penal systems,” McDayter said. “I cannot express how impressed I have been with Sara Blair’s work on this project; she has shown herself to be intellectually and emotionally generous, incredibly self-motivated, and remarkably level-headed.”

Edwards was equally impressed by the success of Matthews’ class.

“[Sara Blair] accepted the monumental challenge of developing a syllabus and taking a group of ladies at Muncy State Prison on a journey they will not soon forget,” Edwards said. “There will be change in the future, and Bucknell and Sara Blair are poised to ensure their strides and future plans are included in those changes.”

For more information about the project, or if you are interested in getting involved, please contact Sara Blair Matthews at [email protected].

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