Inmates at the Coffee County Jail now write and design a publication called The Inmate Insider.
The newsletter is issued every month and is distributed to all inmates, jail administrators and corrections officers.
Ashley Allen, a licensed master social worker who is the mental health therapist at the jail, launched the initiative several months ago as part of the support group project at the jail. The support group sessions last 10 weeks, with participants meeting for an hour every week. Each session focuses on a certain topic.
One of the topics for the support group project is creating a newsletter, said Allen.
“We started the newsletter in July of 2018,” Allen said. “It is one of the themes of the group session program at the jail.”
It takes about three to four weeks to produce each issue of The Inmate Insider, said Allen.
In the time frame of the 10-week session, each group creates two regular newsletters and one special edition, said Allen.
Since the program started, the inmates have issued seven newsletters.
The publication shines a light on the issues the inmates face. It also gives the participants a platform to share their talents.
Additionally, The Inmate Insider provides an important link between the incarcerated individuals, the jail guards and the jail administrators.
“We had an arts special edition,” Allen said. “We asked the inmates to submit their artwork and the group chose the top five art pieces.”
The selected drawings were published in the newsletter.
“And we did a poetry special edition,” Allen said. “We asked the inmates to submit their poetry. We picked the top five and published those.”
In a poem titled “His Warm Embrace,” one inmate wrote:
“Pleading for forgiveness,
For all the pain I’ve put others through,
The heartache and sorrow,
I wish I could undo.”
Allen said they’ve had four regular editions of the newsletter, where participants select a main story, a back story, an inspirational quote and a Bible quote.
The writers also include a humorous story, a word-search activity and a crossword puzzle.
“My favorite [issue] was the one the inmates did on connection,” Allen said.
The focus of that edition was learning how people communicate, said Allen.
“The issue was how we talk to each other – as inmates and non-inmates,” she said.
Communication often causes an “us-versus-them kind of feeling,” Allen said. As they worked on the connection issue, participants learned how people communicate a message through body language and other nonverbal signs.
“How are we interacting with each other and what messages does that communication send?” she said. “As we explored all this, [inmates] were able to articulate that the way the communication was happening made them feel less than human.”
In an article of the newsletter, the inmates wrote:
“The need for human connection is as basic a need as food, water and shelter ... It is hard to imagine finding a balance but wouldn’t it be nice if [officers] respected us and in turn we could respect them?”
“They wrote this article completely on their own,” Allen said. “I thought they did an amazing job of really being vulnerable and trying to put into words that when we interact in this way, that doesn’t feel respectful,” Allen said. “What it feels like is that I am not a human being and it makes me feel hurt and disconnected.”
‘Giving them a voice’
One of the advantages of the newsletter publication is “giving a voice” to the inmates, Allen said.
“They feel like they are put in the back and forgotten about,” Allen said. “They feel they don’t really have a way to communicate, or if they do, their voice isn’t really heard or valued.”
Another benefit is helping the participants in the group sessions improve their communication abilities.
“It really helps them to hone their communications skills,” Allen said. “We talk about the goal. You know what your problem statement is and you know what the issue you want to address is.”
So the objective of the activity centers on crafting the message in a way the receiver will hear and understand it.
“So how do we take that issue and flush it out?” Allen said. “We look at the whole picture and then focus on what the goal is. What do we want to accomplish when we talk about this? Why do we care? Why should other people care? We spend a lot of time really digging at that.”
Another positive aspect of creating the newsletter is providing an opportunity for learning graphic design principles and skills, creating attractive layouts and enhancing computer skills, according to Allen.
“The inmates love the newsletter,” Allen said. “It gives them a sense of pride. Their name is on it, and they know they have contributed something.”
The Inmate Insider also serves as an essential link between the inmates, the administration and the guards.
It helps the administration learn about problems the inmates may have.
“In one of the editions, Lt. [Rick] Gentry, [Coffee County jail administrator], was kind enough to give us an interview and [the inmates] aired all of their grievances to him. He worked very hard to address them and he was very open.”
The newsletter activity engages inmates beyond the single hour of the group session, said Allen.
“They work on the newsletter all week in the pod, together,” Allen said, referring to the sections of the jail where inmates are housed.
The most recent theme of the newsletter was Valentine’s Day.
“This was completely the guys’ idea – I had nothing to do with this,” Allen said. “They initiated it. They said they wanted to do something special for the women in this jail because probably a lot of the women had never really been in a relationship where they were treated very well.”
So participants wanted to dedicate the newsletter to the women.
“They picked a love song for the song lyrics,” Allen said. “One of them wrote a love poem. Another one picked out an inspirational quote because they were concerned the women might be sad. And they did a Valentine’s-themed word search.”
Elena Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org