Through her work at California's second oldest prison, Washington State University professor Anna Plemons is helping incarcerated men take on leadership and teaching roles to benefit their families on the outside.
As an instructor in a statewide program called Arts in Corrections at New Folsom Prison, Plemons helped develop a 24-part curriculum to teach inmates literary principles they can use to teach their children, grandchildren, spouses or other loved ones how to express themselves.
"Over the course of the last almost 10 years, I started to realize there were a lot of people who were incarcerated who were looking for ways to do positive things," Plemons said. "I also realized a lot of them were interested in being positive role models or influences in their own families outside the prison."
Plemons, who first became a volunteer instructor at the prison in 2009, said there are not many opportunities for prisoners to express themselves.
"I've met a lot of really talented and committed writers in my teaching there," Plemons said. "It's been totally fun and totally awesome to make space for those guys to function in the role of leader or supporter or mentor."
Plemons, a clinical professor in WSU's English department, visits the prison at least five times a year to instruct inmates. During the summer, she spends anywhere from two to seven weeks in Sacramento; throughout the school year, she flies down for just days at a time to host workshops.
"(The inmates) were highly motivated to be supporters, not just people who were being supported," Plemons said. "I definitely see the best possible version of an incarcerated person because anybody who comes to the classes that I teach is coming there because they're motivated to do something positive."
Plemons said her work with inmates gives her an opportunity to see them as members of a greater community, not just as people who have been isolated from society because of their decisions.
"There's a real need to think about and talk about incarcerated people in ways that are respectful regardless of their sentence," Plemons said. "This isn't just a guy that came to class, this is a person who has things that he's trying to do in the world and ways that he's trying to impact the people that are important to him."
While much of what Plemons teaches revolves around creative nonfiction, or writing about one's own life, she also works with inmates to develop journals that consist of writing and drawing prompts they can work on with their family members.
"If you give these guys a chance to be a leader in important conversations where they're supporting their kids or grandkids, they have a lot of positive things to say about it," Plemons said. "If we want people in prison not to come back, then we have to think expansively and creatively about what kind of things they should be involved in while they're in prison."
Plemons said she got involved with the Arts in Corrections program because her father, Jim Carlson, directed the program at both San Quentin State Prison and New Folsom. Carlson, now retired, is a visual artist by trade.
"It's been really fun to work with my dad professionally," Plemons said. "Not everybody gets a chance to do that."
One of the courses Carlson had implemented through Arts in Corrections was juggling, and Plemons said one of her father's students had told Carlson that since the class began, he'd heard laughter in the prison yard for the first time during his incarceration.
"In this place that's very violent and pretty horrible, he actually heard people laughing," Plemons said. "But more importantly, he said once he learned to juggle, it was the first time since he'd been incarcerated that he felt like he could teach his kids something."
Plemons said while learning to juggle isn't going to make an inmate ready for the workforce, it gives them an opportunity to make a positive impact on the people around them.
"No matter where you land on the political spectrum, there's a reality that two humans sitting in 9-by-6-foot box isn't on its own going to help them develop as people or become more productive members of society," Plemons said.
Alysen Boston can be reached at (208) 883-4624, or by email at email@example.com.