ANN ARBOR—The letters’ senders share the same address, identical blue-and-orange corrections uniforms and, for now, are known by their numbers. They are all incarcerated men at the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan and have lots to say to their loved ones.
Tommy wrote to his unborn child, Darnell to his younger sister and Phillip to society. Andras wrote to his ex-girlfriend. Will decided to write a poem and Ken wrote a letter to himself.
These letters are a result of a Prison Creative Arts Project writing workshop and are now in a special two-episode feature of the While We Were Away podcast called "Letters from Cooper Street." The episodes were produced by Knight Wallace fellow and BBC journalist Maria Byrne and two University of Michigan students and PCAP members Zofia Ferki, Jenna Siteman.
"Along with phone calls, letter writing is one of the main ways people in prison communicate with the outside world," said Byrne. "My instincts are always to just give a voice to people. But when we started with the [writing] workshop, we had no idea it would become this amazing audio project."
During the seven-week session, facilitators used creative writing and various arts activities as tools for mutual learning and growth. Once the workshop's participants opted to work on letter writing, the men decided to write to real people. Six letters are part of the first episode, which is 36 minutes long.
"Some letters are prison related, others about things like heartbreak and losing children that many people outside prison can also relate to," said Byrne.
For Nora Krinitsky, PCAP's Interim Director, the workshops are at the heart of everything PCAP does. "They provide space for creative expression, human connection, and community building," she said.
Since Byrne and the students were not allowed to take an audio recorder into the prison, they asked the men to mail their letters to the PCAP office. The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, a Detroit-based storytelling group, read them for the podcast. Each reader has their own connection to the criminal justice system.
“Being able to help curate this podcast was such a rewarding experience. I really hope the guys in our group enjoy it as much as we enjoyed putting it together,” said Siteman.
This joy is featured during the second episode, when the students shared their experience working together with the incarcerated men and putting the podcast together.
To show gratitude at the end of the program, Ferki decided to use the same tool and wrote a letter to the participants. Siteman wrote the poem "Dark marks on a blank page in a ten-room schoolhouse."
"We wrote and tackled stories about werewolves, school shootings, and deceptions. We acted out scenes from Erin Brockovich," wrote Ferki. "We talked about everything from “nacho-dos” (nachos you “do” yourself in the communal microwave) to prison don’ts, like leaving your specially-purchased soap in the shower."
In her poem, when describing the process to get checked in the facility, Siteman wrote, "next is me: shoes off, tongue up, arms out, legs wide. I trade my ID for a buzzer, they say it’ll save me but what’s the point of salvation when I know those around me can’t journey there too?"
Ferki started her letter saying she had "never imagined it would be so hard to say goodbye after 18 hours of knowing someone."
"This workshop was so important to the men. It was literally the one thing a week that they had to look forward to and to work towards," Byrne said. She also shared the workshop’s impact on her own experience. "Being able to give back to them, and for them to have something they will always have. I mean, that's really important. And hopefully when they get out of prison, they’ll be able to hear this incredible thing that they were a part of."