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  • Writer's pictureRichmond Story House

A look inside a prison workshop

Hear an experience from our founder, Rachel Pater...


Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, I drive to Chesterfield where I teach a writing class at a women’s prison.  I enter the sprawling one story building surrounded by 15-foot fences, lined with giant slinkies of barbed wire. I get a pat down, go through a metal detector, and will pass through 6 secure doors before I make it to the basement of the north side of the prison, past the bathroom and showers, to my classroom, where the 10 participants will trickle in in ones and twos.

One night a couple of weeks ago, I decided to use this book, the “Book of Qualities” to teach a lesson in personification.  In this book, Ruth Gendler takes on qualities like worry, love, and courage and she personifies them. She describes how, if these words were a person, what they would look like, how they would act, what they would do on any given day. 

The participants in the class took to this activity quickly.  Bridgette wrote that Guilt walks with his head down and shoulders slumped.  Kathy described Harmony as a symphony conductor. Niki wrote that Joy can be hard to find but it’s worth looking for her and that she might show up in unexpected places.  I felt like I got to know each of these women a little better based on what words they chose and how they described them. Their writing, like Gendler’s book, also helped give me a fresh take on some words that for me, have become stale, or worn out.  

I shouldn’t be surprised about how naturally personification came to them - as humans, we are quick to cast a human face or emotions on things that are decidedly not human - read almost any children’s book or listen to anyone who talks about what their dog is “thinking,” myself included.  

After class in the prison on the night we did the personification lesson, I was walking with the women out of the classroom, through the basement past the showers when we heard someone burst out in a shower song: “If you like Pina coladas!…” We all laughed.  We had witnessed a moment of joy. Joy despite the circumstances. Joy showing up in unexpected places, just like Niki said. 

~Rachel Pater

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