Anyone who has kept a journal or had a turn at writing poetry knows first-hand the beneficial effects of writing. Like releasing a pressure valve, simply putting pen to paper can take the edge off emotions and make sense of situations beyond your control.
Research into writing and its benefits has established that writing about difficult circumstances can help one move on from loss and heartbreak and improve physical and mental wellbeing.
For a number of Indigenous inmates at the Junee Correctional Centre, a minimum security prison for men, a yearly series of workshops is helping them to discover the powerful therapeutic tool of writing, offering them a new way to make sense of their life, circumstances and potential beyond the bars.
Nicholson recalls hearing a nearly universal refrain; ‘But Aunty, I can’t write!’
While working as a tutor for Aboriginal inmates undertaking distance education at Goulburn Jail, Wadi Wadi teacher, writer and activist, Aunty Barbara Nicholson saw the potential in her students. They began showing her some of the extra, more personal writing they were producing, and the dream to make published authors of the inmates took hold. “There was so much poetry there….and that just made me want to get it collected and out in to a book,” she tells SBS.
After visiting an ex-student from Goulburn who had been relocated to Junee, Aunty Barbara found that the centre was an ideal place to achieve her dream and she has been facilitating writing workshops with inmates since 2012. From the very first workshop, attended by only a handful of inmates, Nicholson recalls hearing a nearly universal refrain; ‘But Aunty, I can’t write!’
Though some physically can’t write, in which case their stories are transcribed, and a lot of encouragement and guidance is needed for getting words on paper- the changes in those who don’t believe they have a story in them never ceases to amaze Nicholson. “It’s an amazing transformation that I see in the inmates… these people that think they can’t write or have nothing to write – comes this outpouring of stories and I’m writing so quick I can hardly keep up with them!”
It’s an amazing transformation that I see in the inmates.
Not one, but four volumes of inmates' stories and poems have been published in the Dreaming Inside: Voices from Junee Correctional Centre series.
Seeing their work published is a huge confidence boost for these men who are often going through the most difficult part of their life. “They really (get to) understand themselves through their writing and that’s very cathartic. When they actually see that they are in print I can say to them ‘look you are now published authors!’ And that is such a morale boost and it gives them a lot of agency. There are so many flow on affects.”
Storytelling is inherent to Indigenous culture, though it has always been exclusively an oral-based tradition. This program is not only reconnecting inmates to parts of themselves, claiming their stories and dreams, but reconnecting them to their culture. Having knowledge passed down from elders is a hallmark of storytelling and for the workshops, Aunty Barbara will bring along another writer to mentor and inspire the inmates. Acclaimed Aboriginal authors Bruce Pascoe and Ken Canning have both been a part of the program, imparting their wisdom and passion for culture and writing to the inmates.
While it's hard to measure if any of the men have continued to write or have plans to become authors in their own right, Nicholson is happy to have just provided the opportunity for their voices to be heard.
“All you know is that you have provided them with another tool, another skill that they can use to their advantage once they are released. It means so much to me because of the total joy I see in the lad’s faces when they see their work in print," she says. "And the absolute pride. ‘Wow, I’m somebody, I’m worthwhile, I’m not just a crim, I’m not a nobody’. To be able to continue to work to an outcome like that, that’s pretty special. I guess that is the core of the dream.”
You can purchase a copy of Dreaming Inside: Voices from Junee Correctional Centre here.
First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.