Women on Rikers Island use poetry as an escape, publish collective work

Marina Abramchuk, an inmate at the Rose M. Singer Center located in the Rikers Island jail complex, recites poetry on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.
Marina Abramchuk, an inmate at the Rose M. Singer Center located in the Rikers Island jail complex, recites poetry on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

With golf pencils and paper in hand, a small group of women gather once a week in a small room for a writer’s workshop, encouraged to write what’s on their mind.

Only this room has bars on the windows.

The women are inmates at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island, and the workshop is their escape. The golf pencils are used because anything bigger could be considered a weapon.

On Tuesday, they celebrated their third book of work, reading excerpt poetry and some new pieces as well from inside a class-room-like auditorium at the prison.

“It’s peace of mind. You basically get out of jail for a couple hours, you get to put your thoughts on paper,” said Leanna Franco, 26, who has participated in the workshop for about six of her eight months there. “You look out the window and you see gates, but the time that you’re in here it’s like you’re not behind the gates.”

Franco said she writes about her past, her future, and is struck by how much she and her fellow inmates have in common.

“A lot of times we’re writing about the same stuff,” said Franco, originally from the Bronx. “It’s nice.”

Marina Abramchuk, 28, joined the workshop about a month ago, and said she usually writes poetry.

“I like writing, expressing myself,” said Abramchuk, originally from Brooklyn. “It’s hard to talk to people around here. It’s the one time of the week I can get away from all the drama and the craziness.”

The program is run by the NY Writers Coalition and Deborah Clearman, who has been running workshops at the women’s prison since 2011. Clearman edited the book of prose, “Can You Feel the Free in Me,” which is available on Amazon.

Poems like “Hectic” and “Pain” as well as “Love” dot the 70-page book, written by 23 different writers, some current and some former inmates. They talk about addiction, abuse, fears and hopes for the future, someday being free.

“Jail life is very stressful and very chaotic. They always have a lot on their mind and the writing just flows out of them,” said Clearman. “What they get is a chance to express themselves, hear themselves. And they listen too.”

She said the drop-in workshop is held for an hour and a half every week, with about seven to 10 attendees on average. Each session begins with a free write, followed by a prompt, and participants read their work out loud.

Aaron Zimmerman, NY Writers Coalition’s founder and executive director, said the workshop allows the participants to find a supportive space.

“Everyone has so much going on inside them,” he said. “Naming things is very important. If you name something, then you can examine it.”

He said the NYWC holds about 40 to 45 different workshops each year throughout the city, including two at Rikers — the women’s prison, and one for young men.

“Our focus is working with people who aren’t heard from often enough,” he said.

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