Eric Boyd has been there: a writer behind bars. Starting in 2010, he says, he spent nine months in Allegheny County Jail. He’d taken a plea deal on charges of assault by negligence after failing to call an ambulance for a friend who’d overdosed.
While jailed, Boyd, a writer and editor, participated in Words Without Walls, a program out of Chatham University for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers in Allegheny County. A short story he wrote based on his jail experience later won second place for fiction in the PEN America Prison Writing Awards, a national competition.
“My first writing residency, and a very difficult submission process,” quips Boyd.
Boyd, long out of jail, now teaches with Words Without Walls. He’s also been active with PEN’s prison-writing program. “For me, helping with PEN over the years has been a personal thing,” he says. “I know how scared I felt inside.” He said he hopes winning a PEN award means as much to other winners as it did to him: “I know how important it was to feel that vindication, to feel validated in some way.”
This week, Boyd takes another step in that effort, as he and Words Without Walls co-founder Sarah Shotland present Pittsburgh’s first-ever public reading honoring PEN prison-writing awardees. The Tuesday, Aug. 27, reading at Alphabet City is co-presented by PEN America, Words Without Walls, and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. It features some two-dozen notable Pittsburgh writers, activists and advocates reading selected poetry and prose. Most of the work is from the 2019 PEN contest, though there’ll also be writings by past winners from Pittsburgh.
“We talk a lot about people who are in jail or prison, but we don’t hear from them,” says Shotland, a Chatham English professor. “And this is them in their own words, being honored by people who already have a platform in Pittsburgh."
Along with Boyd and Shotland, readers include Pennsylvania’s Second Lady, Giselle Fetterman; author and blogger Damon Young; poets Yona Harvey and Sheryl St. Germain; and Isaiah Project founder and ACLU field organizer Terrell Thomas.
Some of the pieces they’ll read tell the stories of how their authors came to be in prison. One young woman, says Shotland, was homeless, and in trying to obtain housing ended up getting a life sentence for a minor drug charge. But the selections also include what Shotland calls “contemplative poetry” that doesn’t address incarceration directly at all.
Words Without Walls is a partnership of Chatham’s graduate creative-writing program, Allegheny County Jail, and Sojourner House, a drug-treatment facility for mothers in recovery. The program serves about 300 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people each year, Shotland says. Boyd says writing workshops can be therapeutic for participants, and can help build confidence and event job skills.
But the benefits are not all easily quantifiable.
“The biggest thing you’re going to see out of the work is the need for human connection, human contact, human emotion, something that is definitely denied and literally walled off in the jail system,” he says.
For the reading, Boyd recruited mostly readers whose work includes some engagement with the law, politics, criminal-justice reform or prison abolition. But for listeners, he says, the experience will be much like any literary reading.
“The work just happens to be coming from people who don’t get to read their own work,” he says.