Orange jumpsuit. Number. Last name, perhaps. This is what humanity boils down to inside the American justice system. Prisoners, stripped of their identities, are often left voiceless or without the means to be heard. Poetic Justice- a volunteer organization that leads writing workshops with incarcerated women- is devoted to helping these women with this problem. Poetic Justice believes that, “when the voiceless one find her voice she finds hope, and with hope comes the power to change.”
According to Karen Workun, an English teacher at Jenks High School and volunteer with Poetic Justice, “We incarcerate more women in Oklahoma per-capita than anywhere in the whole world.” Workun is not calling for an end to incarceration as a whole, but she wants to call attention to what these high rates stem from. “Over ninety percent of women incarcerated have been victims of abuse at some point,” says Workun. “We don’t incarcerate more women in Oklahoma because the women are worse here than they are anywhere else, it’s because a lot of the offenses that are committed by women stem from unaddressed trauma.”
A documentary called “Grey Matter” was recently made about Poetic Justice and the reforms they stand for. Their goal is to have it shown in all 77 Oklahoma counties before the midterm elections, in what they are calling the “Into the Heartland Tour”. “We think that if lawmakers and policy makers see […] some of the faces behind the policies that they are advocating for or against, that it might change some minds and change some hearts,” says Workun.
When asked about how her role as a teacher in the classroom compares to her role as a teacher in prison, Workun notes that it’s easy in the classroom to fall into a “teacher-student” mindset. “On a daily basis I have to remind myself that I’m a human working with other humans, and we have that connection. The same is true with the women.”
Participants of Poetic Justice are often curious why Workun does what she does. “When they found out I was a teacher they asked, ‘What do you tell your students that you do here?’ I said, ‘I tell them that I love to be with you all and I do it because I believe in reform and change- on a personal and policy level. It all stems from love and wanting to show that love to others.”
Unfortunately, various age/gender stipulations prohibit many young people from volunteering with organizations like Poetic Justice. However, all American citizens can be catalysts for change. Workun encourages students to educate themselves on these policies and reach out to legislators. “Lawmakers want to hear from their constituents about how to vote and what to do, and you guys are their constituents too.”
If you’d like to learn more about the Poetic Justice organization check out their website here.