Poet Warriors Thriving Through the Pandemic

By Mara Winters

They call themselves Poet Warriors- the women rewriting the narrative of incarcerated women through their nonprofit organization, Poetic Justice, which teaches creative writing classes to women in prison. The pandemic has dramitacally changed the face of this orginization not only how they contact the women, but the ammount of women they are able to reach. Karen Workun, a teacher at Jenks High School has been a warrior for 6 years and has expirienced the changes and challenges the pandemic has brought.

“We are warring against trauma, against a broken criminal justice system, against low self worth, and really trying to empower every woman involved and teach them that they have worth and they have voices,” says Workun. 

They fight this war with the art of writing. 

Poetic Justice is an 8-12 week class that meets once a week. During this time they strive to restore broken hearts, empower the powerless, and give the voiceless voices through poetry. But, the pandemic has put a halt on in person classes.

 “The last in person class was over a year ago,” says Workun. 

Photo Taken at Tulsa County Jail

Prisons in Oklahoma have closed all visitation and classes, so most programs through the prisons have stopped, but Poetic Justice has not only adapted but has grown and thrived. 

“When quarantine first happened we knew that we could not abandon them. We needed to reimagine what we could offer them,” she says. 

They worked to find a way to keep their connection with the women in their classes while abiding to health precautions and prison restrictions. They created their distance learning curriculum which exceeded all their expectations.

Each volunteer has 1-2 partners on the inside. Every two weeks they mail them a prompt and have started a pen pal relationship with their partners. Through this adaptation they have been able to reach more women than ever imagined. Before the pandemic they had 27 women per class and they are now reaching 300 women through distance learning. 

Though their classes look different since the pandemic, their goal is the same. They want to create therapeutic experience through writing and empower women in the criminal justice system. 

To better understand the trauma that the women have experienced they have them take the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) survey. If the women have experienced three or more of the experiences listed in the survey and they have gone unresolved, they may have certain health and behavioral implications, that will affect you later in life. The average ACE score of the Poetic Justice class is 7 out of 10. When these experiences go unresolved people turn to coping methods which we have criminalized. 

“We don’t automatically want to help those with drug addiction, we see them as a menace to society and so were going to put them behind bars to keep society safe. But what is that doing?” asks Workun. 

By ignoring these traumas and criminalizing their coping methods, we are leaving these women alone and unheard. Poetic Justice’s goal is to instill hope in a place that often feels hopeless. With the pandemic, an already disappearing place has become almost unbearable. They are inside the enclosed beige walls 23 out of 24 hours a day. Keeping Poetic Justice alive during this time is a simple reminder of their humanity and their worth. 

Workun loves to send her partners beautiful and bright postcards and keep them updated with her life. “We don’t want them to feel forgotten so it’s a quick way to say, we’re thinking of you, you’re thought of, and you are not forgotten.” 

Members of Poetic Justice Writing During Class.

While we are all struggling to get through the pandemic and find a new normal, Poetic Justice is continuing to amplify the voices that are often silenced not only in Oklahoma but in Arkansas, South Carolina, California, and Mexico. 

The pandemic unexpectedly opened doors Poetic Justice didn’t realize were closed. They will continue to grow, break barriers,  and teach incarcerated women that they have a voice and there is hope. Through writing classes and now beautiful postcards, Poetic Justice reminds these women of their worth. 

If you would like to learn more about Poetic Justice or become a volunteer you can find their website here and you can find more stories about Poetic Justice here

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