PELZER- On a recent Tuesday morning, a couple of men in prison-issue khaki uniforms, stripes down each leg and SCDC emblazoned on the shirt back, sat in folding chairs, books propped in their laps. Others used one of the three computers for reports and such, since there's no Internet access.
In cell block CBU at Perry Correctional Institution, the loudest noise is the heating and air conditioning unit.
Almost 200 men live there in what's known as the character dorm. Their cells measure 8 feet by 16 feet, two to a cell, which circle a common area.
On this day in the common area, a group of 13 men straddled four rows of metal benches fastened to the spotless concrete floor. A center aisle allowed them to face each other in something fairly representing a circle. One by one, they read words scratched out on legal pads or loose leaf notebook paper.
Stories of love lost, lost hope, unmet dreams, childhood memories, alcohol troubles. The stories sound autobiographical but there's no way to tell, no reason to tell, no directive to tell. The only thing required is that they write.
They are members of the Writers Block, an exclusive group among the almost 1,000 inmates at Perry, one of South Carolina's eight maximum security prisons, where the state houses people convicted of the most egregious crimes: murder, assault, burglary.
Some of the men in the writing program have killed a girlfriend, an aunt. There are convictions for rape, assault and battery, lewd act on a child.
But here, in this space, their crimes are left unsaid. The women who started the writing program, Carol Young Gallagher and Anna Katherine Freeland, say for the most part they don't know what brought these men to prison. And they say they don't want to know.
They want only to help them express themselves as writers and, for the few who one day might get out of prison, to help them find words that failed them before.
Michael McCall, who was the warden when the writing program began and now serves as deputy director of the corrections department, said he's aware some people feel that people convicted of serious crimes should be incarcerated without special privileges.
"I'm an old country boy," he said. "I was raised to think the same way."
But, he said, some of the men will be released one day and they need skills and knowledge of how to live more productive lives.
"They're going to be our neighbors one day," he said.
The others, the lifers, make a difference in the lives of other inmates and of family members.
"This gives them a sense of hope," McCall said. "It's changing the culture of the prison."
Gallagher was president of the Emrys Foundation when she received a letter from an inmate at Perry three years ago. Kevin, the inmate, whose full name the Department of Corrections will not allow to be used, had read a story about Emrys, a nonprofit that publishes a journal to showcase writing each year and offers workshops, readings, scholarships and publishes books.
Other Emrys members had done personalized writing groups in hospitals or with cancer patients. Gallagher was interested in designing and conducting the prison program herself. Freeland, also on the Emrys board and now its president, was interested as well.
Freeland said she has wanted to do a creative writing program in a prison since she was an undergraduate in the English and creative writing program at Converse College 16 years ago.
"I can't really explain it," she said. "It's where I feel like I belong."
Gallagher, with a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in education, had been a teacher and later director in the Marshall Pickens Hospital children's program.
McCall, who now oversees programs at SCDC, said initially he had some reservations about the idea. He worried about the women's safety. But he said he has built a career on giving new programs a shot.
There were rules, though. No personal contact with inmates, even handing them papers. Background checks. Dress code including no open-toed shoes. Questions to be answered. Did they know anyone in the prison system? Any family members? Two-hour meeting with the chaplain. Familiarize themselves with corrections procedure. Even the most innocent thing on the outside can bring repercussions inside.
Gallagher and Freeland decided to limit the number of participants to 15 and to conduct it not as a writing class but as a traditional creative writing workshop over 12-week sessions. They would have craft classes, readings and then at the end of the session, peer critiques.
Participants were selected based on writing samples and an interview.
On Sept. 13, 2011, Freeland and Gallagher met in a parking lot on Pleasantburg and drove together to the southern Greenville County prison.
The concertina wire atop chain link fencing is the first glimpse of the facility that spreads out across the countryside.
They handed their identification to the officer at the gate.
They were patted down.
Four locked gates later they were inside, walking past immaculate flower beds and manicured lawn to CBU. Waiting was a writing group of young and old, black and white.
"Back when we started, inmates were tiptoeing," Kevin said. "Are they going to accept us? Will they keep an open mind about who we are?"
Over time, trust grew.
"I don't think we're hesitant anymore," Kevin said.
Writing programs in prisons have grown in number over the past few decades. PEN American Center, which works to advance free expression, has operated a prison writing program since 1971. Seventy mentors across the country work with writers, and the organization sponsors an annual prison writing contest.
Other programs are operated by nonprofit organizations as well as the University of Michigan Residential College.
Gallagher and Freeland go every Tuesday, except in summer, when they cut down to twice a month. On a recent day, everyone was there and they were reading work based on the prompt "what it means to be here."
Michael read about churning ice cream when he was 8. He described the churning, the judgment from adults over the quality. "Making homemade ice cream is serious business," he wrote. The story took a surprising twist - and one only the inmates understood immediately - when he read, "I got up slowly realizing in speculation licking my fluorescent orange spork." Prison issue plastic cutlery. He's eating Blue Bell southern peach cobbler ice cream from a container.
Memories fill many prison days. He's been inside since 1996, when he was convicted in Spartanburg County of stabbing his girlfriend to death.
When he finished reading, the others, as is their custom, snapped their fingers. Then they told him the phrases they remember from the work. Their recall is extraordinary. It's obvious they are listening intently.
Michael said after the workshop that he never would have imagined he'd be a writer. When he reads his work to his peers it is freeing.
"It's a great privilege to me," he said.
Colin is a poet. He was published in middle school and keeps in touch with his middle school English teacher, who encouraged him then and now to keep writing.
On this day, he read a story about a woman named Mary, who found him drinking a beer outside a convenience store minutes after he was treated in a hospital for alcohol poisoning. She wanted him to call her friend who was involved in Alcoholics Anonymous.
"Mary was sent to me to break the cycle but I couldn't see it at the time," Colin wrote. That was July 2005. A year later he killed his aunt. He was convicted in 2009 and is serving a life sentence. The prosecutor sought the death penalty, but a mistrial was ruled by the judge because a law enforcement officer told a jailer before the trial not to say nice things about him in court.
He said the writing program is therapy for him. It was the first class he signed up for once he made it to the character dorm, where inmates live by a social contract and their behavior is accountable to one another. Perry was the first to have such a program, which has been expanded to four other institutions.
Those in the CBU can choose from about 50 classes and generally are in leadership positions in work assignments. Several of the men in the writing program are teacher assistants.
Deputy Director McCall said he went into a character dorm one day and saw Muslim and Christian inmates quietly discussing their beliefs.
"Couldn't the whole world benefit from that?" he said.
Woody, also in prison for murder, wants to write a screenplay. He is reading Shakespeare's sonnets. Books fill a shelf attached to the floor between the cellblock's two floors and extending all the way around the common area. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, reference - it is a well-stocked library gleaned from prison resources and donations, said Clark Newsom, the Department of Corrections spokesman.
Gallagher said the men also have an array of books on writing.
Colin writes to younger family members, imploring them to make better choices than he did. He announced to the writing group that his sister recently graduated from college and is headed to graduate school, Gallagher said.
While she had great hopes for the project when she began, Gallagher said it has become so much more than she imagined. She is surprised by how much the men mean to her.
"I end up feeling that these men are a whole lot more than the worst thing they did," she said.
She and Freeland are working on making The Writers Block its own nonprofit organization so they can expand it to other institutions. Soon, they will offer two or three sessions a week at Perry and hope to create a group at Leath, the women's prison in Greenwood.
Also, this fall to mark the three-year anniversary, Emrys will publish a book of the inmates' work. It's 120 pages. In the book are these lines from a poem:
"I write because I realize I am who I am because of words
words that moved me, taught me, grew me
made me into the man that I am
I write because I must."
Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com