Ellen Responds to Undue Familiarity Readers

I’m a thirty-seven-year-old inmate. I spent time in a juvenile facility from the ages of fifteen to seventeen and have been in prison since eighteen. Ellen Collett’s essay “Undue Familiarity” [September 2016] struck a chord. Over the years I’ve experienced every feeling she observes in the boys she writes about.

Collett clearly cared for her students. That none of them wrote to her after she stopped teaching them only shows how fickle boys and inmates are. On occasion, these capricious youths mature and become what few thought they could be: good men.
— Jeremy, Indiana

Being incarcerated, I’ll make no pretense of objectivity, but I was surprised by the strong backhand that Ellen Collett’s “Undue Familiarity” laid across the face of prison education.

Yes, there are predators in prison writing classes, but are they more pervasive than in fraternities and corporate America? In my experience the predatory types who attempt to dupe teachers are about as subtle as the average soap-opera villain.

I hope people will see for themselves how beneficial prison writing programs are, both to the incarcerated population and the general public. I’ve been in an excellent volunteer-driven program for five years. Prison writing, like other writing, improves communication, broadens one’s worldview, and builds a capacity for compassion — the same virtues embodied by every volunteer teacher I’ve had the honor to meet.
— Andrew, Minnesota

Ellen's response:

I’m touched that Jeremy spent a stamp on me. I don’t blame my students for not writing; I was the naive one. I continued to teach in that prison until it closed. After that first semester that I described in my essay, some of my new students did write. The ones I heard from all became the men I knew they could be.

I share Andrew’s belief in prison writing programs and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. My students were fearless, focused, and brutally self-aware. They wrote to understand themselves and to survive the total annihilation of self that prison has as its goal.

As I continued to teach, I had each student write a document that explained his incarceration to a future employer, landlord, or college admissions officer in a way that proved he was no longer the boy who made that initial mistake. I take great joy in hearing about the students who are now finding success on the outside.