Justice-involved individuals immerse themselves in creative writing

A female instructor addresses adult students sitting at desks

There are many hurdles for those who have a criminal history as they try to reintegrate into society, including getting jobs, building healthy relationships and addressing what led them to crime in the first place. For some, the root of their troubled past may begin with trauma. A partnership between Johnson County Library and the Johnson County Department of Corrections is allowing some to learn a not-so-obvious form of therapy to heal– creative writing.

Johnson County Library has served the Adult Residential Center and those receiving substance abuse treatment at the Therapeutic Community for years. This past spring, the partnership got a big boost. Johnson County Library provided the funds to offer an eight-week Creative Writing class for Therapeutic Community clients. It was offered as part of NCircle’s College of Trades, which provides essential skills for post-incarceration. The Creative Writing teacher, students and Library agree it’s a great program.

“We saw this as a wonderful opportunity,” said Incarcerated Services Librarian Melody Kinnamon, who leads the Library’s efforts on behalf of justice-involved patrons.

Research shows creative writing can be enormously helpful to people in recovery. Kinnamon also saw the class as a logical outgrowth of the Library’s extensive Local Writers programming, led by Reference Librarian Helen Hokanson. Through Hokanson’s contacts, Kinnamon reached out to Lawrence-based author Ronda Miller, who is experienced in both poetry and prose, to teach the class.

“I knew the moment we met that it was going to be a great fit,” Kinnamon said of her interview with Miller. “I could just tell she had a heart for the justice-involved clients and that she would meet them wherever they were in their writing journey.”

Miller says teaching the class for 90 minutes every Monday for eight weeks was a wonderful experience. She was awed by the students’ eloquence.

“It’s amazing what they shared,” Miller observed. “I knew going in that I would learn as much from them, if not more, than they would learn from me. That was the case.”

Several students said it was incredibly beneficial. Student Anita Hoskins had never seen herself as a writer but discovered an ability to write poems about nature and happiness.

“Some really good things have happened,” Hoskins said. “I felt I really could find some creativity in me that I didn’t know I had before.”

Hoskins said Miller’s encouragement and support helped her “pull out all kinds of stuff in my soul, in my memory.”

After a Therapeutic Community graduation in May 2022, Hoskins aspires to publish a book and perhaps become a counselor.

Josh Patterson, another student, already knew he loved to write poetry and letters but said Miller helped him hone his skills.

“After taking part in the class, I discovered I have a real passion for prose and it’s been hugely helpful for me and therapeutic in my treatment and my recovery,” he said.

Miller, an author of five books and the past president of the Kansas Authors Club, encouraged the students to submit their work to Kansas writing competitions. Patterson was excited about that opportunity.

The class was inspiring for Miller, who experienced great trauma as a child and is a life coach to people who have lost someone to homicide.

“I talked to them about why we tell our stories, the importance of Voice,” said Miller. The class shared laughter, tears and descriptions of dreams. Miller watched as the students blossomed with newfound confidence, producing vivid, evocative writing.

Kinnamon said she heard great feedback and is pleased the Library funded an additional class this summer and is doing so again in the fall. She hopes the graduates will find ongoing connections to the local writers’ community through the Library.

“Ronda has made them feel comfortable as writers, and it’s our hope they will join in the Library’s writing community,” Kinnamon said. “That would help bring everything full circle.”

Hear more on this topic in the July 29JoCo on the Go podcast episode about the creative writing program, jocogov.org/podcast.