Two Area Writers Mentor Inmates through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop

Erica Skog and Renee Gilmore

The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) is helping inmates in prisons across Minnesota find their voices. “MPWW is a nonprofit that fosters literary community and a devotion to art inside Minnesota state prisons through high-quality creative writing classes and related programming,” says founder and director Jennifer Bowen Hicks.

Two area residents, writers Erica Skog and Renee Gilmore, are mentors in the program, which offers courses for inmates inside the state’s correctional facilities. There are courses in fiction writing, essay writing, poetry, spoken word, oral storytelling and more.  Classes vary in length from one day to 12 weeks. Workshop participants are a diverse group—there are absolute beginners, experienced writers who are already published and writers at every stage in between.

Being a mentor is fulfilling, say Skog and Gilmore. Each works one-on-one with an inmate through the program. While they will never meet their mentees face-to-face, they are still able to make profound connections with them through working with them on their writing.

Along with the satisfaction that comes from helping others grow creatively, Skog and Gilmore say the learning goes both ways. Skog has been working with her mentee for over three years. “On many occasions, she has been an inspiration for me as a writer,” Skog says. “She is very bold and she reveals her true self in her writing. She doesn’t shy away from things in her life that on paper are pretty ugly.”

The mentees' experiences have been positive, too. One mentee says, “When I say that this mentorship transcends mere mentoring, I mean that it allows for humanity and human experience to enter under unique circumstances and has instilled incredible growth in my life.”

The idea for the program began when Hicks was inspired by one of her writing mentors who spoke highly of his time working in prisons. This motivated her to start something similar. In 2011, Hicks taught her first class to six men at Lino Lakes Prison. “The men were becoming serious about their writing and I felt part of something meaningful,” Hicks says. This fueled her to continue, eventually creating MPWW. The Department of Corrections (DOC) has been supportive of the program since the beginning, says Hicks. Core courses meet once a week for about 10 to 14 weeks, and then the writers are given the option to participate in a mentorship, which can last anywhere between three months to four years. Once the mentorship is over, mentees are always eligible for a new mentor.

MPWW accepts volunteers, but normally recruits by reaching out to writers who they think will be a good fit for the program—both professional writers working in the community, and through the University of Minnesota and Hamline's M.F.A. in Creative Writing programs. The nonprofit is funded through individual donations, funding from state and regional arts boards, foundations and a grant from the DOC. Both Skog and Gilmore learned about the program through Hamline, where they both were in  the M.F.A. program.

The program doesn't only benefit mentors and mentees—it helps our entire society, says Hicks. "By providing inmates education and an artistic outlet, we're preparing them to function successfully in life after prison. We have locked up their minds, their work, their earning potential, their music, their business acumen, their parenting, their promise,” Hicks says. “Society benefits when they're able to access the best parts of themselves to re-enter society restored.”

MPWW give a voice to people who would normally be voiceless. A mentee says, "I spent many years of my life with no voice. No way of saying what I needed to say or think that what I had to say had any merit. Through writing I’ve found a way to give voice to my thoughts, ideas and feelings.”