An Introduction to Prison Writing

Working on the Creative Escape: Inmate Stories and Art Project with Dr. Nancy Van Styvendale.


Photo credits: Faculty of Native Studies

The past two months I have been working with Nancy Van Styvendale, an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Research for the Faculty of Native Studies, on a project called Creative Escape: Inmate Stories and Art. Started in 2010, Creative Escape is an ongoing project of a self-published collection of artistic work done by the inmates within the Saskatoon Correctional Center. Dianne Block, the Indigenous Cultural Coordinator, made a callout to inmates in the facility for artwork that they may want to contribute. This project has been, and will continue to be, open to anyone and any artistic skill level. It is very inclusive to everyone as it’s meant to be a venue for incarcerated men to share their stories amongst themselves and the broader public. With the publication being distributed internally, an important function of the project is that the men get to share and read each other's work. This is important because colonial institutions are meant to systematically work to separate these men from the community and further fragment and remove people from society. This collection of art works to counteract that, and acts a motive of connection all while going against the anti-relational notion heavily present within colonial prison systems. 

Although Creative Escape is mainly student and volunteer driven, my involvement with the project was because of Nancy. After spending some time as her student during her class this past winter semester, NS450: Practicum in Indigenous Studies, I was able to have many conversations with her surrounding my interest in community work and involvement. Upon applying for the research assistant position, I was fortunate enough to have her choose me to be a part of the process and provide assistance with transcription work. It was my responsibility to read over and look at all of the submissions, to edit and type out all of the written pieces and organize them along with the other art into a formatted and organized document. My time with the pieces was truly inspiring and gave me an opportunity to really appreciate their words and perspectives on life both within and outside of their sentences. They were sharing their stories, and even their love poems. There was one individual’s introduction that read “I wrote this poem for a girl I liked when I was 18 years old. She liked the poem more than she liked me.” Another wrote about the death of his fiancé. This shared vulnerability is to be respected and will not go unnoticed. 

Nancy's primary work is community-driven surrounding Indigenous literature and methodology, along with Indigenous writing and arts programs within prisons for incarcerated individuals. I asked her how she got involved with prison work, to which she stated that “as a researcher, a part of my interest is in Indigenous prison writing. I am interested in the kind of stories and writing incarcerated people produce. How they [those incarcerated] use these stories and writing as a form of relation for kin, and/or a political and cultural critique.” Along with this, Nancy said that her role as a professor, and as a non-Indigenous woman, is to use her access to resources as a way to amplify the voices that are not heard enough on the inside. Whether they be a critique of the system or a love poem, there are stories existing between those prison walls. 

Wondering if this is available within any incarceration systems in Edmonton and surrounding area, we discussed how although there aren’t any that are identical (especially in regards to publications), there are a few with similar intentions. Nancy herself runs the Indigenous Prison Arts and Education Program within the Faculty of Native Studies, focussing on research and teaching of Indigenous prison art education. The program includes Inspired Minds: All Nations Creative Writing, which is the most similar to Creative Escape with in-prison programming and involvement. Inspired Minds is operated out of Saskatoon Correctional Centre, Pine Grove Correctional Centre and the Edmonton Institution, and is also affiliated with the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. There is also the Walls-to-Bridges (W2B) course that gives the Edmonton Institution for Women (EIFW) inmates and U of A students the opportunity to mutually learn and benefit from one another as peers in an artistic and academic environment–thereby creating a safe space for connection. Opportunities like this allow for this form of connection to grow between those behind and beyond the walls of the prison system. 

The existence of this work carries tremendous weight as they offer exposure to these stories and critiques of the systems that are not held responsible for the continuous injustices and mistreatment done unto the people held within them. These projects work as a form of connection and nurture this human need for relational kin, but they also encourage critical thinking for those beyond. They create the space for engagement and analysis on these damaging systems of colonial violence and oppression. Not only do these programs stimulate connection, but they also show the unfortunate reality of the overpopulation of BIPOC people within incarceration. This alone should spark the conversation of the social construction of crime and how it is geared to negatively impact BIPOC through the colonial agenda and process. These systems have repeatedly removed people from their lands and families and continue to do damage. There is a harsh reality of institutionalization present within BIPOC communities because of the lack of social support and overpopulation within prisons and jails. During a conversation with Nancy, she shared with me that there are protocols in place that inhibit an individual incarcerated in one institution from writing to a family member that is incarcerated in another. The rationale behind this is that they (those in ‘charge’) act in a way of risk management thereby believing this type of interaction would mean gang/drug related activity. Really, this is just another example of a big hindrance in connection between loved ones and the fragmentation of family and identity. 

At the end of the day, these people carry stories, thoughts, critiques, and knowledge. This may be the only way they can be heard and that alone is enough of a reason to partake and listen. 

Here is a beautiful example of prison writing used to critique what Fran Sugar coined the Criminal Just-us Cystem. 


About MorningStar

MorningStar is a Cree student graduating with a BA in Native Studies in November. She enjoys making her own jewellery, trying to “get back into” reading, collecting way too many plants, and pushing herself to find comfort in the uncomfortable.