I won't soon forget walking into the Lake Erie Correctional Facility with feature writer James Bigley II to help him fact check his 2019 story "I, Like The Pen, Am Filled With Ink."
Getting through the stringent security measures. Walking across the wide-open field of prisoners calling out to fresh faces. The feeling that there is no escape.
But mostly, I'll remember sitting inside the facility's small library, a haven inside the prisons where superhero paintings and books lined the walls. There, we read thoughtful and insightful prose and poems from the members of ID13 Prison Literacy Project, a writing group and workshop for those incarcerated in the prison launched by Kent State University professor Christopher Dum. Those prisoner's voices, however flawed, deserved to be heard, and Bigley II was determined to amplify them.
Reading the resulting piece puts you in that prison library as if you were next to us that day. Just like the great writing we read that day, it makes you think differently about its subjects and the environments from which they come.
Certainly, that's what caught the eyes of the judges of the annual City and Regional Magazine Association awards, which nominated Bigley II's piece in the Feature Story category ahead of the organization's 2020 conference. Previously, Bigley's stellar writing earned him Writer of the Year in 2018 and nominations for Feature, Profile and Civic Journalism, including for his 2019 "The Misfortune Teller," the saga of a Mentor psychic and con artist.
Before the virtual conference in April, we asked Bigley II to look back on this extraordinary piece of journalism and share a few memories, insights and things he learned while writing it. Here's what he had to say.
The ID13 Prison Literacy Project was a source of healing.
For one hour, every two weeks, the inmates in the class met inside this tiny library working on writing prompts and sharing their work. It was as much an opportunity to connect with one another as it was an opportunity to express themselves and work out things that inspired and troubled them. It was important for me to keep quiet and just observe during those classes and take notes on everything they said and did because I didn’t want to interrupt their healing process. It was evident, immediately, that for many of them, that’s what this program offered: a place for healing.
There wasn’t a lot of time to connect with any one individual because of the strict schedule they kept. I had to observe the group and resort on using the state’s JPay system to email them back and forth about their writing. On two occasions, I was granted brief in-person interviews with a select few members of the group to talk to them more intimately about their cases, their struggles and worries, and the inspiration behind their work. Without that, and without making myself completely available to these inmates, I don’t think this story would have worked as well as it did.
The people in this story are humans before they’re inmates.
That was important to me from the very beginning. The beauty of ID13 and Christopher Dum’s work is that he’s able to get these inmates to think about their lives outside of the cell they’re in, outside of the crimes they committed, and there’s this very real attempt at self-analyzing and self-exploration. I really wanted to tap into that feeling and get the reader to feel that, too. But the most important thing to me was making sure each and every person I talked to understood that I cared about their story. For many of them, the first things we talked about were what they were skilled at, the things they loved, the people they cared most about and the places they grew up and everything they missed. For many of them, I held off on talking about their crimes until the very end because there was so much more to be unearthed than what landed them in prison.