By Paige P. Parvin 96G
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a chill March morning, and the sun is just beginning to glint on the loops of barbed wire atop the fences that encircle Georgia’s Metro State Prison. Already, sounds of women singing and chanting in powerful rhythm are rising from behind the concrete walls, like a gospel choir making music in a distant church.
Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics in Candler School of Theology, hurries through the check-in routine at the guardhouse, sliding her identification card through a chute and removing her bracelet to walk through the metal detector. A tall woman with glasses and flyaway hair that matches her restless energy, Bounds is a familiar figure to most of the staff, having been coming to teach at the maximum-security women’s prison for some seven years.
The fourteen students in Bounds’ creative writing class are already assembled when she arrives, seated in a rough circle on shabby couches and chairs. Although all wear brown prison-issue jumpsuits, some have on makeup and jewelry—rewards for good behavior.
A prisoner with short iron-gray hair and glasses offers to begin the class by reading a passage by a teacher about why her students write. Thus inspired, the class take time to do their own writing on the topic “why I write.” For ten minutes, the only sounds are the scratching of pens and a vacuum droning just outside the door.
“I write to cleanse my soul, to keep out what lies beneath my heart,” begins one, when it is time to share what they have written. Another says, “I write to smile inside . . . and to make another child smile, too.” “I write because it is a way of getting God’s message across.” “I write to break into the abdomen of truth and set the abominations free,” says another. A woman with an elaborate rose tattoo on her forearm, reads, “I write because it puts me in my own world, where I can’t be defeated—not even by a misspelled word or a punctuation mark.”
Bounds praises all their efforts, making specific comments about each one. When the exercise is over, the class turns its attention to a poem a woman with a long, lank ponytail has written, entitled simply “Prison.” The piece is a rhythmic catalogue of the monotonous routine of prison life: You wonder if you’re counted for in a place like this. You sure are—you’re counted seven times a day.
Bounds works closely with Susan (affectionately known as “Chap”) Bishop 75T, who has served as the prison chaplain at Metro State for twenty years, to create educational programs for the prisoners that complement and enrich the process of reform. In February, Candler sponsored a major conference on prison ministry, a key focus of the school’s Contextual Education Department. Candler students are required to serve two years of contextual placement at a community or clinical site, and faculty must teach periodic contextualized courses.
Bishop described her role as prison chaplain in a 1996 interview with Emory Magazine. “In the middle of what can be a chaotic and frightening situation,” she said, “my main goal is to provide sanctuary, a safe context in which the inmates can be themselves and say what they really feel, work out their problems, confront and love each other, and become sort of a surrogate family. If you do this time rather than the time doing you, then perhaps you’ll wind up with a better self than when you came in here, and you can turn this experience into a blessing in your life.”
Such self-exploration, creative expression, and bonding with one another are exactly what Bounds is trying to foster in her writing class. “I’m still looking for an exercise that gets you to talk about emotion, using metaphor to get at feelings,” she says, passing around handouts from a book about poetry as the class winds down.
Bounds says she has many of these women open up and explore both their creativity and their spirituality over the years. It helps, she believes, that they have come to trust her—mainly because she continues to show up. “After a while,” she says, “they realize you’re coming back.”—P.P.P.