Conversation Shaper: Writing, Incarceration, and Healing in the Writing Center

DeCedrick Walker, North Park University
Melissa Pavlik, North Park University

Framing Statement

(Melissa): I met DeCedrick Walker in August 2019 when he began his MA in Restorative Justice Ministry studies through North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts (SRA) at Stateville Correctional Center. After attending weekly study halls at the prison hosted by our dual-campus university writing center (incarcerated tutors housed at Stateville and non-incarcerated tutors from Chicago), Ced applied to be a Writing Advisor and completed the tutor training class I teach all Writing Advisors their first semester of work in our writing center. The writing Ced and his peers have produced in our Stateville tutor training courses has taught me, essentially, how to teach writing and how to train tutors. I rely on Stateville students’ papers for insight when challenged by situations on our Chicago campus, assign these papers in my tutor training courses, and publish such work in Feather Bricks, the bi-monthly SRA newsletter which over 250 incarcerated students receive, and outside readers can access from our writing center and SRA websites. So, when Ced mentioned his aim to research connections between writing and healing in carceral spaces and writing center work, I began sending him related literature through written correspondence—our pandemic form of conversation. Over the course of six months, this idea of how writing and healing related to writing center work took shape through the literature represented in our bibliography.

(Ced): Writing center scholarship by those such as Steven North, Kenneth Bruffee, and Peter Elbow serves as roots for the more contemporary sources in the bibliography that follows. Steven North (1984) has been accredited with introducing the idea that the job of a writing center is “to produce better writers, not better writing” (p. 438). By extension, Writing Advisors who are guided by North’s model approach tutoring with that end in mind. As an incarcerated student who enjoys tutoring and being tutored toward that end, I submit that engagement in the tutoring process in carceral settings inextricably includes the improvement of incarcerated writers’ mental health. In addition to tutoring writing in carceral settings leading to the improvement of mental health of both the tutor and tutee, I argue that a closer look at published scholarship on topics where the fields of trauma studies, carceral studies, and writing center studies intersect can not only benefit parties from all fields involved, but also unearth insights which will substantiate incarcerated persons’ claims of rehabilitation.

Mental health has always been a critical issue in my life, mainly due to the traumatic circumstances I had been birthed into, and partly due to the overall impact of spending twenty plus years in carceral settings comprised of unhealthy thinkers who seek to improve their thinking without the benefits of a healthy communal standard or a certified curative method. Mental health improves when one is taught how to think in a healthy way; moreover, to think in a healthy way is to distinctly internalize the conversation of a healthy community. Since “writing is internalized conversation re-externalized” (Bruffee, 1984, p. 641), it follows then that the re-externalization process allows writers to discover positive communal values and the community to determine whether one’s writing adequately reflects such values. Peter Elbow (1988) taught two kinds of thinking/writing: first-order thinking and second-order thinking. The former is thinking/writing that “is intuitive and creative and doesn’t strive for conscious direction or control” (p. 55). This uncensored process is designed to allow for the free flow of words to guide our thinking to feelings and connections we are not overtly cognizant of. 

Second-order thinking, as defined by Elbow (1988), is “conscious, directed…committed to accuracy and strives for logic and control: we examine our premises and assess the validity of each inference” (p. 55). In other words, when critical thinking is applied to the feelings and connections uncovered from the creative process in a proactive way, writers can learn to what degree our thinking has become unhealthy; furthermore, we can change the direction of our thinking towards a healthy communal standard. In this context, becoming a better writer and improving mental health act interchangeably. The creative process allows for a deliberate reflection of, for instance, any anxiety we may feel or, with respect to rehabilitation, the crime that led to current incarceration. Moreover, this process allows those who commit crimes to deliberately reflect not only on the reactions of the victims traumatized by such crimes, but also on the overall impact from the incarceration that ensued. More emphatically, applying writing as a curative method allows for a healthy community to deliberately reflect on whether an incarcerated writer’s mental health has improved and rehabilitation has been achieved as a consequence of becoming a better writer. 

(Melissa): I would like to draw readers’ attention to the more contemporary sources in our bibliography I call “Stateville Scholarship.” These pieces were produced by authors who teach and tutor writing in this particular carceral setting of a maximum-security prison where a good number of men have the opportunity to enroll in degree-granting higher educational programming; moreover, Stateville to me has become a place where I have witnessed a lot of writing and healing. The essays by Moore (2019), Rios (2020), and Sampson (2020) are by incarcerated writing tutors who are also completing a graduate degree that focuses on restorative arts and justice practices. Agovino’s blog post (2020) highlights cross-collaboration between incarcerated and non-incarcerated tutors in the form of co-producing a bimonthly newsletter that reaches inside and outside audiences. Hazel and Ross’ work (2021) highlights formerly incarcerated student writers’ voices to describe the restorative-centered pedagogy of Dr. Margaret Burroughs (1925-2010), who taught writing at Stateville for decades.


Agovino, D. (2020, Oct 16). New beginnings: A dual campus writing center. Connecting Writing Centers across Borders: A Blog of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship.

Anderson, C. M., & MacCurdy, M. M. (2000). Writing and healing: Toward an informed practice. National Council of Teachers of English.

Bond, C., & Osborne, C. (2020). Emotional labor, postnatal writerly identity: Postpartum depression and the writing center. The Peer Review, 4(0).

Bruffee, K. (1984). Collaborative learning and the conversation of mankind. College English, 46(7), 635-652.

Driscoll, D.L., & Wells, J. (2020). Tutoring the whole person: Supporting emotional development in writers and tutors. Praxis, 17(3), 16-28.

Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process. Oxford UP.                                

Feather Bricks: The Official Newsletter of North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts, 1-5.

Giaimo, G.N. (Ed.). (2021). Wellness and care in writing center work. United States of America: Press Books. matter/wellness-and-care-in-writing-center-work/

Hazel, S.H., & Ross, S. (Eds.). (2021). Our Tuesday girl: An unfurling for Dr. Margaret T. G. Burroughs. Project NIA.

Lengelle, R., & Meijers, F. (2009). Mystery to mastery: An explanation of what happens in the black box of writing and healing. Journal of Poetry Therapy 22(2), 57-75.

Molloy, C. (2016). Multimodal composing as healing: Toward a new model of writing as healing courses. Composition Studies, 44(2), 134-152.

Moore, S. (2019, June 18). Collaborative learning in a prison context. Axis: The Blog.

Murray, B. (2002). Writing to heal. Monitor on Psychology, 33(6), 54.

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English 46(5), 433-446.

Ornstein, A. (2006). Artistic creativity and the healing process. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 26(3), 386-406.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162- 166.

Pavlik, M. (2020). Three C’s of Stateville. Writing Lab Newsletter: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 45(1-2), 2-9.

Pinhasi-Vittiorio, L. (2018). Writing, sharing, and healing: The interplay of literacy in the healing journey of the recovering from substance abuse. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 31(4), 209-223.

Pytash, K.E., & Jian Li (2014). The writing dispositions of youth in a juvenile detention center. Journal of Correctional Education, 65(3), 24-42. 

Rios, B. (2020). A writing center in prison: The value of collaborative learning. Writing Lab Newsletter: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 45(1-2), 26-29.

Robinson, R., LeClair, S., & Pouncil, F. (2020). Empowering the process: Redefining tutor training towards embodied restorative justice. The Peer Review, 4(2).

Sampson, R. (2020, April 1). Building with someone. Axis: The Blog.

Shelledy, Maggie. (2019, Dec 18). If it hadn’t been for writing, I think I would have lost my mind: Resilient dwelling and rhetorical agency in prison writing. Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture.

Smyth, J., & Lepore, S.J. (2002). The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Thibodeau, A. (2020, May 4). The humanities need a better understanding of the human condition. The Dangling Modifier.

Tibaldi, G., & Govers, L. (2016). How can we foster the right to healing? A literary contest to gather and publicize “recovery stories.” International Journal of Mental Health, 45(1): 89-96.

Where Do We Go From Here?

(Ced): As an incarcerated writer, I am appalled that publication choices in writing center journals do not reflect consideration for how the intersectionality of trauma studies, carceral studies, and articles by incarcerated writers could contribute significantly to scholarship in both study and practice. This disposition is analogous to the owner of a house foreseeing that their kitchen would need a stove, their bedroom a bed, but failing to see why the living room would need a couch! The fact of the matter is trauma studies and carceral studies are developed by writers. It is possible that writers developed these disciplines of study in writing centers, even, and so the earth continues to turn on its axis. What would be more distinct than when, compared to societal norms, an oxymoronic or even ironic instance in which trauma survivors and perpetrators of trauma give more voice to an already diverse scholarship? Furthermore, what insights would prove invaluable to restorative justice efforts if, in part, the people whom justice seeks to restore provide concrete justification for being restored?

One unique fact in my struggle with mental health is that I was 41 years old and had already spent 20 years in carceral settings when I learned my early emotional and fine motor skills development had been significantly delayed due to a severe case of maternal deprivation. The worst part of that experience is not that I had not been informed of those delays prior to my incarcerations, but that loved ones as well as educational and penal institutions held me to standards that suggested such delays had not occurred. I averaged a “D” in English and Language Arts as an 8th grader when I was detained in a juvenile detention center for the first time. From that day forward, I saw the insides of detention centers and prison cells with other at-risk youth, some of which I have grown up with and are currently housed with me in the same prison. During my 20 years of incarceration, it has occurred to me that becoming a better writer improved my mental health and helped me achieve rehabilitation. 

Thus, where we go from here is to further develop the distinct voices of the many who continue to live their lives uninformed about traumatic experiences and their overall impact which likely contributed to their incarceration, to develop the voices of the many who unwittingly participated in the school to prison pipeline social structure, to develop the voices of the many who would have it no other way but offer deepest apologies to families they have offended against, and to offer guidance to the youth similarly situated at the crossroads before they take the path that leads to death by incarceration. I would like to read studies on how incarcerated writers could help their communities heal or how incarcerated writers can contribute to rehabilitation practices and philosophies.

When applied to carceral settings, an engagement in the tutoring process involving incarcerated tutors and tutees creates the opportunity for several different fields of study to converge. Upon converging, an innate intersectionality involving the improvement of incarcerated writers’ mental health through writing center methods and the fields of trauma studies, carceral studies, and writing center studies is triggered in a way which allows for a closer look at each field’s public scholarship. Each field’s scholarship will benefit from one another’s and will also allow for unearthing evidence that supports incarcerated persons’ claims of rehabilitation. With respect to the owner of the house failing to see why the living room would need a couch, it is important to note the couch is not invalidated because of the owner’s lack of foresight on how the house would benefit from such an investment. Therefore, incarcerated writers should continue to write fervently while being armed with the knowledge that our bodies are couched in material information pertinent to the betterment of our larger society, socially developing in an unequal but equitable way. After all, our experiences as incarcerated writers are only our experiences if we tell them in our own words. Otherwise, our stories will suffer death by incarceration.