Tuesdays in Jail

What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates

Tina Welling
New World Library ($17.95)

by George Longenecker                                  

When she volunteered to teach weekly writing workshops at the Teton County Jail in Jackson, Wyoming, Tina Welling had little idea what she was getting into. She had never been in jail or visited anyone in jail.  As metal doors clanked open and shut, guards escorted her to her first class and watched her every move. Yet, before long, she found that a rewarding experience was in store for both her new students and herself.

Welling’s memoir is introspective and practical. A novelist and the author of Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature (New World Library, 2014), Welling brings her writing talent to Tuesdays in Jail, which is beautifully descriptive and fast-paced. She looks at reasons the men there are incarcerated and guides them in self-reflection. She also offers practical advice for others who might want to tutor incarcerated people.

It's not easy for a nature writer to adapt to being inside a bleak prison—the Teton County Jail offers a stark contrast to the natural beauty of Wyoming.  Usually, Welling’s meetings are held in a group circle, overseen by a guard. Occasionally, though, she is locked on one side of a glass partition, with her student confined on the other side:

Each of the five doors needed keys or a code in order to pass through; each was made of thick metal and slammed closed with a deep clang that echoed off the cement block walls.  My stomach tightened with discomfort as each door shut with finality behind me.  I couldn’t find my way out of this place even if I held the ring of keys and the memory of codes.

Though she never feels comfortable in the sterile jail, Welling finds solace in helping her students access hope through writing. She assigns them philosophical and pragmatic prompts: “Choose three . . . characteristics that you’d like to strengthen within yourself, and write them down.”

While Welling knows she can’t fix her students’ pasts, she sees how her classes can affect their wellbeing and mental health—and even their chances of ending up in state prison. She ends up fighting to get the Teton County Sherriff’s Department to make policy changes so that those about to conclude their jail term are not cut off from the communities they’ll soon reenter.

Tuesdays in Jail includes a workbook of fifteen journaling lessons that a prospective volunteer could use for a class with incarcerated people, and throughout the book, Welling reflects on her own life and self-confidence. These reflections, along with non-judgmental sketches of her students, make for a beautifully written memoir that is a must-read for anyone living, working, or thinking of volunteering in prison.    

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