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As a teenager Elizabeth Canfield, a VCU gender, sexuality and women’s study professor, began writing to a pen-pal who was incarcerated in Texas. Today she still writes to inmates across the country, but has lost touch with her original pen-pal.
“We only wrote a few times, he kind of disappeared and I couldn’t find him. He probably got transferred because he was in for life,” Canfield said.
Talking to inmates about her classes, bands she has seen or what she does on weekends, she said that they regain a fraction of the connection to the outside world that is lost during incarceration, and they teach her about different parts of the country, family and life inside the prison.
Canfield said that correspondence is “its own form of activism.” In fall 2011 Canfield became more involved with activism in the world of correctional facilities when she began teaching at the Richmond City Jail through a VCU program called Open Minds started by David Coogan, a professor in the VCU English department.
The program brings together VCU students, faculty, inmates and other community members for classes, workshops and a distraction from daily life. As far as Canfield knows it is the first program of its kind in Virginia.
“When you’re in jail, just the ability to get into a room with some other people and laugh is a really radical thing,” Canfield said. “It’s not a big deal to us, we do it all the time, but you don’t get to do that when you’re in jail.”
She said preparing people to work in this environment is an important part of what she does, but it can still be overwhelming for some at first.
“It’s impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t been,” she said. “It hits you emotionally on all kinds of levels. It makes you deeply sad, it makes you really anxious, it makes you feel guilty to get to leave. It makes you supremely angry that we live in a culture that does this to people.”
These feelings are countered by the elation people feel while in the workshop she says.
This past January the Open Minds program received a $25,000 Quest grant from VCU, which the university gives to people or organizations that help them “achieve their strategic plan,” as is stated on the Quest Innovation Fund website.
With that money the Open Minds program has expanded beyond the boundaries of the jail house to create Sanctuary, which Canfield referred to as “a non-judgmental space where people come to learn.”
She said it is a place where inmates will be welcome, along with anyone else in the community. It will offer free class, study rooms, help with getting GEDs and a music recording studio, among other features. It’s so new that they don’t know what it will truly end up being, Canfield said.
Currently, Sanctuary meets at Black Iris Gallery in Richmond. Meetings consist mostly of sharing writing. Anyone is welcome, but there are rules for attendance: sobriety is required, don’t apologize for your work and don’t judge others for what they write about.
When the grant money is gone in a year Sanctuary has to be able to fully fund itself. First, they are applying to become a nonprofit organization, which will help significantly. Then they are going to rely on crowd funding to help keep the space open and running, said Canfield.
Expanding the program to other correctional facilities is currently not an option, Canfield said. There are a lot of teachers who want to help with the program, but the university doesn’t allow them to teach any class they want. So instead of expanding they are going to focus on making what they have the best they can.
“We kick ass for how few people are involved,” Canfield said.
The next Sanctuary meeting at Black Iris is Nov. 6.