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Brothers in Pen: Creative writing from San Quentin

When we think of prison, most of us don’t think of it as a place where people go to get an education or to learn how to express themselves. But the arts have been part of the California prison system since 1977. Even though state funding for these programs was completely cut in 2003, nonprofits have kept some of the programs alive. One of those programs is Brothers in Pen--a creative writing class for San Quentin inmates, taught by Zoe Mullery.

“Doing art causes you to be self-reflective in a way that causes you to think about what it means to be a human being,” says Mullery. “And I think that it's that kind of self-inquiry that may be part of what helps someone take a different path when they're on the other side of the wall.”

Even though proponents argue that the arts help prisoners reform themselves, Mullery says prison officials can be in a difficult position when deciding whether or not to allow these kinds of classes.

“It's very hard because on the one hand, people want rehabilitation, and on the other hand, they want inmates to be punished,” she says. “So if they're publishing an anthology and it gets on the radio, and someone talks about it, and says something nice about it, someone's going to give the prison some flack and say, what are those inmates doing getting creative writing class? Their victims don't get creative writing classes for free."

Every year, students in Mullery’s class hold a public reading of their work inside San Quentin. In this story from our archives, Noble Butler reads an excerpt of his story “I Am.”

To hear the full reading, click on the audio link above.

Brothers in Pen is holding their annual public reading this Saturday, November 15, 2014. To learn more, visit their website. 


This story originally aired on July 25, 2013.

Crosscurrents San Quentin