Ellen Stackable wanted to create a space where women could feel safe, but she faced a big challenge.
She was trying to create that safe space in one of the least safe spaces imaginable: prison.
Stackable has dedicated the past 20 years to helping students find their voice through writing. She has taught English at the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences since 2001, but the women in this class differ from the sea of teenage faces she typically spends her days with. They are more inquisitive than her usual students, more appreciative and, often, more willing to take a risk, even though some of them have never written before.
In 2014, Stackable founded Poetic Justice, a nonprofit that offers restorative writing workshops emphasizing hope, voice and the power of change to incarcerated women.
“Our classes are looking at who you were, who you are today and who you want to become,” Stackable said.
Poetic Justice launched in the Tulsa County Jail in March 2014 as a small operation that included Stackable and about five volunteers who came to the jail twice a week. Over the past five years, they have expanded to every women’s prison in Oklahoma and reached more than 2,000 incarcerated women.
The classes last six to eight weeks, and the Poetic Justice volunteers collect the women’s handwritten poems each week to type up. On the last week of class, volunteers spend their own money to print the collection of poems in a book they hand out at graduation. It was important to Stackable that the women in her classes be able to tell friends and family they are officially published poets by the time they graduate from the Poetic Justice program.
“It’s amazing. For a lot of them, not only have they never seen their name in print,” Stackable said. “Many of them have never finished anything before.”
Stackable’s efforts to bring healing and meaning into the lives of women in Oklahoma prisons led her to be honored as a top 10 CNN Hero in 2018. But if you ask her about the award, or about her TEDx talk, she will say, “It’s not about me. It’s about getting the story of these women to other people because, honestly, they inspire me.”
It all started in 2013, when Stackable was researching her graduate thesis at OU. She learned Oklahoma imprisons women at twice the national average, at a rate of 151 out of every 100,000. That’s more women per capita than any other state in the country ― a record Oklahoma has held for almost 25 years. She said she was also disturbed to learn that roughly 80 percent of these women are locked up for nonviolent offenses.
Stackable immediately knew something had to be done, although at the time she had no idea what that “something” would be.
A passionate writer and teacher, Stackable said she has “always been hardwired with the power of voice and helping students find their voice through writing.” So that’s where she started.
A Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences colleague told Stackable about a spoken word poetry night he put on at the Tulsa County Jail, and she thought this was perfect. She attended and asked if anyone was working on a similar program with women and was told no one was. Going by the jail’s rulebook, women were allowed to help with men’s classes, but men were not allowed to assist women’s programs.
Stackable began brainstorming. While she said she enjoyed the spoken word poetry nights, she wanted to create a program that was “more therapeutic and restorative,” since most women incarcerated in Oklahoma have been victims of domestic and childhood abuse.
If she was going to make a difference, she felt she would need to cultivate a safe place where women could overcome their trauma and pain and open up to one another.
“The reason I love poetry is it has this wonderful no-rules writing style, so even people who have never written before find themselves writing,” Stackable said. “And as they start to write from the heart, pen to the page, healing inevitably comes, and so does an incredible eloquence.”
Many of the poems written during Poetic Justice workshops focus on transformative moments and self-reflection, like “Dear Younger Me,” by a woman known as M.G., which reads:
“There will come a time in your life when you think that life isn’t fair and you want to quit.
Don’t do it.
It gets better.
There will be a time in your life when you think the bad people in your life won’t go away.
Don’t do it.
It gets better.
There comes a time in your life when you fall deeply in love, but the love of your life doesn’t feel the same.
Please don’t do it.
It does get better.
There comes a time in your life when you break, and you think that your life isn’t worth living. Please don’t do it.
It really does get better.
There comes a time in your life when you are urged to slow down and are eventually forced to stop. Find the glue and piece yourself back together. Spend time finding yourself, and then thank God that you didn’t do it, because it did get better.
Because you got better.”
Although Stackable now believes people “would be blown away at some of the poems these women write,” she said she did not initially anticipate how talented many of her students would be when she launched Poetic Justice.
Walking into the Tulsa County Jail five years ago, Stackable said she came with “all kinds of implicit biases” that have since been proven unfounded.
“I assumed they would not be very literate, and I was wrong,” Stackable said. “I assumed I would feel unsafe a lot of the time, and I never did.”
In fact, Stackable said that throughout her 20 years of teaching, incarcerated women have been the best, most gracious students she’s ever had.
“They are so grateful, they’re so focused in on the moment, so attentive, and it makes it hard sometimes honestly to go back to teach high school the next day,” Stackable said. “Like you guys, you don’t know how lucky you are.”
Hanna Al-Jibouri, president of the Poetic Justice board of directors and volunteer coordinator, was a student of Stackable’s in high school. Afterward, Al-Jibouri attended Hendrix College before moving back to Tulsa to teach elementary school. She said she was scrolling through Facebook one day when she came across a post from her former English teacher asking if anyone was interested in accompanying her to Tulsa County Jail to teach writing classes.
Al-Jibouri was part of the original group, and she said she had no idea what to expect the first time she stepped into Tulsa County Jail.
Five years ago, she could never have anticipated the deep connections she would cultivate with many of her students, Al-Jibouri said. Often, the most challenging part about her job is remembering to focus on the positive changes she is helping create in these women’s lives rather than dwelling on the unfair circumstances that landed many of her students in prison.
“I could choose to get really jaded, but the truth of it is to remember, 'What do I have in my control? What power do I have, and how am I using that power?'" Al-Jibouri said. "Yes, sometimes of course it’s very difficult, but rather than staying in that state, you have to think, 'OK. How can my power help in this situation to make it better?' It’s a lot of learning how to balance those feelings because they’re very real, they’re always there, they never leave.”
For Al-Jibouri, the most fulfilling part of working with incarcerated women is getting to know them on a personal level and forming meaningful relationships with women like Sophia Carbajal.
Carbajal had been incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center ― a maximum security prison in McLoud, Oklahoma, known for having the highest sexual violence rate of any female prison in the country ― for almost five years when she met Stackable in November 2016. The pair met only three days before Carbajal was paroled.
Most of the women at Mabel Bassett at the time were familiar with Stackable even if they hadn’t taken her classes, Carbajal said. This was largely because Poetic Justice filmed the documentary “Grey Matter” there.
Stackable believes it’s not a coincidence that prisons are often situated in rural, sparsely populated areas. It’s intentional because people don’t want to see prisoners. People don’t want to know what’s happening, Stackable said.
Mabel Bassett, which is in Pottawatomie County, is no exception. That’s part of why the Poetic Justice team filmed their documentary there.
“It’s harder to throw somebody in a prison in some rural place that you’ve never seen if you start to see them as human beings,” Stackable said. “If people could recognize who these people are ― that they’re not just people who have done something wrong so they deserve everything that’s coming to them, but people who have done something wrong who almost always regret it and want more than anything to live past that.”
The film explores how Oklahoma leads the country for female incarceration rates. It shows how writing has served as a creative, therapeutic outlet for the women at Mabel Bassett and interviews legislators, employees and volunteers at the prison, as well as inmates.
Carbajal, who struggled with substance abuse and was sentenced to prison for drug trafficking, said programs like Poetic Justice are essential to helping incarcerated women be able to express their feelings and discover where their struggles come from.
“Most of the women that I was incarcerated with have gone through such abuse, such trauma that has haunted them for a majority of their life, which caused them to start with drugs and alcohol,” Carbajal said. “And these women in prison, many of us had that in common. I think they need counseling, they need more programs that will help them have healing through all that they have been through.”
At 39, Carbajal was sentenced to 15 years. She was released on parole five years into her sentence and now works as the manager at She Brews Coffee House in Claremore, which employs formerly incarcerated women and helps give them the second chance Carbajal feels she was given.
Carbajal believes that if more incarcerated women have access to programs like Poetic Justice, they will be able to reunite with their families and hold steady jobs once they’re released, just like she has.
“It’s hard for many who have been abused to verbally express what we went through, and writing helps you. It’s a form of release, and it’s a form of healing,” Carbajal said. “It’s just amazing, the work Ellen does ― that someone could be a voice for the voiceless.”
Carbajal has accompanied Stackable to events to talk about what it’s like to be incarcerated and share the power of voice and writing. Stackable hopes Poetic Justice will help more women like Carbajal work through their trauma to find healing and lead fulfilling lives outside of prison.
Poetic Justice currently offers writing workshops at the Tulsa County Jail, Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, Turley Correctional Center and Kate Bernard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City. It also offers classes at Las Colinas Detention Facility in San Diego and at La Esperanza in Tijuana, Mexico.
Stackable’s long-term goal is to bring restorative writing programs to every facility in Oklahoma and create a foundation that will allow others to start these types of programs throughout the country.
In 2014, Stackable thought she would be the one helping students heal, but she has learned that healing goes both ways.
About a month after her mother died, Stackable went to class at Mabel Bassett ― not realizing her students had somehow found out about her mother’s death.
When she arrived, she said around 25 women were waiting in the yard, ready to shower Stackable with love and affirmation.
“I think what got to me is that they don’t have that luxury themselves. They don’t get to be at the side of a family member when they die, they don’t even really have space to mourn, and yet they were willing to extend that to me,” Stackable said. “It was really really touching.”
“As somebody who grew up with five brothers and no sisters, I felt like I had sisters.”