Posted by Sharon Schendel on Jun 11, 2018
Paul and Lori Sutton with a poster for their documentary: "Straight from the Pen" that tells the story of the writing program that Dr. Sutton started for prisoners in California correctional facilities
Paul Sutton, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at San Diego State University, began his presentation on May 31, 2018 with some grim statistics:  in the United States nearly 1% of the population is incarcerated. Despite the billions of dollar spent, recidivism rates are more than 50%.  Very little money is spent on rehabilitation programs, even though most prisoners will eventually be released.
Dr. Sutton noted that most prisoners fail to see the value of communication and the benefits it can bring.  He wanted to change that mindset. He approached the warden of Richard J. Donovan (RJD) Correctional Facility Daniel Paramo to discuss the possibility of launching a writing program at the prison- Warden Paramo liked the idea. Dr. Sutton’s program began with 24 lifers and 12 SDSU Corrections Majors who met for four hours, once a week for 16 weeks. In contrast to much of prison life, in which most activities are mandatory, the writing program was voluntary, and participants had to apply for a spot. 
The program asked the participants to honor three rules:  Be honest, Be truthful, Respect each other and the audience. For the latter, the program insisted that the new writers learn grammar, elements of style, word choice, and, most importantly, the value of simplicity.  There was a weekly assignment and each participant had to read his essay aloud, which was a source of apprehension for some, since prisoners are reluctant to show weakness or fear. Indeed, their first essay assignment was about insecurity- and it had to be their own insecurity, not someone else’s. Yet through these writing assignments the behavior of the participants changed- the men began to help each other with their writing and to support them as they expressed deep-seated fears. 
Dr. Sutton and his wife, Lori, made a documentary about the project, Straight from the Pen, which has won several awards. They also compiled an anthology of the essays the prisoners wrote in the program. Among prisoners who attended the writing classes, and have since been paroled, none have returned to prison. One prisoner featured on the documentary, Melvin, summed up the benefits he gained from the writing class: “When I write, I’m free.”