ASU student works to improve the writing skills of inmates

Winter Roth works with incarcerated people to help prepare them for life after prison

Winter Roth, a senior studying psychology, is helping prisoners learn new skills and improve their writing through the classes she teaches at the Arizona Department of Corrections Perryville and by mail correspondence with prisoners seeking advice on their creative work.

During the spring semester of 2018, Roth was asked by Cornelia Wells to volunteer with the ASU Pen Project, a project that connects prisoners to ASU students for writing counseling and education. As a Barrett, the Honors College student, she was offered the unique opportunity to teach a class at the men’s correctional facility in Globe, Arizona.

After teaching multiple classes at the men’s correctional facility, she started her extended work at the Perryville women’s prison with Veronica Gutierrez, a curriculum and course manager at ASU's Public Service Academy.

“I came in kind of last minute (and Roth) had already basically planned the structure of the class, and then I came in to provide content,” Gutierrez said. “We focused on writing skills in the sense that we had them doing resumes and cover letters and then interview practice."

Teaching the ladies at Perryville proved more difficult than college career preparatory class. Internet access was not allowed, and all classwork had to be done by hand.

“We had to bring templates for resumes so that they could use those, and it was difficult because we could bring in examples, but it’s just harder without being able to use the internet and show them and have them type it up a lot faster,” Roth said.

Despite difficulties with working with limited resources, the classes served the women greatly by helping them value their own experiences, Gutierrez said.

“It was good to teach them in prison that jobs that they have in there are jobs they can use on their resume to show people that they’ve really done work within the walls and be able to use it when they get out,” Roth said.

Before the classes started at Perryville, Roth realized how much she could help someone seeking advice on their writing.

“The very first time I ever did written feedback, I responded to one of the prisoners, and his poem was very moving; it was probably still the best piece I ever read and it was the first piece I read,” Roth said. “He wrote a long letter about how my response to him was inspirational and how he had been thinking about ways to make his (writing) better, but he couldn’t really comprehend it in his mind.”

That prisoner, Roth said, went on to submit his poem to Iron City Magazine, an ASU-run online and print journal that displays the writing and art of the incarcerated in Arizona.

Roth did not consider helping the incarcerated until one of her family members became incarcerated during the time Wells, a mentor to Roth, reached out to her and asked her to intern for the project.

“One of the things (my relative) requested when he got in there was books, and he was the type of person who barely graduated high school, and we were worried he wasn’t going to be able to find a job,” Roth said. “Once he was incarcerated, he really switched and did want to read and did want to learn, and it kind of clicked for me that that’s important for these people to be able to have that opportunity.”

Roth’s work is respected by many in the program, even people who did not work directly with her such as co-advisor of the program, Naala Brewer.

“She’s very motivated, Brewer said. "She takes initiative on things and is a hard worker. A lot of people would give up after a while even if they did feel good about what they’re doing, (but) she keeps going and keeps contributing to the program in many different ways.”

Roth is not sure whether she wants to work with the prison system in her professional life after college but is considering it more seriously now after her involvement with the Pen Project.

“I want to do pharmacy when I (graduate), and I’m considering prison pharmacy now just because of the experience that I’ve had,” Roth said.


Reach the reporter at tmlane3@asu.edu or follow @tmflane on Twitter.

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