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Prison writing workshop helping Indiana inmates make sense of past, plan for future

Indiana Prison Writers Workshop
Posted at 12:19 PM, May 13, 2021

MADISON COUNTY, Ind. — For 11 years, Debra Des Vignes spent her career out in the field in communities across the country as a television news reporter.

Des Vignes' main focus was covering crime and courts. She began volunteering inside a correctional facility and noticed the talent and creativity behind the walls.

"I thought, 'what a great idea to be able to channel someone's thoughts and make sense of the past and plan for the future, in the form of writing,'" she said.

She developed a 12-week curriculum and officially launched it in 2018. It's called the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop.

The program teaches inmates in four different prisons across Central Indiana, including the Plainfield, Putnamville and Pendleton Correctional Facilities as well as the Correctional Industrial Facility in Madison County.

In 2020, Des Vignes received a grant from the Central Indiana Racial Equity Fund. The money has allowed her to expand the workshop virtually to help inmates once they are released.

Calvin Sarver spent 24 years at the Plainfield Correctional Facility for voluntary manslaughter. During his time there, he was the school clerk, which is how he found out about the workshop and got involved.

"I will have to say I just think more now. I value life now. Before I didn't really value life, I just was going through life," he said.

One of the first stories he wrote was about the birds in the prison.

"How they fly into the prison and they stay there and they can leave whenever they want to, and how I wish I was a bird — that I could fly away and not be there," Sarver said.

He credits the workshop with helping him develop a better relationship with his family and allowing him to open up.

"As far as employment, they taught me the values of having a job versus the street life. Street life, yeah, you have your moments, your ups and downs; it never lasts for long," Sarver said.

Des Vignes says for her, the workshop has taught her lessons about understanding others and the importance of second chances.

"Taking each day in stride and not taking life for granted," she said.

Through the program, Des Vignes has helped more than 80 inmates and now virtually has the ability to help even more.

The deadline for the second and final round of grants through the Central Indiana Racial Equity Fund is May 14, For more information click here.

This story was originally published by Nicole Griffin at WRTV.