The NWUSO (Workers Write) sponsors a series of ongoing writing classes for a range of groups to amplify unheard voices. A year ago NWUSO–—the non-profit arm of the National Writers Union (NWU)—began an ongoing writing workshop with Beyond the Bars.

It’s an 11-year-old program started by Cheryl Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin at the Columbia School of Social Work, and is by, for and about formerly incarcerated women. The workshop, itself, was created by Roslyn Smith, a writer who spent 39 years in prison. The writers meet every Tuesday and, since April, have gathered virtually via Zoom.

Talented writers describe their lives in many ways. Ros, who is also a new NWU member, is working on a memoir. In addition, she helps coordinate a national program with V. (formerly Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues), so that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women can write and tell their stories.

Here’s Ros’ story:
What I Did Then:
“I would wake each morning at 5:30 am to the shouts On the Count, where we inmates were all counted. There are three live counts by the guards every day, and you would have to show that you were moving and alive. I would hobble sleepy eyed and disoriented to the cell door, and place my hand in the 5 X 7 window to ensure the officer included me.

“At night I would meticulously place books at the base of my cell door and stuff as many towels into the 2-inch crack, sealing both with packing tape to ensure mice would not enter my cell and send me into a state of panic.

“I used to run to the shower area as soon as the doors opened at 7 a.m. to be among the first four people to take my shower, knowing that it was cleaned the night before, and yet still spraying disinfectant over every inch just to be sure.

“I used to wait for the call for the 8 o’clock movement line when all inmates can move between their programs. Movement is very confined. If you miss the movement line you can’t move. Often the line was not on time, instead running behind by 5, 10 and occasionally 15 minutes.

“I used to dream of the day that I would be set free, thinking it was only a fantasy. But low and behold, that day finally came, and now I’m free from worrying about what used to be me.

“What I do now:
Zoom meetings day and night. Everyone has to connect in some way and that’s what our world has come to now. ‘Zoom I’d Like to Fly Away’ by the Commodores was one of my favorite songs, but now I’m seriously questioning this. Hard to hear the word ‘Zoom’. I’m tired of living on the computer, and worried about when life will get back to normal.

“I don’t know what normal is anymore. What do we do now? That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to move and change with time. Tomorrow everything could fade away, and then we’d move on to the next new normal day.”

Beyond the Bars is working with women in New York, Maine, and Indiania. The hope is to expand to 20 states by Spring 2021. In New York, there’s a new email-run course offered at Bedford Hills Prison. For more information about the program, contact Esther Cohen at