Exchange for Change

Exchange for Change: Building bridges and planting the seeds of empathy

Exchange for Change teaches writing in prisons and facilitates guided anonymous writing exchanges between incarcerated students and students attending high schools and universities. Their courses foster creative and critical expression, improve literacy and communication skills, and provide an increased sense of personal and community identity. Through student engagement, community publications, exhibits, and public events, E4C allows the voices of incarcerated writers to be heard. This work creates the conditions for success, empathy, and advocacy in and outside of prison.

E4C began as one writing class at Dade Correctional Institution (DCI) in Summer 2014. That fall, they established their Board of Directors and held their first anonymous writing exchange program with UM students. 

Their subsequent growth speaks to their success. E4C now teaches at multiple correctional institutions in Miami-Dade County for both adults and youth, and they plan to offer more than 35 courses over the next six months. Their growing course selection includes a core writing course; legal writing workshops; English and Spanish-language writing exchanges; classes on journalism, rhetoric, debate, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting; and creative writing classes in Spanish. Many of these courses would not be available without the support of UM administration and faculty. 

The University of Miami: A partner in innovation and exchange

Incarcerated Exchange for Change writers in exchange classes engage in a written dialog with students taking classes offered in three different departments at UM in addition to students taking classes at three other academic institutions. Both groups of students (those inside and outside of prison) are assigned common texts and prompts, and their respective teachers coordinate anonymous exchanges of written responses. Following that initial exchange, these students engage in a dialog comprised of multiple rounds of letters, sometimes with the intermittent introduction of new shared material. 

Students from UM who have partnered with E4C develop citizenship skills as they learn about the human dimension behind the ideas and ideals of social justice. They develop empathy and learn to see their incarcerated partners as more than the crime they committed. Even students who arrived in class with previous interest in criminal justice express amazement at their visceral realization of their writing partners’ humanity. These UM students often continue to advocate against mass incarceration and for criminal justice reform long after our time together has ended, and several have reoriented their educations and even careers around social justice. 

The best thing about the writing exchanges is their reciprocity. In the words of one incarcerated woman (writing under a pseudonym), “I’m always so excited to come to class to receive my letter from you. Your words are encouraging, and correspondence with you gives me a sense of worthiness. It makes me feel important, responsible, and adequate” (“Cherry Pie,” March 2016). Another woman from the same class echoed these thoughts in her final letter to her UM partner: “I took this class because the idea of writing to another human being, an intellectual human being appealed to me. Just the thought of having something … to look forward to each week compelled me to step out of my comfort zone and commit” (“Eskimo”). A third writer addressed the redemption she found in the exchange: After acknowledging that “Prison can ruin people” and disclosing how prejudiced her thinking had become, she wrote, “I am thankful for this class because my eyes are opening to a lot of defaults that I don’t want to have. And if I’m going to change my ways for the better I really need to start now while I’m here” (“M&M”).

In addition to these regularly offered exchanges with E4C, UM’s partnership with E4C provides E4C with teachers, workshop leaders, and board members. The UM Writing Center additionally funds two tutoring positions at Dade Correctional Institution. In full collaboration with UM, E4C can enact the power of written partnerships to promote dialogue and effect social change.   

E4C and UM: Shared goals, methods, and outcomes

E4C students emerge from their courses more confident, engaged, and motivated. They become better communicators and critical thinkers; their positive attitudes directly influence their closed communities. Meanwhile, UM students become more conscious of social justice issues, and they develop empathy for the people caught up in a criminal justice system that often seems to lack that consciousness and empathy. They become advocates for prison reform and make career decisions based on that drive towards advocacy. 

Together, UM and E4C change not only the lives of prisoners and university students, but all who witness those transformations. At the end of every semester, E4C hosts a graduate showcase and invites members of the public and the university community. Covered by the Miami Herald and our local NPR affiliate and attended by judges and state representatives, these ceremonies nurture empathy, spread our message of social justice, and create opportunities for the public to appreciate the work being done

Recent and upcoming University of Miami/Exchange for Change joint projects

In addition to the above collaborations, the following joint projects are either in the works or have recently launched: 

  • Prisoners Have Mothers, Too: In collaboration with UM’s Special Collections, former UM exchange students volunteered to create and produce this zine comprised of writing by E4C students in honor of their mothers. The final product was released and distributed at the Zine Fair on UM’s campus and performed live at our Spring 2017 E4C graduate showcase.
  • Perspectives: Miami through a Different Lens: Students enrolled in exchange classes regularly undertake group and individual faculty-guided projects that have included the publication of prison writing anthologies, the creation of online games designed to raise public awareness, and the composition of feature-length essays on diverse social justice topics. This particular journal of student and community writing will be produced annually.
  • Don’t Shake the Spoon: A Journal of Prison Writing: Spearheaded, edited, and produced by UM faculty and former UM exchange students, DSTS is a literary journal publishing E4C students’ best written and visual work. The first issue will be published later this year. 
  • Songs from The Inside: A showcase featuring recorded music and lyrics written by DCI students as part of Frost student Sara Keden’s Fall 2017 E4C songwriting class.
  • Legal Writing Workshops: Graduate students from the UM School of Law have taught legal writing workshops for DCI law clerks, and they have more workshops slated for the future.
  • The E4C Archive: This lasting public record of E4C student work will be professionally maintained by UM’s Special Collections.