Project Mend Builds Community Through Writing for Those Impacted by the Justice System
Mend journal showcases the experience of incarceration.
For many years, Patrick W. Berry never told anyone that his father had been incarcerated for much of his life, as had several other members of Berry’s extended family. In fact, he tried not to think much about it. But eventually, Berry, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), used this very personal experience to further his work and share with others the importance of what literacy and writing can do for those impacted by incarceration. Project Mend is helping current and formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as their families, use creativity to process their experiences and move beyond the impact of the criminal justice system.
Berry began his career in the magazine industry but eventually detoured into teaching, first at NYU’s Publishing Program and later at CUNY Brooklyn College, while working on his master’s degree. It was there that he began to see the real value of writing and the ways that expression through the written word can be connected with identity.
Building Community Through Writing
He started thinking about how teaching in a prison could be a valuable opportunity to see the power of writing and literacy in action. While pursuing his Ph.D. at the Center for Writing Studies and Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Berry taught writing to incarcerated individuals through a prison education program nearby.
“I was so moved by this,” he explains. “That connection, particularly to family – or often the lack of connection – that happens when someone is incarcerated is so powerful and so damaging at the same time. It got me thinking about the ways in which writing can help people make sense of their experiences. It really showed me the potential writing has to make a difference in people’s lives.”
While most education initiatives for the incarcerated focus only on reducing recidivism, or the rate at which individuals return to prison, Berry’s emphasis became one of building community, promoting a sense of living in the moment and learning for the sake of learning. The incarcerated students began writing and talking about their own experiences and their relationships with their families, particularly children. Some would write letters to loved ones; others wrote poems, stories and reflections.
“Even though they recognized the extraordinary obstacles they face upon release -- like the stigma of incarceration, a stable living situation or sustainable employment,” Berry notes, “students continued to seriously pursue their studies and to write.” Berry saw there was real value in helping the incarcerated see themselves differently and envision their place in the world from this new perspective.
Joining the faculty at Syracuse University nearly 12 years ago, Berry also teaches other aspects of writing to both graduate and undergraduate students in A&S, but he has continued his interest in working with those impacted by the prison system. In 2018, he published a book, “Doing Time. Writing Lives: Refiguring Literacy and Higher Education in Prison.” Based on Berry’s experiences in the prison education system, the book chronicles how education and literacy can play a part in helping to rectify inequality and improve social and economic standing of those incarcerated, while also allowing them to write themselves back into a society that has, in many cases, erased them.
His latest focus is a pilot project called Project Mend, an initiative to create an online and print journal – called Mend – of written works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and even art contributed by people who are currently or were previously incarcerated, as well as family members of those incarcerated.
To encourage a greater number of submissions, he reached out to other educators working in prison systems or related community programs nationwide. Topics were not limited to only prison life or even the criminal justice system but could relay any important experiences or reflections in the hopes of compiling a vivid collection of expression. By the March deadline, over 100 pieces on a multitude of topics from both in and outside of prison walls all around the country had been submitted for consideration.
Mend Syracuse, part of Project Mend, includes what he calls “justice-impacted” participants who come to campus to assist Berry in creating the journal. These participants receive a stipend and are also learning to edit, design and gain other skills needed to get Mend ready to publish. Berry hopes these participants will walk away with real world skills that help them build a better future. In addition, two undergraduate students from A&S are also helping with the process. One is an intern with the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition, while another is assisting thanks to funding through a SOURCE grant from the University.
A Transformative Experience
Brian T. Shaw, one of the justice-impacted individuals, had attended Syracuse University for a time before he was sentenced to 21 years in prison. While incarcerated, he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. He was released this past September, having his sentence shortened due to his academic accomplishments. Getting an education gave him a “degree of worth,” but he was still met with the challenges of integrating back into society and lived in transitional housing at the Freedom Commons in the city of Syracuse. In February, he began working for the Center for Community Alternatives as a partnership coordinator for its integration services division.
While at Freedom Commons, Shaw met Berry and became one of four justice-impacted individuals asked to work with Mend Syracuse. As he learns editing and design, he is eager to hone his computer skills, as most of the technology he had access to in prison was extremely dated. Shaw also contributes his unique perspective in helping Berry continue to transform Project Mend as it moves forward into its second year.
“Being able to be part of this project and not be stigmatized has been so impactful. It’s been invaluable to me to truly be seen,” says Shaw, who will take another significant step, as he attends the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University this fall to earn a master’s degree in public health.
Also involved in Mend Syracuse this past year is Fátima Bings Martínez ’24, a current A&S student majoring in women and gender studies with a minor in writing. She had heard of Berry’s work in prisons and reached out to him. Seeing her interest in the incarcerated and advocacy, he offered her a position as a research assistant with Project Mend funded through a University SOURCE grant.
Mend Syracuse, and Project Mend more broadly, has helped Bings Martínez learn hands-on skills about professional editing and publishing, and she has been involved in research, web work and social media, as well as reaching out to over 70 nonprofits in an effort to diversify the submissions contributed to Mend. However, the experience has given her so much more.
“I’ve always been drawn to inequalities, advocacy and the need to help the community,” says Bings Martínez, who is a native of Puerto Rico. “Project Mend has been a very empowering experience, and I’ve come to understand just what an epidemic of mass incarceration there is in this nation. This project is more than providing resources. It’s about how writing can help those impacted by the justice system cope, transform and go beyond what the system tells them that they are. It’s an exciting experience to engage with others and become part of a change that is creating something that is beyond my University courses.”
That kind of transformation is at the heart of what Berry is hoping to accomplish through Project Mend.
“As I read through the submissions, I realized the incredible obstacles people have gone through and enjoyed seeing how they expressed themselves and their experiences in any way they chose,” he explains. “Many prison publications want to focus on experiences related only to this particular genre, but I want Mend to be an open space for reflection and a rich collection of creativity that puts the humanities into action. Instead of just emphasizing on a story about prison life, a submission might instead be a beautiful moment from their childhood, for example. It is my hope that many of us are going to be impacted by this publication, whether or not we have ever stepped into a prison. That’s the big goal.”
The Future of Project Mend
While Project Mend is in the pilot phase in 2023, Berry intends for it to become an annual program that can utilize other justice-impacted individuals and students on the local level, while reaching out to others across the nation who are willing to share their experiences, obstacles, hopes and dreams through writing. He expects the inaugural issue of Mend to be completed and launched later this spring.
This year, Project Mend was financed through a CUSE research grant and the Engaged Humanities Network, as well as Syracuse University’s Humanities Center and the CNY Humanities Corridor. Funding for next year will be made possible through a sponsorship from the Center for Community Alternatives, which stems from financial support from the Humanities New York Post-Incarceration Humanities Partnership generously supported by the Mellon Foundation.
“Mend Syracuse is an incredible opportunity for experiential learning that bridges the gaps between the University and the Syracuse community,” says Berry. “There’s a tendency to frame the project to say that we, at the University, are the ones helping a disenfranchised population, but it’s really a beneficial experience for all of us. It’s a form of mutual connection and education that promotes civic engagement – and that is valuable for everyone who is involved.”