Writer: Heather Westerfield
I am a 37-year-old mother of two and currently incarcerated at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center. I have been in jail for a little over two years and reading and writing have become major tools for my survival.
I have been on a quest to better myself and use my time wisely while here. I mostly read self-help books to become more mindful of who I am and how my experiences have shaped me. I also enjoying reading books about other cultures and religions, and I am currently learning as much as I can about Islam through reading and talking with Muslim women in my pod. I feel like with all the racial and cultural tension in this country at the moment it is my duty as an American citizen to be informed of other cultures. We are, after all, a melting pot.
My main passion is writing, and that is much more difficult than reading while incarcerated. I have numerous pieces I’m working on right now, and they are scattered all over the floor in my cell inside several folders. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with the different versions. And once I am transferred from this jail to prison, all my papers will have to be sent home. I likely won’t see them again until I’m released. Nevertheless, I continue to write because writing is my therapy.
One of the biggest problems I encounter is when I want to send a copy of one of my pieces to several different people either to share or for feedback. It can take me an hour or more to make the copies by hand, weeks to get feedback by mail, and the only writing tool we are allowed in here is a golf pencil.
I write mostly poetry, but have also written some longer pieces, including the beginnings of a memoir. Writing allows me to get the rapid-fire thoughts out of my head and down on paper. I ask myself why I am the way I am or why certain thoughts arrive as they do. The words are like puzzle pieces that I slowly assemble into a coherent work of art.
The act of writing is exciting to me. Every time I put the pencil on the paper I eagerly await to see what flows out of me. As I look back through my writing, with the various tones and styles I choose, I see a clear reflection of myself. I am finally getting to know and accept myself.
Since being incarcerated, I have been diagnosed with a personality disorder, which was completely unknown to me and causes me to appear emotionless and detached. Yet, in my writing, I am able to express emotion effortlessly allowing people to see a deeper, more intimate side of me that doesn’t usually come through in everyday conversation.
Recently I took a writing class by Zoom since none of the teachers have been able to visit the jail in person during the pandemic. We were instructed to write a poem about ourselves with the prompt “I am…”
I am a small Southern church on a warm spring day
holding two little boy’s hands surrounded
by family I hardly knew
staring at a box that held all that was left of you.
That particular stanza was about losing my mother. I was finally able to drop the façade and put honest words to that life-altering experience. I miss my mother deeply and writing has brought tremendous relief to my soul.
Writing has led me down a liberating path of self-discovery and afforded me the opportunity to seek forgiveness from others, and also to forgive myself. And nowhere do I seek more atonement than from my teenage sons. I recently wrote a poem to my oldest son on his 18th birthday titled “Today You Turned Eighteen.” One of the stanzas reads:
You know me in here
feeling broken and desperate,
locked in a cage.
And you, out there, alone
trying to figure out life
full of rage.
The act of writing has brought clarity, self-discovery, and healing. Even though I am physically confined, my mind has never been in a more fluid state. I feel as though I am on the journey of a lifetime, even though the travel conditions are dreadful.
Editor’s Note: This post was made possible by the volunteer work of Charlotte writer Cathia Friou, author of Rock Paper Scissors: Scenes from a Charmed Divorce, who appeared on the podcast in 2018 Here. Cathia is a volunteer writing instructor at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center, where she had the opportunity to meet Heather Westerfield, the author of this post. Here’s what Cathia had to say about Heather: “I was particularly inspired by Heather’s talent, and her tenacity and tendency to dig deep. Bearing witness to Heather and the other women courageously sharing their stories was an honor and serves as a stark reminder of all I take for granted in my own writing process.”