When the pandemic hit a few months ago, it forced educators around the world to move to distance learning. Teachers had to learn how to operate technology for their online classes, using zoom and other video-chat applications to keep in contact with their students. Kathie Klarreich and her team at Exchange for Change, (E4C) did not have that option. E4C is a nonprofit that offers semester-long writing classes in South Florida correctional institutions and runs letter-writing exchanges between incarcerated students and those studying in local academic public and private schools, colleges, and universities. Internet in the prisons where E4C operates and teaches is nonexistent. So instead of worrying whether or not they were learning, she now worries whether or not they are going to live.
As the Executive Director of E4C the responsibility to handle the pandemic transition falls on Kathie Klarreich’s plate. The course which has been proven to be financially beneficial to taxpayers, and a preventative of reincarceration, gives incarcerated students the chance to express themselves and improve their communication skills, as well as the opportunity to educate the public on who they are.
E4C started in 2014 with one class and 17 students. Since then, the program has graduated nearly 1,500 students from a variety of semester-long writing courses, including creative writing, journalism, non-fiction, songwriting, and many more. Just this semester, the program had more than 300 students who voluntarily enrolled in 33 classes.
Not only do students get the chance to express, reflect, and better understand themselves, all whilst improving their communication skills, but these programs prepare them for the outside world. Statistics show that students enrolled in these educational programs reduce their chances of returning to prison by 43%. And when you get an education your chances of getting a job also increase.
“By preparing incarcerated people for their re-entry into the outside community and preparing that community for their return, Exchange for Change provides vision and understanding on both sides of the fence”-E4C
Prior to her work with prisons, Kathie had a 24-year career as a journalist where she reported for print, television, and radio, including TIME, The New York Times, ABC, NBC, NPR. She spent almost half of those years based in Haiti, working as a journalist in and out of the country. Kathie has seen many lives change over the past six years, in ways that even she, could never imagine. I had the opportunity to interview her and find out more about the E4c and how the program is dealing with their students during COVID, as well as more on Kathie and her journey.
What made you decide to create the Exchange for Change?
I realized that there it would be a lot easier to reach a lot more incarcerated writers if there were more people involved. One classroom reaches only one set of students. Multiple that and you’re going to have a bigger impact. It’s not more complicated than that. Specifically for the incarcerated population, however, there were very few options for them. When you’re convicted, your punishment is being removed from society. It doesn’t mean you should stop receiving basic human rights, which includes access to education.
What results does Exchange for Change achieve? How has your program improved over time?
We change people’s lives on both sides of the fence. We bring people together in the classroom, breaking down barriers that exist on the prison compound that can be addressed in a safer environment because the focus is on writing and improved communication skills. We strengthen our students’ craft and communication at the same time that we bring their voices to the free world. And we are educating the educators by allowing an exchange of ideas from a variety of voices.
Exchange for Change runs letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside. How has COVID-19 affected Exchange for Change? How have you had to change the way the program operates?
All visitations inside the prisons stopped the second week of March so we have not been able to see our students since then. We had more than 30 classes running and they came to an abrupt halt. That includes the letter-writing exchange with students on the outside. When the pandemic hit our focus was no longer on education but keeping our students safe, and alive, since by nature prisons are incubators for something like Covid-19. There is no such thing as social distancing if two people live in a 6 x 9 foot cell. Along with two other organizations, we started a GoFundMe campaign and were able to purchase over 10,000 bars of soap and 72 gallons of hand sanitizer for the incarcerated population and staff. After that, we reconfigured our classes so that now we are hand-delivering course material to the prison. We have 250 students enrolled. They put their assignments in an envelop that we collect, then disperse them to the proper teacher who comments on them, and then we send them back inside and start all over again with a new batch of classes. It’s labor-intensive but we want to make sure our students know we haven’t forgotten them.
Do you think that now more than ever, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the best time for incarcerated students to write? Why?
Writing is always an extremely useful tool to process things. We know that this is a particularly difficult time for our students for many reasons. First, they have not been able to see their families for three months. Second, all programs inside the prisons have stopped – no education or religious or betterment programs are being offered. Individuals are being restricted by dorms so people can’t see their friends who may be housed in another part of the prison. Third, the library and the chapels are also closed, so the options of things to do has dropped to almost nothing. We’re hoping that at the very least writing is something that can help get them through this period.
For most of your life, you were a reporter. How did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
I actually didn’t set out to be a journalist. I went to Haiti to buy handicrafts for a store I was managing in San Francisco and got caught in the middle of a government overthrow. It was hardly the time to be traveling around the countryside looking for merchandise for my nonprofit store, so I started reporting on what was happening, and my three-month trip there turned into ten years. It was during that period that I built a career as a journalist.
You have worked as a journalist and lived in Haiti for nearly two decades. How has living in Haiti changed you as a person?
I always say that I physically grew up in Ohio but I grew into the person I am today because of the experiences I had in Haiti. It constantly presented challenges that forced me to examine all the things I thought I knew and make choices about what was important. In many ways, the simplicity of life there, and the lack of amenities, allowed me to reflect on what I needed from and wanted to do with, my life. Very little about living there was easy because of all the political and social upheaval, but that’s also what made it so interesting. I really got to know myself. I met a ton of super interesting people, learned survival skills literally and figuratively, and developed skill sets that have proven invaluable in ways I could not have foreseen at the time.
Throughout your life, you went from being a reporter to training Haitian journalists in investigative reporting to teaching creative writing to incarcerated individuals. How does teaching creative writing differ from teaching a less creative subject such as reporting?
That’s an interesting question. Good storytelling is good storytelling, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. You have to engage your reader. If you want someone to read what you wrote, you have to make it worth their time. So while investigative reporting requires a specific skill set than, say, reporting on a political situation or crafting a fictional story, it’s like a musician knowing the scales. You have to know the basics, and then you apply them accordingly.
When did you discover your interest in creative writing? Has it always been something that you had a passion for?
I had no idea I would end up doing what I’m doing. I’ve always loved the outdoors, so I studied botany so I could be in nature rather than the classroom. But then I ended up going to art school, and then, as I mentioned, I got into handicrafts, which led me to Haiti, which led me to reporting, which led me to the prisons where I wanted to teach creative writing to Haitian women. So it was never a straight line for me.
What are your goals for Exchange for Change in the next five years? What priorities will help you achieve them? What barriers are in your way?
The current barrier is the biggest, which is how do we reach our students if we can’t get inside. I’m hoping that by next year we will be back in the classroom. Ideally, a program like E4C could be available throughout the state, but we’d be happy for the time being to just get back to our students. The need for educational programs is huge nationwide, but ultimately having fewer people incarcerated would decrease the need for programs like ours. So we could put ourselves out of a job, which would be wonderful. But until then, we would like to offer more courses and reach a larger number of students on the outside, as well as continue to provide avenues for our incarcerated writers’ works to be available to the free world
You have achieved so much throughout your life. What are three of your proudest accomplishments?
My proudest accomplishment is seeing my son and daughter mature into absolutely awesome people. After that, I feel lucky to have found avenues to work with people that allow us both to learn from each other in unlikely ways. And finally, despite some real challenges I’m just glad I didn’t give up pursuing the things I believe are important.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you? That when I was younger I ate so many carrots my skin turned orange.
What advice do you have for people who want to try creative writing? Just do it. You’ll never know if you can write if you don’t start with that first line.