life lines: re-writing lives from inside out

Unedited writings from Vermont’s incarcerated women tell their first-person accounts of addiction and mental illness within the prison setting, highlighting the challenges they face in moving forward with their lives. While defusing myths and stereotypes about incarcerated women, these writings form a picture of systemic dysfunction which must be addressed and changed, challenging readers’ own courage and sense of urgency to become involved as they are able to help change these stories. Discussion guide encourages community conversation and action. The production of the limited first print of this collection was supported in part by a grant from Burlington Community Arts Community Fund and Serena Foundation, and Green Writers Press, Brattleboro VT.


Caits Meissner, Director, Prison and Justice Writing Program, PEN America, NY – In the pages of “Life Lines,” these women are not inmates, they are writers. Though so often describing how the system – and sometimes one’s own regrets – can reduce a whole human to “a chocolate drop so small/not even a butterfly can taste it,” readers will surely experience the inverse: expansive, full-bodied, unique, necessary voices. Women who, as Whitman said, contain multitudes. This collection is a lyrical movement, built on the tenants of art, education and advocacy. The women in “Life Lines” begin to shape a possible future – one that embraces restorative practices over our failing system of punishment. They restore my hope. 

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Stephanie S. Covington, Ph.D., Co-director, Center for Gender and Justice, La Jolla, CA – Here is another remarkable book from writinginsideVT. It is overflowing with the creativity and voices of the most invisible women in our society: women in prison. Despite the sadness, fear, pain, and loss that they convey, their written words are a testament to the resilience of women’s spirit.  

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Hon. Joseph H. Field, Active Retired Judge, Maine District Court – Forty-three years in the justice system, as prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, have taught me that events beyond their control incarcerate women: childhood neglect; sexual, physical and emotional abuse; and their inevitable sequelae – substance abuse and mental health issues.  Unaddressed, the feelings from these traumatic events will only fester, cause more pain, then recidivism. Art and writing have repeatedly proven to be a powerful and curative outlet for these feelings.  Writing gives them voice when no one speaks for them; empowers them to cast away the pain, anger and emotional restraints; and allows us to know their feelings inside, getting out, and outside. Their expression, and our acceptance of it, give life to the ‘restoration’ in restorative justice. Read these poems and understand the pain, fear and anger that is at their heart.

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Robert L. Sand, Founding Director, Center for Justice Reform, VT Law School; former Windsor County State’s Attorney – The criminal justice system spends a great deal of time trying to establish the ‘otherness’ of people. Yet, every person has a story to tell. These writings show our common humanity and the need to hear all voices. 

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Heather Tosteson, Ph.D. Publisher, Wising Up Press, GA; Co-Director, The Lasting Weight of Felony Listening Project – “LIFE LINES: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out” is a must-read for those interested in the psychological dynamics of women’s incarceration and reentry, as seen from the inside out. Fruit of a ten-year writing program writinginsideVT has held in Vermont’s only prison for women, these poems beautifully capture the experience of incarcerated women trying to make sense of their past choices and daring to make new ones. Difficult, often brutally honest, funny, remorseful, grief-stricken, defiant, self-accusing and self-affirming, these poems explore the devastating hold of their addictions, the cycling nature of their incarceration, and the very real costs not only to themselves but to their families and other victims. The editors, Bianca Viñas, Sarah W. Bartlett, and Kassie Tibbott, have organized the book effectively around the themes of voice, loss, creativity, new patterns and hope, themes beautifully illustrated by Meg Reynolds.

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Bess O’Brien, director of award-winning documentaries “Coming Home” (about re-entry from prison) and “The Hungry Heart” (about addiction recovery), Kingdom County Productions, VT – Expression and voice are so important to hear from those incarcerated in our Vermont prisons. This book celebrates the vital minds and hearts of those we often do not hear.


Newly-discovered 5-star review titled “A worthwhile addition to any book shelf” from November 24, 2019 says it all:
“LifeLines is a poignant, compelling collection of deeply personal stories from women incarcerated at Vermont’s only female correctional center. They book is a thoughtful gateway into worlds that many will never experience. Poems touch on a wide range of topics, including addiction, homelessness, abuse and the expected despair of incarceration. By reading through these stories, one cannot help but gain a deeper understanding into the diversity of experiences that have led to incarceration. The book is well edited and compiled and punctuated with illustrations that add depth to the content of the book. LifeLines is the type of book that you can pick up from time to time just to read a few pages and enrich your understanding of the world in which we live.”

Author’s Note on Publishing Life Lines by Sarah W. Bartlett

REVIEW by Dorothy Van Soest
First Published in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work August 6, 2019 OnlineFirst
ORCID iD. Dorothy Van Soest

 Vermont’s incarcerated women are turning their lives right-side up from the inside out, even while living within the confines of a world turned upside down by an opioid-fueled prison industrial complex. Just thinking about that concept is mind blowing in and of itself. Is it even possible to recover, grow, develop, and be creative when held captive in a degrading and broken system? After reading this amazing collection of writings written by women on the inside, the answer to that question must be a resounding, “YES IT IS!

Life Lines is like a symphony in five movements that is guaranteed to turn upside down any and all negative preconceived notions about incarcerated women, an opus that inspires us with their courage, even gallantry, as they struggle with addiction and mental illness in a system designed to reduce them to “a chocolate drop so small not even a butterfly can taste it.”

In the first part, Whisper to Voice, the women’s voices are, like the first movement of a symphony, loud and forceful in their honesty and rawness as they expose the truth about living in a system that strips them of self-expression, where they are always wrong, always a criminal, and always without a voice. Yet, at the same time, their melodies are quiet and lyrical as they express their despair about what they have become and what their addictions have cost them. Each piece of writing is a sonata, a visceral experience of their lives inside, from the “smells of rotting carcasses” to “a maze with no way out” to a place where “hope has no goddamned wings.”

The next part, Loss and Longing, is, like the second movement of a symphony, a dirge that mourns what has been lost to heroin or other drugs, the dissolution of self “into the tiniest raindrop,” and a deep longing to overcome and live. In the third movement, Creativity Within, we experience the colors of the women, a chance for their feet to be free again, their ability to laugh even when they can’t smile, and the things they remember. In the fourth movement, we read what it’s like When Patterns are Broken, as the women try to find their way back to themselves, to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, their uniqueness, and their pride.

And then comes the finale, And Still We Hope. The last movement of this powerful symphony of words contains the fast and furious theme of hope expressed by the women over and over again. I am who I want to be. I won’t surrender again. I won’t let you control me. I am a Goddess. I am a hero. I am a poet. I have an unbreakable spine of steel. I am clean and sober. The tides have turned. I am no longer withered by scorn. I am fearless.

And in the end we are swept away. The honesty, strength, and resilience of the women whose words fill the pages of Life Lines literally take our breath away, and we can’t stop clapping for them. If, instead of blaming the addicted, the reckless criminals, drug pushers and dealers, Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and other major pharmaceutical corporations accepted accountability for the opioid crisis like these women are taking responsibility for falling victim to it, it would go a long way toward turning the world right-side up again.

REVIEW by Sharon Charde, author I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent, How Poetry Changed a Group of At-Risk Young Women, Mango Publishing, 2020

Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist, tells us that the world is made upof stories, not atoms.As a psychotherapist, poetry teacher for sixteen years in a residential treatment center for girls on parole and probation, and facilitator for women’s writing groups for thirty-two years, I can attest to the powerful truth of her statement. In Life Lines, amoving collection of writings from inside Vermont’s sole women’s prison, I was struck by so many of them, but these words especially grabbed me: The wounds, I admit then/are the source of my power, writes Melissa.

Yes, Melissa, they are.

In the safety and support of this and so many other important writing groups in prisons and juvenile detention centers, inmates willingly bare their wounds to each other in poems and prose. It’s hard to think of more important work than what these volunteers are doing all over the country, making it possible for both women and men, girls and boys, to tell their stories to a world that needs to hear them.

This body tells my story, mark for mark/some so bad you can see them in the dark/But don’t judge me, I’ve had enough of that, writes another writing group participant.

And Dani tells us, she is screaming until her soul is clean.

Wow, Dani! That line says so very much. The poems in Life Lines are a collective scream, a true soul-cleansing. My favorite section was “Loss and Longing,” in which they relate memories of past experiences, both tender and painful, as well as present anguish. Melissa wants to know is there some catalogue/of hope and possibility/that I’ve never run/across before?  I want to know, too. I want to know for these women what that might be—I’m sure their writing sessions are helping them to find it.

Years ago, I tried to introduce writing to a group of fragile women who’d just re-entered society after years of incarceration. They each clamored to tell their heart-wrenching stories. They’d lost their children, their homes, their husbands, their cars, their bank accounts. Crack and heroin had wrested their lives from their former worlds into this one, a supported living shelter in Hartford’s inner city. Tears fell so hard that one of them went off to get paper towels from the bathroom since I’d brought no Kleenex and there wasn’t any in the large living room in which we met.

I felt whole and human with these women, and the delinquent girls, I volunteered with for sixteen years the world says are broken, more so than with friends and family in my white privileged world–as I’m guessing the volunteers of writinginsideVT do at the prison where they help the inmates to write their stories each week. Why, you wonder?

Because they are real.

You too, will feel your own humanity more deeply as well as theirs, when you read Life Lines, as I hope you will. In these polarized, turbulent, unbalanced times in which we currently live, hearing the voices of the disenfranchised seems more important than ever.

This book provides us with yet another way to wake up to those voices. Read it, and find that compelling truth out for yourself.

excerpts from Goodreads readers (read more here):

…Their words reveal the depth of creativity that emerges from being immersed in an environment and having to pay attention in order to survive. Nearly all the women convey prison as a place of noise, and smells, and hardness that cannot be softened by wishes or dreams. Despite, or perhaps because of, the conditions, the women have found creative depths. –Ruth

…By reading through these stories, one cannot help but gain a deeper understanding into the diversity of experiences that have led to incarceration…Life Lines is the type of book that you can pick up from time to time just to read a few pages and enrich your understanding of the world in which we live.  –W. Lowrey, author of Chasing the Blue Sky

…This is such an inspirational and motivational book. Thank you to all the women who shared their voices. A MUST read. –L. Savall