English student teaches creative writing course for incarcerated persons

Olivia Webb developed a volunteer-driven creative writing program for inmates of the Bradley County jail.

Photo by John David Clark

With a little guidance and an outlet for creative expression, the sky’s the limit—even inside prison walls.

For the past two years, senior English writing major Olivia Webb has been teaching creative writing courses at the Bradley County Jail, using her passion for writing to provide the inmates with a channel for creativity.

Webb explained that because creative writing comes naturally to her, she is able to share it with others as a means of academic and emotional support.

“Creative writing is the only thing that has ever made sense to me,” Webb said.

Originally from Knoxville, Webb transferred to Lee University after completing an associate degree in English from Pellissippi State Community College. She will graduate from Lee in May with a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis in writing, which she has already been putting to use in the creation of Webb Writing Company.

Webb explained that she has been very interested in the hierarchy of the prison system—how everything works and the roles of the people involved. She said she had been considering working with the jail for a long time to facilitate a creative writing course, and when she came to Lee, her desire to provide inmates with a means of creative expression was solidified.

Webb approached the Bradley County Jail and talked to the officials who led the volunteer programs. She discovered the only courses ever offered were Bible sessions.

Inspired to change the lack of educational courses offered, Webb went through training in the prison and was soon allowed to carry her passion of writing into the jail and collaborate with the inmates through her classes. She designed a six-week program to guide her sessions with the inmates.

Webb shares the inmates' writings on the Webb Writing Company Facebook page and takes the comments back to the writers. Webb explained that this affirmation gives them a connection to the outside world and has helped a lot of them gain confidence in their writing and themselves.

Professor of English Dr. Rachel Reneslacis, who is also working on the project, laughingly remembered the time when Webb said she didn’t want to teach little kids, so she decided she would teach in jail instead. Reneslacis applauds Webb’s vision for the Bradley County Jail.

“Olivia came up with this idea in…class, and I admire her for just doing it. She just made it happen,” Reneslacis said.

Webb has been visiting the jail every Friday for two years to teach the course. Even during summer breaks, she drives down from Knoxville to write with the inmates.

Webb said she specifically loves writing stories that can be pulled into scripts for plays. Later in life, she aims to write scripts for television and movies.

Senior cinema major Kellen Gifford, one of Webb’s close friends, has collaborated on numerous projects to bring Webb’s creative ideas to life.

“Olivia is a great writer, and I love directing plays, so we have worked together on multiple projects for film frenzies,” Gifford said.

Because Webb is graduating in May, she is training sophomore English major Cana Cooper to lead the program after she graduates. However, Webb plans to carry this experience with her and work with inmates wherever she goes in the future. She wants to find ways to stay close to her roots and continue to make an impact.

To learn more about Webb Writing Company, contact Webb through the project’s Facebook page.

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