San Quentin News profiles our Founder and Executive Director

Discussing famous books and authors like John Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison in a state maximum-security prison isn’t your average book club, but Words Beyond Bars, a nonprofit organization, is bringing this self-help program to Colorado state prisoners.

“These men discuss famous books and authors with the intelligence and analytical skills that mimic any college program,” said Karen Lausa, Words Beyond Bars Executive Director.

Lausa traveled to California for vacation, and San Quentin was high on her list of places to visit.

“I read San Quentin News online and I listen to Ear Hustle,” Lausa said. “I always wondered what life was like for the men in my book club after leaving the sessions, and these mediums gave me insight into their lives.”

Lausa entered the San Quentin Media Center with her hair pulled back, wearing black and red argyle socks that read “Making a F**king Difference.” Lausa is looking to add this book club project to San Quentin.

“I envision everybody in prison walking around with a book in their hand,” said Lausa, the self-proclaimed biblio-therapist (book therapist). Lausa started the reading program in 2011 with a group of 12 men sitting around in a circle at Limon Correctional Facility in Colorado.

“The guys killed it; the discussion was incredible. The guys were really listening to each other,” Lausa said. “You know, in prison race can be very divisive, but with the book participants a lot of the issues were left at the door.”

The first book the men read, “Of Mice and Men” by Steinbeck, was meant to be therapeutic and transforming for them, Lausa said.

Words Beyond Bars is a two-hour session and four-month program. Lausa’s passion and perseverance has brought the program to four Colorado prisons. She drives two hours back-and-forth from her home to Sterling Correctional Facility in hopes of making a difference — as her socks suggest.

“It’s a struggle to get funding, I drive long hours to the prison to bring the books and it’s stressful to be inside a prison,” Lausa said. “But the 12 men are the most respectful, committed and grateful people I ever engaged with.

“Every time I bring a guest author inside they always say they never had such a great discussion,” Lausa added.

Lausa believes that the reading program provides literary, pro-socialization and critical thinking skills that can make a difference both inside and upon release.

“When you treat people with respect, no matter what they’ve done, they can rise,” Lausa said. “You realize they are much, much more than their crimes.”

“I envision everybody in prison walking around with a book in their hand”

Lausa, a librarian by trade, said that “we can travel the world through books” and that there is power through rehabilitative programs.

“This is the most meaningful labor of love I have participated in,” Lausa reflected. “I’m honored to continue this work. My visit here has been one of inspiration and unimaginable possibilities. Plus, the place has a nice view.”