“It’s like the best kind of Tupperware party.”

 

Today I honor a Words Beyond Bars facilitator who has spent the last couple of months driving long distances on days she was able to slip away from her full time office job, to volunteer at the La Vista Correctional Facility. Every two weeks, Marissa leads a book discussion group with the incarcerated population at this Colorado women’s prison. Deceptively pastoral, the prison grounds are edged with well-tended garden beds and the passersby in the yard wearing green prison issued clothing make easy eye contact and smile as they greet you. This is a population that is often transitioning to release back into the community, reuniting with family, determined to get things right… next time.

This is where Marissa Peacock comes in. Armed with a pile of novels, journals and lots of open-ended questions, carefully vetted books are shared and discussed. Through the characters and plots, truths emerge, often deeply hidden, repressed even, but suddenly released into the tiny trusted community that the book discussion group becomes. The women discuss their children, where they failed in the past- often because they became overwhelmed and could not ask for support. Their lives imploded into substance abuse, violence and criminal behavior. They want to work harder to think differently, to take responsibility, to understand that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

With Marissa, they talk, they laugh, they open up. They enjoy many of the books and reject others. They’re honest, and they’re astute in their assessment of literature. As Marissa helps navigate the discussion, she listens closely, engages, validates.

I was a visitor today. I observed from my seat in the circle, impressed with the connection the group had formed, proud of Marissa. It’s impossible not to notice that the women can seem kind of tough. They’ve seen a lot and are rightfully defensive, guarded. But they were laughing today and celebrating. It was the last day of the session. Marissa transformed the small classroom into a party room, complete with diplomas and cupcakes. I was introduced to women I didn’t know, as most of the first book group I piloted last spring have been released. Only one woman remained, a dedicated book groupie “until I go home.”

I asked the women what they could share about the strengths of being a book club participant. One mom of four said that she was going to read to her kids more, take them to the public library to the free story hour. One woman spoke softly, but directed her gaze at me : “This book group is a good thing,” she said, “it makes a difference.” Another woman threw her head back and said, “It’s fun to get together and talk about books. It’s like a big Tupperware party.” Not sure about that analogy, I decided to look more closely at it- forgetting the plastic storage containers and focusing on connection, companionship, acceptance.

I honor Marissa Peacock for promoting the growth and humanity I witnessed today. These women have potential, and Marissa has made a commitment to ignite it. She believes in human dignity, second chances and that the terrifying circumstances of some of the women’s past lives don’t dictate their futures.

After piling their favorite snacks onto paper plates, the women returned to the book discussion. They really liked Wher’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and talked over each other to share their thoughts, their favorite characters, the plot twists they hadn’t anticipated. And then, just like at a Tupperware party, they drank lemonade, ate cheese and crackers and listened to each other’s stories. Which is how we all grow.

 

 

 

Regardless of our pasts, there is laughter.

Driving to La Vista Correctional Facility this morning, I had the opportunity to really think about the progression of books that I chose for the female book discussion group at the woman’s facility in Pueblo, CO. During this four month session, we have gone from one strong female character in Queen of the South, to a young Floridian girl in Swamplandia!, to this week’s woman who is a mother, wife, and a victim of a violent assault. Drawn from real events on our country’s Indian reservations, the plot is forceful but never preachy… and storytelling at its best. I have found that the book club women have found solace and connection with the characters who’ve experienced events similar to what they have known in their lives. I was certain that Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel, The Round House, would lead to a good discussion. This moving, complex but ultimately uplifting novel challenged and satisfied our readers.

The women really enjoyed the story, part mystery, part coming of age. One participant compared the story to the Stephen King story Stand by Me. She said: “This was like a Native American version of Stand by Me, and I liked it more.” Our discussions are never boring, and the participants never cease to amaze me with their insights. This book touched them, as most of them are mothers, wives and girlfriends, and many have lived through trauma and violence. I love that regardless of their own pasts, they find the funny passages, the ones that they “laugh out loud” over- sharing their favorite parts with their “roommates.”

For me the nicest compliment came from a young woman who is working on completing her GED. When she tested her reading earlier this year it was under level 4; when she tested last week she was over level 6! Her GED instructor was amazed, and she said it was all because of the Words Beyond Bars book discussion group.

I could not be more pleased to be a part of this amazing program.

~ Marissa Peacock, Words Beyond Bars Facilitator

Sage and roses, fish and birds, and the smell of rain on its way.

Author Peter Heller has made adventure a way of life. How odd, how huge a contrast, to have invited this warm and solid guy to visit the book discussion group at Sterling Correctional Facility. A best-selling author of The Dog Stars and The Painter, his presence among the incarcerated men was powerful and inspiring. He writes books about men who need to be outside, in nature, seeking solitude and answers to their big life questions. The yin and yang of good decisions, bad decisions. Love and companionship, or solitude. To act on impulse and then to seek forgiveness.

Peter sat, relaxed, in a plastic tub chair, closing the circle of the twelve men in each group. He spoke of his career, as a nonfiction writer, with a longing to write fiction despite his success at Outside Magazine and other travel publications. He loves kayaking and daredevil travel to faraway extremes, as well as fly-fishing spots in the small, unspoiled towns of Colorado.

The men loved the spare, quick-flowing read that is The Painter. They struggled with the inner workings of the main character, and when they asked Peter “why “ or “how could he”, Peter explained how the novel emerged- without choreography or morality, just a voice and direction and a laptop. He described writing as an otherness- him responding to the story as if plot twists and character flaws came from an unseen muse, and he wrote the story that needed to be told.

There was laughter and a few fuckin’ A’s here and there, sort of a mano a mano understanding that the group appreciated. Peter asked them how they transcend the stifling environment that is prison- a bold question. They answered: they lift weights, run laps, paint, write, read, pray.

As for Peter, deeply moved by the entire experience, he added:

“One of the most remarkable days I’ve spent. These prisoners—mostly lifers—had more insight, more engagement and sense of nuance, than any book group I’ve ever attended. The literary intelligence and passion blew my mind. As a writer, to have that level of attention paid to my work was very moving.”

I did my best to let the discussion unfold without my input. As I watched the dynamic of these prisoners, understanding life a little bit through their eyes, I was proud of the way they spoke and shared in discussion. It was a day of pure humanity, respect and appreciation of community. The Warden had stopped by the classroom to listen in. He departed with an inscribed copy of the novel, clearly pleased with having witnessed a most unusual scene and a chance to meet a pretty special author. Now one more reader can enjoy the story of art and love and anger and redemption. And the smell of coming rain.

In an unnamed city, unnamed country, an epidemic of blindness sweeps through sparing no one. Except…

Part allegory, part dystopian, Blindness, by José Saramago confounds, disturbs and challenges. A stream of consciousness style frustrated some of our readers, but others were mesmerized. They recognized an attempt by the author to craft chaos by abandoning punctuation.

We were all immersed in the prospect of sudden blindness and acted out, (plastic chairs facing concrete cinderblock walls) Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, to imagine where perception and truth collide. Imagine three incarcerated book group participants, acting their roles and dialogue while learning about philosophy. The prisoners are chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. When one prisoner is freed, after pain and confusion initially, he sees the sun and recognizes the existence of flowers, trees and objects all around him. He returns to tell the others about what is real, beyond the flickering shadows they previously believed to be reality. The goal of education is to drag every man as far out of the cave as is possible!

Returning to the novel, an imagined epidemic of blindness was the catalyst for a discussion in which we all struggled with the idea of mob mentality, resiliency, and morality. In a civilization that has completely deteriorated, how do we distinguish good from bad, safety from harm, true love from survival?

This is the stuff of amazing dialogue. The book group shares clever ideas, grows restless and flies off on tangents, then circles back with clarity, all in two hours. There are a few guys who shake their heads in frustration, wishing instead for a  fast-paced thriller or historical fiction. I tell them, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”… and I know they get it.

There are no goodbye parties in prison.

It’s all good news. Some of the guys, those who qualify as juveniles with life sentences with no possibility of parole, are moving – within a year, to a “step down” program. This is the result of legislation to correct Colorado’s JLWOPS- serving unconstitutional sentences after a Supreme Court decision has mandated that life with out parole for a child is cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed it is. The thing is, after 15-20 years served, this news is both wonderful and strange. Leaving a prison to go to a different one. (What will my “corrected” sentence be? Will I get a plea deal that expedites my return to the world? Where am I headed, and when?) These are all fancy legal questions that I cannot answer.

When a book group participant came to me as the book discussion broke up yesterday, with his head hanging a bit and only the most intermittent eye contact, I realized that he wanted to tell me that he could be gone any time. He has been in the book group, session after session, for more than two years. A bright, engaged man, he writes exquisite poetry, weighs in on Buddhism, world history and politics with equal accuracy, and is a true, respected leader of the pack. So he tells me he will be gone soon. And my heart breaks a little for a second, because he’s one of my favorites, and I know his story, and I couldn’t do this work if I weren’t a diehard nurturer. And I know he’ll have little notice when it’s time to move, and he’ll pack his belongings into a bag and board a bus to the next prison facility. It’s clear that he may not be part of the book group much longer. That feels like a peculiar loss, while at the same time a spectacular move towards liberation for him, a second chance at a life. But my heart. I hope he will remember the books we read together, the complex discussions we shared, and the few times something made him laugh out loud. There are no goodbye parties in prison, but I think he knows what a joy and pleasure he’s been. Always with a stack of books, always with an opinion. So much wisdom for a person who has, essentially, come of age behind bars.

A correctional officer interrupted our brief chat. I hope he’ll be around in two weeks when our book discussion group meets again. I want to grab a moment to wish him luck and courage, because there won’t be balloons and cake.

 

Looking through the window into prison and parole.

Departments of Corrections have to walk a fine line between public safety and public information. Obviously the prisons can’t just let the public walk in and explore. Media reports are often all we have to go on, and I’m not talking about fictionalized accounts of people named Piper and Crazy Eyes. But the media is often denied access as well. As this Salon article reports, different states have different approaches to permitting access to journalists in their prison systems.

Yet, can anyone really argue with this statement? “There is a responsibility to the public and we have a unique situation because what we do is hidden by its nature. There are people from the public who can’t come by and see how the prisons are doing. And as a result the media has a role in providing a public window on the prison activities and what goes on because it is taxpayer funded.” Who said that? Some do-gooder reporter? No, it was the spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

This responsibility is a two-way street. When there is a window into the correctional system, are we as citizens taking advantage of it? Programs like Words Beyond Bars do a great job of exposing prisoners to the world. But they are constrained by security and other concerns from helping the world really understand the good and the bad of prison operations. How can we as citizens keep ourselves informed about how our governments are managing our jails and prisons? In Colorado, in addition to reviewing media reports, we can attend legislative hearings, review reports on the DOC website, or attend a Citizen Advocate Meeting.

These are great resources, but few know that we can get a closer firsthand view of one part of our correctional system by attending a parole hearing. I took the opportunity to do this a few years ago. I could tell that Colorado DOC personnel don’t get this kind of request often. Everyone was professional and polite, but a little baffled. Since I wasn’t a victim, I got bounced back and forth between personnel who kept telling me it was someone else’s department. Eventually, I was put in touch with the right person who told me where and when I had to show up.

I find a lot wrong with the word “offender” that is currently in vogue in our DOC, so I’m going to refer to the subject of the hearing as “the inmate”. He was currently serving his sentence in Community Corrections, what some people might think of as a “halfway house”. So the hearing was not held in a prison. The inmate’s parole officer led me into a very small room with the member of the parole board, the parole officer, and another DOC employee who transcribed notes of the hearing. Although the inmate had a number of victims of his crimes of fraud and false impersonation, no victims attended the hearing.

Again, the DOC personnel were a little confused about my purpose, but when I explained that I was there as a citizen to see how a parole hearing was conducted, I was welcomed. The employee taking notes remarked that more people should take advantage of the opportunity. Then the inmate and two members of his church were led into the room.

In the end, the inmate was not granted parole. I was initially surprised, as I thought he demonstrated that he was a good candidate. But as I thought about it, I realized that several of his statements that seemed to be taking responsibility for his crime were indirect deflections, along the lines of “I am sorry that you feel that way” rather than “I am sorry I did what I did.” Another factor against him was that he had letters from his children but no other demonstrations of family support, which was sad and telling.

The member of the parole board never read those letters in support before issuing his decision, by the way. I understand why. We may think that letters of general support should be useful, but a parole board member doesn’t want to know how many people think the inmate is a good guy. What the parole board wants to know from supporters is where the parolee will live and how he will be employed. The hearing established that the inmate’s church was helping to provide those two pillars of support.

I think the hearing I attended may have been different from the norm because it involved a white collar defendant in community corrections. As a result, I plan to broaden my experience and attend another this fall, and maybe another after that. Maybe I’ll see you at one of them as you look through the few windows available to become an informed citizen about our correctional system.

Karen Brady is an attorney with the law offices of Karen Brady & Associates, P.C. This is the first in a series of posts we will be sharing to showcase the different voices of our Board of Directors.

Goethe was right.

“The highest happiness of man… is to have probed what is knowable and quietly to revere what is unknowable.”

I memorized that Goethe quote this past week, when I sat in a circle with 19 other raconteurs discussing contemporary issues and ideas through the lens of great readings we explored- drawn from history and philosophy lessons, Supreme Court cases as well as commentary on the trauma in the world today.

I was honored to have received an invitation to attend the Justice and Society Seminar through the Aspen Institute as a Halle scholar. It was a life-changing week, in many ways. The quote was perched inside a wood frame on a library shelf, and became a focal point when I silently questioned the points I wanted to make and wondered if I’d measure up.

The mornings at the seminar were cool, filled with silence and open space; the steady flow of the Roaring Fork running throughout the property, a breeze through the towering aspens. Filtered sunlight glowed as the blue sky emerged after a chilly night. This peaceful setting was a backdrop for a week of deep thinking and a bold exchange of ideas. The breakfast table was populated with judges, professors, non-profit advocates and a smattering of doctors, lawyers and clergy. Continuous dialogue, questions, opinions. Laughter. Friendships gathering strength. Over fresh berries, granola and lots of coffee, we prepared for our daily discussion. Five days of Socratic dialogue moderated by a brilliant judge and a law school dean, a pair that probed us, set forth the questions, and helped navigate the murky waters of tough subject matter.

A little Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a little Thucydides, a German playwright, an expose on the genocide in Rwanda. Terrorism, economics, criminal justice, immigration. A cleansing dose of Donald Trump bashing. All in the spirit of reconsidering our assumptions and possibly considering things differently. We began to recognize each other’s voices. A great sense of respect and focused listening resulted in spectacular discussions.

I am sad now that it’s over, but the words shared and the spirit of inquiry will remain a consolation, now that I have, indeed, probed what is knowable and quietly revere the questions for which there were no answers.

Author Lisa Jones reflects on her day in prison.

 

When one of the inmates asked me, “were you scared to come here?” I was tempted to say “naw,” delivered with a casual wave of the hand. It would have been partially true. After all, I’d enthusiastically accepted Words Beyond Bars’ invitation to be a visiting author at the Sterling Correctional Facility, where two book groups, 15 men in each, had read my book, BROKEN: A Love Story. I’d really looked forward to my visit.

But when the prison came into view, my breath caught in my throat. It’s a huge place. It looks like a prison. The security check, where uniformed officers x-rayed our stuff, and us and provided each of us with a “screamer” — a pocket alarm I could activate at any time to sound a loud screech, which will summon nearby prison employees — also scared me. Then came a locking door and an echoing hallway, and another locking door, and we came into the enormous inner courtyard, which looked like something out of the Hunger Games.

So when the inmate asked me if I was scared, I answered truthfully: YES.

We sat in a circle, the conversation started right up and it didn’t stop until our two hours were up. My fear left the moment we started. The conversation was challenging, emotional, heartfelt and funny. I’ve spoken to a lot of book groups, but I’ve never had one read my book as carefully as the men at Sterling.  I realized I’d expected these guys to be not all that bright. Boy was I wrong. They caught errors that the copy editors in New York City let through. They dissected relationships. They probed motivations. They compared traditional Native spirituality to Buddhism. Early on in the discussion, I saw I was in the company of some mental heavy hitters. I was with some very interesting people. At some point, I became the opposite of scared; I became surprised.

After a delicious chicken breast lunch prepared by the prison’s food service training program, a second book group assembled, for an equally packed and fascinating two-hour discussion. The warden even joined us. At the end of the day he escorted us out, chatting with prisoners as we crossed the internal courtyard. I thought to myself: there by the grace of God go I, past the locked doors, back to the parking lot, the town of Sterling, the interstate and home. Because I had peace-loving parents, because we were more or less financially secure, because we didn’t have guns in the house, I am free. But not because I’m any smarter than the guys inside. Not because I’m any better than them.

Through Poetry, Colorado Inmates, Communities Work To Build Bridges

Wonderful time tag-teaming on an interview with Washington D. C.’s Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop to discuss the On The Same Page United poetry program which piloted over the last six months here in Denver. Thank you to all our amazing volunteers; we’ll be starting up again in the fall!

Hear the full Colorado Public Radio interview with Words Beyond Bars Executive Director, Karen Lausa.