Who knows what I would have done differently?

Introducing Allie, Words Beyond Bars’ newest facilitator: such a talented, professional and delightful addition to our team!

Allie is new to Colorado, transplanted from the East Coast where she studied Media Production at Emerson College. A devoted reader, writer, and filmmaker, she is humbled to be facilitating with WBB at the Colorado Correctional Facility and sharing the transformative power of reading. Raised as a part of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), she is passionate about living by the Quaker value of community and has been volunteering as a facilitator with non-profits for over eight years. She lives in Denver with her boyfriend and incredibly adorable Australian Shepherd puppy.

Allie’s post-

“Two weeks ago, nine of us were gathered around a table at the Colorado Correctional Center to discuss our most recent read – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. A relatively small, approachable book that reads like an old myth or fable, The Alchemist has sold over 115 million copies around the world, won over 100 international awards, and has been translated into over 80 languages. But it wasn’t its impressive accolades we discussed that night. It was something much more powerful and personal.

The men were quiet at first – this group can be particularly contemplative. And then someone broke the silence. “I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book before. Who knows what I would have done differently?” This sentiment continued in his reflection paper – “I found myself wishing I had read this book many years ago….”

Another wrote, “this book has made me realize a lot, not only about myself, but the world I live in. The blowing wind. The shining sun. The soul of the world… It has taught me that time is relative. While we are here only a short time, we exist forever.”

These statements, bold and, dare I say it, metaphoric, are reflective of a conversation among the men that was predominantly about a central theme of the book –- one’s Personal Legend. The story follows Santiago, a young shepherd, who leaves his small village life in search of buried treasure after a number of catalytic dreams and visions. His Personal Legend, the purpose of his life, becomes the search of this treasure. He soon comes to learn that everyone has their own personal legend, something the universe will conspire to help us achieve, as long as we choose to pursue it.

While this lesson is universally powerful, it is a seemingly striking proposition for these men and one that they could have easily blown off. The men at this facility are approaching the end of their sentences and their release from the prison system. This release is daunting, and rightly so. The challenges they face upon release are immense, and they’ll be the first to tell you how overwhelming the dubiety from their peers/family/potential employers is. We’ve had many conversations where the sentiment surrounding their success as free men seems governed by fear and doubt.

This conversation was different.

“This was by far one of my favorite books,” wrote one participant. “I loved that it inspired us to work at our dreams. Dreams do come true.”

Another. “I am reevaluating things, and when I reach a conclusion, if I ever do, I can say that this book has pointed me in the direction. Thank you for all the work and help you do for us. It is beautiful and appreciated… I highly recommend this book and hope it helps others listen to their heart…”

For these men, the takeaways from this book were of hope. I listened to the men encourage each other – “What are your dreams? What do you want to do? How are you going to do it?” From many, I heard how powerful their own self-reflection was when reading – “Sometimes I spend a lot of energy trying to be strong and this book allowed me to be vulnerable and true to myself.” We talked about how important it is to believe in our own abilities, to set goals, to work towards positive ambitions…

When the 25th anniversary edition of his book was published, the author was interviewed about the global impact of The Alchemist. For him, it came down to the transformative power of books: “From time to time,” he said, “there are books that changed my life. Well, it’s not that the book itself changed my life; it’s that I was already ready to change, and needed to not feel alone.” This speaks to the very root of our program. While it may be bold to say that it changed their lives, I can sincerely say that The Alchemist provided these men with a sense of encouragement, community, and purpose and, for a small time at least, they didn’t feel alone.”

The first book that made my heart beat.

One man simply said the book “was like velvet.” Another remarked that this book was the “first book he’d read which made his heart beat.” A well-regarded curmudgeon in our group of readers quietly stated that the book lacked nothing, he had not a word of criticism, it was that perfect. Shadow of the Wind was a brilliant success among our book discussion group, each of whom devoured a 486-page book in two weeks and could have kept turning pages.

As a beloved character Bea says: “the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce every day.” Not so with our 25 book group participants at Sterling Correctional Facility.

The novel, set in Barcelona in the period following the Spanish Civil War, introduces a young boy, Daniel Sempere. Just after the war, Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, everyone invited to this secret place is allowed to take one book from it and must protect it for life. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. That morning he takes the book home and reads it, completely engrossed. Daniel then attempts to look for other books by this unknown author but can find none. All he comes across are stories of a strange man—calling himself Laín Coubert, after a character in the book who happens to be the Devil—who has been seeking out Carax’s books for decades, buying and burning them all.

The novel is actually a story within a story. Fifteen-year-old Daniel Sempere, in his quest to discover Julian’s other works, becomes involved in tracing the entire history of Carax. We meet his friend Fermin Romero de Torres, an unforgettable character. Fermin was imprisoned and tortured in Montjuic Castle for having been involved in an espionage against the Anarchists during the war—himself being a government intelligence agent—and helps Daniel in a number of seemingly impossible ways through their long friendship. Their probing into the murky past of a number of people who have been either long dead or long forgotten unleashes the dark forces of the murderous Inspector Fumero. And that, amazingly, is just the beginning.

It is believed to have sold 15 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s wondrous and masterful novel took our group on a literary journey they will not soon forget. The compelling story invited the readers to be transported to the cobblestoned streets of Barcelona, feeling the wind and rain on their faces and the rich, lavish comfort of a cup of tea with a bite to eat on a cold winter night.

Impossible dreams realized.

To women who are incarcerated, often survivors of their own personal trauma, which likely fueled their criminal behavior, reading about the struggles of others can become a trigger-resulting in painful memories and emotional turmoil. The thing about facilitating book discussion is that literature takes us to unexpected places, and the outcomes can be difficult to predict.

In the words of Words Beyond Bars facilitator Marissa Peacock, her group responded powerfully and positively to a novel that changed their perspective and challenged their thinking.

“Reading a book that is set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide made me a little nervous. Will the women relate to a young male character in a country far away? For that matter will I relate to such a story? I was in my teens when the genocide happened and although it saddened me it was far removed from my life and therefore vague and obscure. Would it be the same for these women? It was with these conflicting emotions that we began Running the Rift. Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Naomi Benaron has written a stunning and gorgeous novel that—through the eyes of one unforgettable boy— explores a country’s unraveling, its tentative new beginning, and the love that binds its people together.

I should not have been nervous at all as the women (and I) were moved by this beautiful story of a young man and a dream. There was a heated and passionate discussion regarding the supposed “difference” of two peoples based on a foreign nation. What, in their opinion, was really behind the discord of the Hutu and Tutsis? We discussed why the Belgians were in Rwanda in the first place, what makes people different (and the same) to one another. The importance of following a dream and how that dream sometimes blinds us to what is happening in the world.

These women found parts of the story that they understood and related to on a personal level; love, family, education, running – and felt connected to a young Rwandan boy. This made the discussion blaze with insight and unique ideas. I was astounded at how similar the stories of these U.S. based women were to that of a young boy with nothing but a dream – and yet survived a nightmare.

The author’s passion revolves around issues of social justice; we like fiction with a social consciousness too. The best fiction takes us right to the brink.”

Just a day to be the kid I used to be.

It has been a week of long drives, many coffee stops and remarkable discussions at three different Colorado prison facilities. Despite vastly dissimilar groups, we each cobble together a circle out of Formica tables and plastic chairs, and begin. Each incarcerated man or woman I’ve met is in it for the books, the emerging discussion, the ease and comfort of belonging. (Some are brave enough to admit how much they’re looking forward to the cupcakes at graduation). But they’re all believers, firmly trusting in the power between the pages of the vastly different selections each group will read- as their Words Beyond Bars spring book discussion program begins. Our volunteer facilitators are well-prepared, engaged and welcoming to the newcomers, glad to hear the repeat participants telling the rest, “This program-it’s just all awesome.”

Some highlights:

At Sterling Correctional Facility, the men devoured Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon. A modern day Tom Sawyer, it’s a memoir-ish novel of growing up in rural Alabama in the 1960’s.

A personal observation from a participant: “Sadly, our youthful innocence gets ripped away as we are forced to bear witness to the cruelty and injustice in the world we live in…What wouldn’t I give for the freedom of one more bike ride, the unconditional loyalty of my buddies…”

The book group agreed that in their youth they had heard too many people ask, “Why don’t you grow up?” After reading this evocative novel, they asked, “What’s the hurry?”

The women at La Vista Correctional Facility were handed copies of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother, written in 2007. (and likely not on President Trump’s reading list) It won 2 Pulitzer Prizes when it first came out in the L.A. Times. Enrique is one of the thousands of children and teens who try to enter the U.S. each year in search of their parents. Putting a human face on the ongoing immigration debate will result in a discussion about love, family, and home- something each of the women in the discussion group know a lot about.

Our newest book discussion group is being introduced at the Colorado Correctional Center, a former training facility for the Colorado National Guard. Nicknamed Camp George West, it’s a brand new program and the men will be reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. We are lucky enough to have been assigned a space in the Chapel of Hope, the little faith inspired building on the sprawling bunker-lined campus, where we will explore emotional baggage, the Vietnam War and lost youth. This artful combination of novel, memoir and short story is a moving way to explore reading for literature novices. A meditation on war, memory, imagination and storytelling, these men will hopefully dig down and share a few stories of their own. Considering their past, minus the triggers- just a day to be the kid they were. There is so much value in remembering.

This week demonstrates the benign magic of the book discussion program. The men and women are grateful to have been given a spot in the program, eager to begin, and are more than willing to make the commitment to make reading their priority. As I said- it’s been a week, a week full of humbling riches.

The difference between fighting and doing.

Donald Trump is being inaugurated today and a lot of people are deeply distressed and frantic about our country’s future. Without beating the dead horse of the election, the future is happening beginning today- and it’s made me think a lot about the actions associated with dissent- fury, rage, disbelief and constant conflict.

When I struggle with the status quo of prison policy, I often sense a need to push for change. I am convinced that I have the better argument for reform, am more justified in my frustrations and concerns, and I have the answers to a multitude of problems. Doesn’t anyone else see what I see?

Fights typically end with a perceived winner and loser. Someone got the last word or overpowers the other one.

The goal of conflict is to end up on the same page. Getting my way or proving a point doesn’t motivate conflict. The goal is to become like-minded and capable of understanding each other at a deeper level. Even if the Department of Corrections and myself will never see an issue exactly the same, through conflict, we can gain an appreciation for each other’s perspective. I am privileged to able to bring my volunteer program inside; this is where respect and diplomacy will get me a lot more leverage than fighting against bureaucratic weaknesses.

One of the most powerful things I can do to switch a battle into a healthy conflict is to take a step toward humility. Although I’m the book facilitator, bibliotherapist, and prison reform advocate, I need practice at this if I’m going to stay in this work for the long haul. When concern around the lack of educational opportunities begins to escalate, I have to add to the conversation while demonstrating that I’m not simply motivated to win. Celebrating the outcomes of the Words Beyond Bars program is the best way I know of turning a naysayer into a believer.

This attitude of contributing to change without alienating anyone at the table immediately disarms me and helps me gain perspective. That perspective helps me practice the self-control and humility required to do conflict well.

Conflicts Are Still Conflicts. I’m not suggesting that anyone walk away from an issue when you walk away from a battle. There are some conflicts you must walk through. Avoiding them is neither honest nor beneficial. There are some conflicts in this work that are really stressful. Do we need to offer more educational opportunities to our incarcerated population? Yes. Do we need to switch our management of prisoners from punitive to restorative? Yes. Will this happen overnight? No. We need political will, better training, and an entire paradigm shift. It won’t happen quickly- but I’m already getting started.

The house of change is bigger inside than out.

I left the prison earlier this week after our last meeting of the session, feeling that familiar sense of relief mixed with exhaustion and sadness. It’s been a spectacular four months of book group discussions. However, the rewards come along with a great deal of planning, driving long distances, prep work and the emotional drain of the prison environment. (Metal, concrete, noise.) Our last book was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and the resulting discussion was among the deepest and most demanding we have ever shared. When I found these words amidst a pile of the group’s reflection papers, I was restored.

Book Club. by J.

“I’d like to describe how words beyond bars has effected my life. And how much this program means to me.

This book club brings books to life. It’s always a challenge reading something that you wouldn’t normally read. And this challenge is what effects my life. It’s like “hope.” When your challenged to do something and you do it. You feel great about yourself. It builds self-confidence. And self-awareness. As I face a challenge and overcome it. I’m aware that inside of me lies the ability to over come the fear of failure. Having success in any capacity builds character. It strengthens me from the inside. I have been learning how to value the differences in other people and this book club is the perfect place to learn this principle. We all speak our minds and some people see a book totally different from myself. But it’s awesome to understand someone else’s view. Especially when it inlightens me, that my understanding is wrong. That’s when I grow the most as a man. And that’s what this book club does for me. It challenges me to grow. And I love it.”

Happy New Year to all who share in the belief that books change lives. Here’s to turning many pages in 2017!

(title quote from Michael Ende- The Neverending Story.)

Forget the past, but glance back occasionally to remember…

As our year of transformation through reading and book discussion comes to a close, it’s a perfect time to look back at a challenging but productive year. Challenging in that the political tide is not in favor of prison reform, but productive in that we forge ahead, believing in our program and seeing proof of changed lives every time we meet with our incarcerated readers.

Words Beyond Bars is one program that does, indeed, work. Our statewide program reaches hundreds of incarcerated men and women in five facilities around Colorado, impacting the lives of those serving exceedingly long sentences in maximum-security prisons as well as those in lower security facilities as they prepare for release.

We engaged 72 incarcerated men and women per four-month book discussion session, inviting guest authors to visit and facilitate discussions of their own books. This session we enjoyed local authors Peter Heller and Lisa Jones joining the men for an unforgettable day; the impact of these discussions is powerful and life changing for both the author and the offender.

We traveled 2,732 miles this year to reach the often-distant prisons. 180 poems were written via our adjunct poetry program, On The Same Page United. Through speaking engagements, classroom visits and grassroots collaboration with other stakeholders and allied agencies, our outreach is thriving. Our community-based efforts deliver the message exponentially that education is a win-win investment for taxpayers and the incarcerated both. The Department of Corrections partners with our program and supports our efforts as they identify it as one of their most successful, non-faith based educational programs. Along with reading skills: confidence, comprehension and deep responses to the books we share, we also model pro-socialization and a shift away from criminogenic thinking. In other words, we make it “cool” to carry a book instead of a weapon.

As a result of our recent fundraising event, we have started a conversation among hundreds of attendees around the value of providing access to higher education in our Colorado prisons. It’s a natural next step for us to get behind this issue. Prison education is the most cost effective answer to reducing recidivism as well as our state and national budgets- by billions each year. Let’s limit the endless discourse and get the ball rolling. It’s time.

Like snowflakes, no two readers are the same.

We read Pat Conroy’s novel, The Great Santini, and discussed it at length. In five years of sharing a multitude of novels with our deep thinking, perceptive readers, this book was a “trigger” like no other. We went around the circle and half the men described their fathers as violent and aggressive and as prone to beating and verbal abuse as the novel’s protagonist, Marine fighter pilot Bull Meecham.

I was thinking about Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner in the starring roles of the excellent movie version of the book. We were going to discuss the period of time Conroy captured in the novel: the Vietnam war, the cusp of 1960’s explosive racial tension, the emergence of feminism, and the faltering image of the soldier as an unquestionable hero. But we barely made it there.

Here’s what emerged from the discourse: no two readers read the same book the same way. Actually, every reader enters the story with a past, a life of memories and their own private perspective. The men in the book group disliked the book. It disturbed them and they could barely get through it. There were one or two outliers who enjoyed it and commented on the prose and the unexpected humor, buried within the brutality. The rest of the group drifted back to childhood, describing alcohol-fueled fistfights, witnessing their mothers being hurt, learning to anticipate a pounding.

Every reader reads a different story, although they are all tackling the same novel. The Great Santini brought up much childhood pain, and long anecdotes about neglect, abandonment but ultimate forgiveness. Boys grow up to be men, and fathers themselves. The perspective changes and there is a blur and softening of resentment and hurt. The fathers of these men are dead now, or long estranged. Some of the readers had walked out of their homes forever as teenagers, others reconciled with their fathers once they landed in prison.

Like snowflakes, no two readers experience books the same way. No two readers are alike, which fuels the energy of an unforgettable discussion.

Compassion, by surprise.

Over the course of my 58 years of existence, I can’t recall a time where I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the degree that it could impact the rest of my life. Like most adults, I’ve made mistakes, yet my slips in better judgement either went unnoticed by law enforcement, were not in public or I was just plain lucky.

But, what if things had been different. What if joining a group of friends for an evening included an error in someone’s judgement and things went terribly wrong. What if I was the one to make a bad choice, in a moment. My life might have turned out much differently.

I found out about Words Beyond Bars a couple of years ago, through a casual conversation with Karen Lausa, Founder and Executive Director of the program. When I learned she lead book discussion groups in prisons, I was surprised, I paused, and I was curious.

The concept of regularly setting foot in a prison to discuss books was odd. After all, prisons are where “bad people” go, right?
My perception of the individuals sentenced to prison was that these people had done something from which no one can be redeemed. If they are incarcerated, well, they deserved it. If this was true, what was Karen doing? Voluntarily going to a prison to discuss books with people put behind bars, sometimes for life.

I took the time to find out more. I read articles and watched videos about men and women that had been convicted for various crimes. What I was learning, whether from Karen’s reports of her experience with Words Beyond Bars, or from my own research, was that these human beings behind bars had stories of their own. Accounts of far-from-perfect upbringings, a single terrible choice or possibly being victims themselves of unspeakable circumstances. What I was learning was unforeseen, unexpected.

Of course, some people behind bars have done the unthinkable. And for me, a shift has occurred. I now have a space in my mind to consider the possibility that the incarcerated individual may have been caught up in something beyond their control. Maybe they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m experiencing compassion, by surprise.

Marjorie Alexander
Board Member
Words Beyond Bars

Everyone in the room had a story.


Thanks to Director Hassan Latif and Sean Taylor, Deputy Director of the Second Chance Center, groupAurora, for
inviting me to volunteer with the Never Going Back mentoring group this morning. The men and women who participate are all finding their own path to a second chance after being released from prison. They tell their stories, and each one is unique. Finding work, finding housing, supporting family, staying clean, the burden of responsibility is massive. And so they share. The expression that was repeated over and over again, as each person introduced themselves, is that at the Second Chance Center, they feel like part of a family. Understood, supported, encouraged. Almost everyone in the room has served time. Lots of it. They know the road ahead will be hard, but they show strong determination and spot-on priorities. They are navigating a positive future while realizing that their past has to stay behind them.
Care Manager (don’t call him a case manager) Adam Abdullah facilitated the group, occasionally whispering to a newcomer, “I’ll keep my eyes on you…” Adam peppered his advice and guidance with quotes from Einstein and anecdotes about Patrick Henry and that famous “give me liberty or give me death” line. Not a sound in the room. This isn’t the supervision and control of prison, this is the voice of a person who believes that each person in the room is capable of being successful and making a meaningful life, and oh, yes, being happy. I’m standing here with Sean and newly arrived back in the world, Dietrick. It’s hard not to smile in a place like this.