Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.

These are the much-quoted first lines of the final stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem ‘To Althea, from prison.’ Richard Lovelace was one of the dashing young cavaliers of the English civil war, a metaphysical poet sent to prison for presenting a royalist petition in support of pro-royalist bishops. He used the time to compose this, his most famous poem. Written to a possibly fictional lover, the poem expresses a theme common to much of the literature composed in prison; you cannot imprison the human mind.

Despite the walls around him he can imagine his beloved and so he ends the poem with the lines-

“If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”

The poetry crafted by the men currently incarcerated at Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado are writing from the same belief in the freedom of the mind, as unlocked enthusiastically by poet professor Wayne Gilbert.

In Professor Gilbert’s words:

“Poetry is powerful medicine. It nourishes resilience, heals the vulnerable, wounded heart, and encourages the exploration of new, more positive identities. One (incarcerated) poet recently told me, “I can’t continue to be the person I was, because “he” is what brought me here- so, I’m trying to re-create myself. Poetry is the way I explore the possibilities.”

Reading and writing poetry is all about making new meanings for new, more satisfying ways of moving in the world.”

Richard Lovelace would agree.

So in this amazing way, via the thread of words on paper, the power in stating LISTEN TO ME through powerful and revealing poetry and prose, is how we survive. To let loose ones unbridled self, the you under your skin, under the covers, cowering in a prison cell, we turn off the big red switch of a critical mind and ego, and we verify the meaning of our lives. Wayne Gilbert encourages and celebrates the poets’ willingness to explore and savor their own personal stories and write them down in the deepest, truest way.

When we read, we can launch into our memories and find our own story; when we write poetry, we call up our joys and sorrows and they land there on paper, like a newborn child who has sloughed off their hurt in the process of self-discovery. Poetry rocks and rules in Wayne Gilbert’s classroom. His group of poets, though controlled by restrictions and regulations, removed from society and left to stew inside those stone walls and iron bars, have in their hearts and souls found a way to fly free.

Unlocking Stories: The Work of Words Beyond Bars

StoryCenter Editor’s Note: Karen attended a StoryCenter Digital Storytelling Workshop last spring, in Denver, CO. We’re looking forward to continuing to support her work with incarcerated men and women. This is the story she brought to the workshop, the result of which is her video below.

After a rocky start, with plenty of naysayers breathing down my neck, I piloted the Words Beyond Bars program at Limon Correctional Facility, a vast teal and purple themed concrete and razor-wired Colorado prison complex. I sat in a circle in the visiting room with my first 12 participants wedged behind tables, with a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and a 79-cent composition book in front of them. The men exhibited empathy, wisdom and gratitude right from the start. Slightly mystified by my energy and encouragement, they shared their own stories of the burdens they carried.

At the age of 50, a proverbial fork in the road had appeared before me. I became miserably stuck and uncertain, while the passion I’d felt for my library career drained away with every hour I sat behind the reference desk. Always a “Plan B” type of person, I rallied by trying to access something in my future that I could feel passionate about. I trained as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and rebooted myself as an advocate for abused and neglected children. I supported public policy improvements for a woefully broken child protection system.

Fascinated and disturbed by our foster care system, I noticed the number of kids headed to prison. Still very much children, and right on the coattails of being emancipated by a system that had underserved them, too many of them turned to criminal behavior and found themselves incarcerated—for brutally long sentences, and occasionally for life.

I longed to get inside these prisons and connect with these kids labeled “JLWOPS,” juvenile lifers without possibility of parole. This was a new direction, and I had to figure out how to gain access to these young people by making myself useful in some way. What had I loved the most from my library days? Certainly it was the community book discussion groups: the conversation, the analysis, the sharing of opinions, and the camaraderie of experiencing a good read. That was it. I could bring all of that to incarcerated men and women, and share the gift of an unforgettable book.

The book magic had worked. The racial barriers softened, the conversation flowed, and I heard laughter—laughter not of shaming, but of relating. Seven years and hundreds of books later, we’re still reading. And when we meet every two weeks to explore a book and our lives, we’re telling our own stories, too.

This summer, I was introduced to StoryCenter and invited to participate in a three-day digital storytelling workshop. I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell, but I approached the opportunity with curiosity. I was feeling exhausted from all of my travelling to prisons to facilitate groups. I was forever short of funding and other support, and chronically troubled by the prison culture I was exposed to during every visit, but I grabbed a bag of almonds and a banana, and drove off to the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, in Denver. As if it were the first day of school, I dressed carefully, made sure I was on time, and I didn’t forget my laptop charger.

Sitting with the group of fellow workshop students that first morning, we took the risk of sharing our stories with each other in a Story Circle. We wrote and revised our draft scripts several times, mapping them out for the next step, when we would begin to fit the pieces together and bring them to life. So much of what works in this process seemed to hinge on what to leave out. Less is definitely more when it comes to a three-minute story.

By the end of the first day, there were tears and connections made through that truth serum I recognized as vulnerability. Close listening, relating, puzzlement, and questioning brought us together. Each person had their own memories, fears, and triggers, and we worked together to distill each of them into a deeply personal story. Our facilitators fed the joyfully intense process by guiding us towards making our scripts become fully dimensional and able to reach an audience through sparse narrative, but precise images and sounds.

By day three, our stories came to life, and we ate popcorn in a darkened room, savoring each other’s transformed stories as they appeared on the screen at the front of the room. I was already worried about having to say goodbye.

View Karen’s Story, “Darth Vader Clogs”

The impact of the workshop has expanded my vision of how storytelling can shift our understanding of the world and each other. For me, finally, the story of Words Beyond Bars became greater than the process of me simply talking. It was the clink of a chain-link fence, a perfect bit of background music, and a zoom into the faces of the book group guys. The depth and detail of my emotions could find light with just a few words. The script I’d pared down a dozen times with the help of Mary Ann and Holly. I recognized conflict, misgivings, attachment, and invisible boundaries in a three-minute story.

I watched my own story with a lump in my throat, thinking, I created this. I sat in that space, realizing that the struggle I’d been ignoring was that I was actually half in and half out of my nonprofit work, frustrated and suffering, with a touch of compassion fatigue. My labor of love was wearing me down.

I think we are, all of us, storytellers, looking for our voice. Spending time with this digital storytelling group over three days helped me diagnose what had been troubling me, and led me to consider several possibilities for expanding the experience I had in the StoryCenter workshop. Now I’m imagining episodes and chapters, not just in books, but also from an internal space, where a memory or experience has been buried.

The digital storytelling method transforms that need for truth telling, organizing our anecdotes, and sharing them with others. I have a renewed passion—a passion to help draw those stories out. Next month I’m heading toSan Quentin prison in California, for a tour of their arts in corrections programming. I’m going to meet the men who produce Ear Hustle, the first podcast that is recorded inside the jail, and I’m going to imagine the men I meet telling more stories through StoryCenter workshops—stories that will prevent future conflict and teach constructive problem solving.

Stories can fight bitterness, violence, and despair, the way a reader can resolve conflicts through character and plot. And here’s the thing. Digital storytelling only requires a memory, or perspective, or newly discovered insight to free the teller, and through this process we all wind up connected. We all feel compassion, and we feel less alone.

The impact of the workshop has expanded my vision of how storytelling can shift our understanding of the world and each other. For me, finally, the story of Words Beyond Bars became greater than the process of me simply talking. It was the clink of a chain-link fence, a perfect bit of background music, and a zoom into the faces of the book group guys. The depth and detail of my emotions could find light with just a few words. The script I’d pared down a dozen times with the help of Mary Ann and Holly. I recognized conflict, misgivings, attachment, and invisible boundaries in a three-minute story.

I watched my own story with a lump in my throat, thinking, I created this. I sat in that space, realizing that the struggle I’d been ignoring was that I was actually half in and half out of my nonprofit work, frustrated and suffering, with a touch of compassion fatigue. My labor of love was wearing me down.

I think we are, all of us, storytellers, looking for our voice. Spending time with this digital storytelling group over three days helped me diagnose what had been troubling me, and led me to consider several possibilities for expanding the experience I had in the StoryCenter workshop. Now I’m imagining episodes and chapters, not just in books, but also from an internal space, where a memory or experience has been buried.

The digital storytelling method transforms that need for truth telling, organizing our anecdotes, and sharing them with others. I have a renewed passion—a passion to help draw those stories out. Next month I’m heading to San Quentin prison in California, for a tour of their arts in corrections programming. I’m going to meet the men who produce Ear Hustle, the first podcast that is recorded inside the jail, and I’m going to imagine the men I meet telling more stories through StoryCenter workshops—stories that will prevent future conflict and teach constructive problem solving.

Stories can fight bitterness, violence, and despair, the way a reader can resolve conflicts through character and plot. And here’s the thing. Digital storytelling only requires a memory, or perspective, or newly discovered insight to free the teller, and through this process we all wind up connected. We all feel compassion, and we feel less alone.

Hope on a full stomach.

In the last scene of the emotionally wrenching film “Antwone Fisher” dining room doors are opened to reveal a massive feast that Antwone had dreamed of earlier in his difficult life. There before him is a table laden with breads and fruits and massive roasts and an unimaginable bounty for a man who is far too familiar with hunger.

That’s what our graduation luncheon at Sterling Correctional Facility always reminds me of, as the men arrive expectantly, volunteering to set the long table and arrange the food for the book group. We are celebrating the completion of a four month session, having read eight books in their entirety, as we have traveled to war torn Sarajevo, apartheid South Africa, reconstruction era Texas and Trujillo ruled Dominican Republic. The group has sometimes been wildly enthusiastic about the books and sometimes reported finding them a painful slog. Still, as I hand out the handcrafted diplomas, I point out our successes, and the individual ways that every one of the readers has been an asset to our community and brought something valuable to the discourse.

Red checkered plastic picnic tablecloths are thrown over laminated metal tables, transformed with paper platters filled with cold cuts, rolls, seven varieties of Pringles, cheeses, fresh fruit and a heavy emphasis on dessert. We even have guacamole and pickles, honey mustard and Miracle Whip! The men take turns lining up to pile their plates. Massive sandwiches are constructed and the sturdy paper plates nearly topple with the extras the men can’t resist.

Then we begin. The rooms feel festive. A few enthusiastic teachers join us and nibble chips and observe the diploma ceremony, during which I enjoy telling stories about each of the group members, like a soccer coach handing out trophies after a last match. There’s laughter and clapping, and most important, validation. Gracious, smiling while chewing, we discuss literature with the ease and confidence of college students. Just about every one had loved our last book, Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, the only argument being what was funny and what was sad. This is an individual judgment that is fueled by their own internal triggers, which we also discuss.

I admire their strong opinions and ability to connect themes, remember plot flaws. There is a rich sense of commonality as well as a respect for differences. They grab their diplomas and pose for a photo. The prison walls fade in the background, just like those dining room doors opened in the film, and within, many painful pasts are exposed and new hope begins, on a full stomach.

Support Words Beyond Bars on Colorado Gives Day

Tuesday, December 5 is Colorado Gives Day, an incentive to encourage online giving and philanthropy for local organizations. We want to take this day to thank our friends, fellow readers, and social justice warriors who support Words Beyond Bars.

The fight for change and transformation is never done alone and we have been overwhelmed by the support we have received from our local communities and beyond this past year. We ran the program in three prisons, engaging over 70 prisoners across the state and reading over 40 books of all lengths, genres, and styles. Your involvement and assistance help us travel to the facilities, purchase books and supplies for the men and women, and continue to fight for a restorative system.

We encourage you to learn more about how to become involved and support the program with a donation today.

The reading gear in your head turns the writing gear.

Steven King, revered by most of the readers in our book group, warns: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

This makes me consider how exactly does reading influence your writing?

Over the past six years, we have read endlessly together in our book groups. One novel after another, quite a demanding schedule for each four-month session. I ask each participant to hand me what I call a “reflection paper ”after finishing each book, which I justify as ensurance that each person invests in the program. This discourages a tendency in some to simply sit back and listen with an occasional vague comment thrown in on the coattails of someone else’s testimony. Each reader has an opportunity to get thoughts down on paper, expand on their response to the group, with the spotlight all theirs as they put their words on an 8×11 piece of notebook paper. I remind them that it’s not school, I’m not grading anything, and the grammar or punctuation police will not be in attendance. Still, they struggle with this.

However, unimaginably, the reflection papers change with each book, and they improve and become insightful and original, and ultimately astonishing.

How does this happen? I’m not “teaching” and I’m not focusing on creative writing. They have their 79-cent composition book journals, yes, but where’s the thread between the reading and their worn down pencils?

In the prison, where many might wish they had superpowers, reading is what makes you more of a superhuman.
When we discuss the books we’ve just finished, as in any book club you might imagine, there are those who want to talk and share their ideas, often dominating the group a bit or flying off onto tangents. (Yes, I’m guilty of this too.) But there are also those who have trouble engaging, often a bit vacant, but not really- I’ve learned that there are demons in everyday prison life and the men have worries, and anxiety and often slip away into places I cannot reach. These men are content to be silent, although I am certain that they are glad to be sitting with us and are listening, taking in the experience.
Reflection papers encourage superheroes to transform from the reluctant conversationalist to the pundit on paper. This is the byproduct of reading that lets me peek in at the magic, talent and unique perspective of each participant. Reading has broadened their vocabulary, their subject knowledge has deepened, and reading helps them remember grammar without learning it formally.

The writing helps the readers overcome stress. It keeps their brains in shape as they listen while I read their papers aloud and share (where did this amazing trust come from?) their prose. Writing helps cultivate what I’ve learned is a “theory of mind” – when you are able to read thoughts and feelings of people, broadening imagination and empathy.
Most of all, the books are a source of inspiration, which translates into wonderful writing.

•  “Unforgiving desolation that only a romantic spirit can appreciate”
C.S.

• “The smallness of we Kings of Nothing against the unsympathetic immensity of nature”
C.S.

• “…wandering away from his loss, lost in the struggles of what ifs and if-onlys.”
J.K.

• “America is one big concession stand ready to offer you a hotdog, bag of sugar or ammunition.”
D.M.

• “The ceaseless torment, the inability to find respite in wake or dream. It was like an old sweater to me.”
N.Y.

These lines make my heart leap. Science confirms that reading has a positive influence on your brain: blood flows to it and brain functioning and connectivity improve. No good writing is possible without reading. Everything you learn as a reader, you can access as a writer afterward. These book group guys now have an ace up their sleeve, they can now read a book with an eye for writing, and they may not even realize it.
Write on.

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.”

A Glimpse of What Can Be.

Part 3.

We’re out in the yard now, and there are groups of men everywhere, hanging out in small groups, sitting around steel tables or playing basketball while others count push-ups. We’re walking along a crooked path of concrete walkways and stairs; nothing like the carefully planned layout of any more recently designed prison. Our first stop is an art class, where an engaged and friendly teacher is having the men re-create book covers for novels. It’s a quiet space; the artists are hunched over their work in concentration. The reimagined covers are professional and boldly imagined improvements over some classic covers I recognize. There is an unfamiliar feeling here- things seem relaxed; it’s nearly impossible to know these men are prisoners, they could be students in a college drawing class.

At San Quentin, many of the incarcerated men we meet have emerged as thought leaders and hard-working, dedicated inmates producing professional work in their areas of passion and expertise. We meet “Wall Street” and watch his TED talk- he’s the guru of financial literacy at the prison, and he provides us with a riveting lesson on separating our financial decisions from our emotional ones.

We are here, in part, because we follow Ear Hustle, the extraordinary podcast that takes the listener inside San Quentin prison and presents a different story every few weeks, always authentic and gripping and personal.

Arriving at the media offices, we are ushered into the San Quentin News newsroom, which shares offices with a video production team as well as a dedicated space where Ear Hustle is produced and recorded.  Written by prisoners, the newspaper advances social justice by highlighting positive programs and legislative solutions to bring attention to mass incarceration.

The men are buzzing with purpose and productivity- thrilled to meet us and as cordial as seasoned professionals. Meeting Earlonne, co-host of Ear Hustle and Antwone, the program’s sound designer, is a high point of the morning. These are men serving brutally long sentences to life, but you wouldn’t know it from the life-affirming attitude that is projected throughout the studio. We pose for photos, ask questions about the schedule on the whiteboard, marvel over the sound engineering software. We meet different volunteer “coaches” working with prisoners and their projects in the office, and with a supportive liaison to the outside world, everyone appears to manage without the almighty Internet.

Part 4.

It’s an oddly natural scene, unimaginable at any other facility I’ve ever spent time in. We are waiting for an escort to walk us from the newsroom back to Steve Emrick’s office. The facility is large and sprawling, and we need to be patient until someone can assist us. The office guys are sitting out in the sun on old upholstered office chairs, highlighter in hand and what looks like newspaper galleys they’re proofing. They invite us to sit down. They pull up some chairs, and then we are hanging out at San Quentin, with a sense of regret as we realize it’s time to leave. Although everyone seems to have something more they want to show us and tell us about, by mid-afternoon we’re overwhelmed, in the best possible way.

Imagine the possibilities. That phrase keeps running through my head as I look around and do one more reality check as I pass across the yard again. It’s a rough place, but there is a force of goodness here too.

T.S. Eliot says in his poem, Ash Wednesday,

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks.

Part 5.

My thoughts, as we say our thank you and goodbyes, are all over the place- returning over and over again to the difference between the struggle I often feel I am facing with the Words Beyond Bars program and the ease I felt with Steve Emrick, as he explained why book discussion is not a priority for him right now: He has college classes being taught inside, local professors teaching English with a reading syllabus. The incarcerated readers are being provided with the means to an Associate’s degree, and many are studying hard after a day’s work. While this is not the same as dissecting a novel in a small community of readers, with expectations for community building and increased self-esteem, we are all, education-minded as we are, barking up the right tree. San Quentin has fed the spirit building given of life that reminds me that everything is meant to shift and change. San Quentin reminded me not to lose sight of the essential humanity of those who commit terrible crimes, and to never give up on another’s transformation.

Part 6.

Sitting on the deck of a Golden Gate ferry heading back to San Francisco, we watch the prison fade from view. The foamy wake behind us seems to part some impossible sea between the men we’d met and the life we were returning to. We were unaware that San Francisco Fleet Week, a beloved public event to honor the contributions of the US Armed Forces was the reason that the Blue Angels were flying in dramatic perfection overhead. Somehow the awe-inspiring display conjured up image of a path forward, just as the prison disappeared out of view.

A middle-aged woman seated behind me tapped me on the shoulder, having read the T-shirt I’d worn proudly for the visit. “Did you just read to the prisoners?” she asked me. “That place just gives me shivers,” she commented, pulling her arms tightly around her, as if in protection from her vision of monsters.  “Oh, there are a lot of good guys there. They’re not all what you’re imagining.”

I left it at that and turned around to take in what was left of the trip.

Traveling beyond the expected.

Part 1 of a 4-part series.

Seagulls. Sparkling water and endless blue sky. A million dollar view. We are standing outside San Quentin State Prison, after saying goodbye to Norman, the Lyft driver we chatted with during the morning rush hour on Hwy 101, as he shared stories of growing up in Berkeley, coming of age in the Sixties, doing a tour in Vietnam. As he yanked out a tissue from between the seats, he dabbed his eyes and excused himself for becoming teary. “It’s just that I don’t often have a chance to talk about it all, he said,” as we reassured him that we understood.

After all, we were on our way to spend the day touring the oldest prison in California, looking for answers, inspiration, a different way of seeing things. Norman, who confessed that he’d been a prison guard himself back in the day, dropped us off at the front gate at 8:55 am sharp. We were immediately aware of the relaxed and welcoming demeanor of the officer checking traffic and individuals entering the property. If you gaze past the concertina wire and California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation signage, the prison looks like a Hollywood set. An ancient stucco-fronted building marked “Hospital” appears to be a perfect place to tie up a horse while stopping inside for a whiskey.

Part 2 of a 4-part series.

Steve Emrick, Community Partnership Manager, is just back from a few days off, and he’s playing catch up with a phone ringing and a steady flow staff stopping in his office, but he remains focused and interested in our discussion. It’s clear that San Quentin has many visitors and Steve is adept at being pulled in many directions at once. We are the visitors from Colorado and are warmly welcomed by everyone.

Steve Emrick arrived at San Quentin with a background in art and education, clearly a different breed from the more prevalent law enforcement or criminal justice professional. This is a man, we learned, who is willing to try innovative educational offerings from theatre to painting to poetry to creative writing, all strengthened by a relationship with California Arts-in-Corrections, a rare program that years ago, spearheaded a humanizing approach to lifting men up through learning and prison arts.

After an introduction to Emrick’s stick-his-neck-out approach to encouraging art and education, we begin a tour of the prison. Leaving his office we notice the staff greeting each other and us as friendly passersby, remarking on the beautiful day, saying hello to men working or reaching out to Steve with a question. With each person, whether in the administrative offices or a worker wearing prison attire, he is patient, knowledgeable and generous with his answers to endless questions. There is a vibe here we aren’t used to. There is a pleasant feeling, everyone complicit in approaching their role with humanity rather than wielding power over the powerless.

[The next installment in this series will be posted on Sunday, October 15]

When a Participant in the Book Group Astounds Me.

I learned long ago that the men are more intelligent, empathetic and far wiser than the stereotypic image of a felon belies. Antoine took the initiative to share a book review he’d noticed, and taped it carefully to his reflection paper, so that I could read it. Just like the author profiled in the article, Antoine recognized how we, together, have found a commonality through the processing of words, how we have been touched by certain sentences or passages. We have learned from each other that the very different prisms through which people from very dissimilar backgrounds view things can cause them to absorb and react to words- perhaps even to life-differently.  Just like the man in the article, one by one, our literary works have re-lit Antoine’s curiosity, intellect and hope. And for me, like Michelle Kuo, the author of the book, Reading with Patrick, the exercise ushered in greater awareness of society and myself.

After a riveting discussion of Wally Lamb’s This Much I Know Is True, the subject changed to “current events” at a difficult time in our country. We spoke about race and Us vs. Them mentality in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

The divisiveness and cruelty of that shameful moment in recent history resonated differently for my group of incarcerated readers. Prison is not a place of peace. Any sense of calm and absence of fear and violence must be nurtured from inside the mind. Regarding the Neo-Nazi riot, there was a business as usual response when I asked them about the violence and hatred. That climate of clashing ideologies, which our country witnessed on big screen TV, from the spin of Fox news to CNN, is a climate they are familiar with. The book group serves as sanctuary from all that.

As a facilitator of a group of diverse men with many different stories, it is grounding and strengthening to receive feedback from a person like Antoine, who doesn’t miss a thing.

I Know This Much Is True.

“Shiva represents the reproductive power of destruction. The power of renovation. Which is why he’s here in this room, where we dismantle and rebuild.” (226)

Destruction is a key part of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, the second novel the men at Sterling are reading for Words Beyond Bars’ Summer Binge. Most of the novel’s characters come face to face with some type of destructive force – a person, an event, their own psyche. Some overcome their trials and tribulations, others falter. Still others remain blissfully unaware that destruction has entered their lives.

I imagine that destruction has touched the lives of the men incarcerated at Sterling as well. One need only look to their prison sentences. But what comes after everything has fallen apart? These men have to contend with their personal carnage on a daily basis from the confines of their cells. It’s hard to fathom such an isolated reckoning. Sure, it may be warranted – a crime is a crime and there is a legal system in our country to deal with these crimes (though the myriad injustices and failures of the system are well documented, that is a discussion for another time) – but that doesn’t make the evaluative process any easier.

Thanks to programs like Words Beyond Bars the process of renovation that springs from the ashes of destruction finds its way into the minds of the men. Through introspection and dialogue facilitated by literature the men confront the ignorance, pain, and illusions that destruction has wrought in their own lives, paving the way for beneficial change. With each journal entry, book discussion, reflection paper, the men have opportunities to dismantle and rebuild.

The Hindu belief in destruction not as an arbitrary event but as a constructive force is a valuable and instructive insight into the nature of life. I hope the men recognize the benefits of destruction as illustrated through Wally Lamb’s indelible characters. Of course the story of the Birdsey twins and their extended family is filled with pain and guilt and turmoil but ultimately these are necessary evils on the path toward growth.

It’s easy enough for a third-party outsider to posit the insights this novel should generate. Time will tell what the men take away from the story. But at least the men will have had the opportunity to assess their own relationship with destruction by examining the novel’s relationship with it. At least they will be given the opportunity, in a classroom of a high security prison, to dismantle and rebuild.

Guest post written by Ian Lausa