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

Being okay with the unknown.

Googling for inspiration among the thousands of quotes about disappointment, I found one that seemed empowering instead of fueling a sour grapes letdown.

“The size of your success is measured by the strength of your desire; the size of your dream, and how you handle disappointment along the way.” (This is attributed to Hercules, but I doubt it.)

After three months of waiting… while working exceedingly hard, fueled by determination and lots of encouragement from the grantor, our non-profit was not selected for a grant we were certain we would receive. The 7 stages of “grief” began immediately- (awareness attributed here to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.)

I will name them here:

Slight return to blaming

We are too small. We don’t have the capacity for growth that would make us a good candidate for investing. We are passionate and powerful in our testimonials about our work, but growth and financial stability seem insurmountable tasks. Our constituency does not impact 51% of the Denver Metro area. We aren’t sustainable without a payroll. And on and on. As I said, I became instantly embroiled in the Fury stage upon receiving the news.

As the Blaming stage emerged, I noted that the individuals who had wooed us in the early stages of the grant application process were now turning cold towards us. With discomfort and embarrassment, they implied that mistakes were made in assessing our application. They loved us, but they just couldn’t fund us.

We work inside prisons. We work despite the presence of deeply rooted issues and dynamic and complex challenges that make light work of food pantries and puppy mills. We impact far more than 51% of the Denver Metro area if you consider that when a man or woman goes to prison, their whole family goes with them. We serve the hearts of those left behind by letting their family members know they have not been forgotten. By letting their loved ones know that more than a horrific moment defines them in time. We work to bring literature and enlightenment, hope and humanity to those individuals who are doing long, hard time to life sentences and have few options for education. At the Questioning stage, I asked myself repeatedly, “Why won’t they take a chance on us? We can and will do great things. We have fertile ground for impacting reform and social justice, one reader at a time. Ah, how easily Resignation does a U-turn back to Blaming. It’s understandable.

If “disappointment is the action of your brain readjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were,” then we’re making progress.

Our small but mighty team of volunteers, facilitators, and Board members suddenly rally round: “We will forge ahead. We will find the money. Think of the book group participants.” It’s time for a wine and whine party. Empowered once more by purpose and determination, there’s work to do and books to buy. Pages to be read, important issues to explore. Personally, I’m working with being okay with the unknown. A hard task for a planner and I’m-going-to-control-the-universe type, but there’s a softening happening, a definite Acceptance. And from whom will I gain the absolute greatest compassion; support and brainstorm fueled next steps? The 12 men who sit in a circle to discuss a novel, through which they see the world and a new perspective every time they finish a book. Not getting this grant- it’s peanuts.

Summer Binge, Sterling 2017

A secret union between a nun and a surgeon, orphaned twins, and Ethiopia on the brink of revolution. That’s what we’re considering as the Sterling book group reads Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese, as a selection of our first summer reading program. (This is not your old punishing “summer school” curriculum like I took in high school, three times in a row, for failing my typing class.) This program is an extension of our regular book discussion group, for those (imagine, every hand raised when asked who was interested) who could not imagine a break from reading over the summer months. I chose books by length this time, to offer a month to the guys to finish these 600-900 page tomes. They were fine with that!

Threaded throughout this spellbinding saga, is a theme of caring for the sick and the different ways healing can be administered. It’s a book about doctors and medicine, but the bigger picture is a theme of healing. Through “words of comfort” is how we heal the sick, but these words also help those who are emotionally wounded. Fear of mortality is not a universal emotion, the reader discovers, as one of the twin brothers observes that in Ethiopia, patients assume that all illnesses are fatal and that death is expected… but in America, news of a fatal illness “always seemed to come as a surprise, as if we took it for granted that we were all immortal.”

A beautiful, epic tale of love, loss, family, betrayal, forgiveness, medicine and healing, with characters that come alive through the trials and triumphs of their journeys. Looking forward to the challenge and pleasure of our discussion on July 10. Download the flyer as shared with our Sterling Correctional Facility participants.

“I go back to my cell and see my life differently. I want to keep reading.”

Our first book discussion group pilot at the Colorado Correctional Center offered up an invaluable lesson about introducing education and group engagement to incarcerated readers. These guys are distracted. They’re thinking about their futures once released. They’re waiting. Not everyone who is curious about our new program is up to it. At the first meeting they’re gung-ho, but then a few seem to get lost and don’t return.

I have noticed that incarceration, unfortunately, can encourage drifting, a reluctance to push oneself. This is particularly important to resist before re-entry, but, it’s still easy to coast to the finish line. Our original group of readers got smaller and smaller. Week after week, a few lost interest, some came and went and a couple left the facility.

Rather than focus on them, it’s important to pay attention to the success- the intrepid four who read the books, engaged in discussions that were sometimes challenging and often emotionally charged, requiring a good hard look at themselves. They’re the guys who celebrated last night, cupcakes, diplomas and a huge sense of accomplishment.

This new program requires patience and compassion. Serving time is stressful and monotonous. Everyone is trying to figure things out. Why did Tuesdays With Morrie shift one man’s entire perspective? Why did The Alchemist grab others? Why did one book engage and another disappoint? They just want to keep reading.


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.”