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”

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

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

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

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

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

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.