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Yet among the lifers at Limon, this group is regarded as the cream. Some have dramatically changed direction since their conviction. Johnson, for example, converted to Islam in prison and was deemed genuine enough in his rehabilitation to be permitted to meet with his victim's mother last year and express his remorse for his crime — the first such encounter allowed in the state prison system's fledgling restorative justice program. They all have their GEDs, and their exemplary behavior has earned them a spot in an honors pod, as well as selection by the warden for the Words Beyond Bars program, which has a long waiting list of hopeful volunteers.

The pilot program, which began last fall and winds down this month, is the first of its kind in the Colorado Department of Corrections. It's a volunteer effort, spearheaded by Lausa, an ex-librarian operating with almost no funds but with the strong support of the administration at Limon. And Lausa is convinced that, as corrections officials see what the program can accomplish, Words Beyond Bars will soon expand into other prisons.

"I totally believe that books transform people," she says. "They have power. My objective is to expose these men to characters and stories, to show them people grappling with real issues — and, to the extent they can connect with that, to help them develop a stronger sense of humanity and dignity."

Ex-librarian Karen Lausa volunteered to take the Words Beyond Bars concept to high-security inmates at the Limon prison — and soon had a waiting list for the program.
Eric Magnussen
Ex-librarian Karen Lausa volunteered to take the Words Beyond Bars concept to high-security inmates at the Limon prison — and soon had a waiting list for the program.
Book discussion participants (from left) Jacob Ind, Eric James, Erik Jensen, Raymond Johnson and Ronald Kultgen are all serving long sentences; Ind, Jensen and Johnson are serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
Book discussion participants (from left) Jacob Ind, Eric James, Erik Jensen, Raymond Johnson and Ronald Kultgen are all serving long sentences; Ind, Jensen and Johnson are serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

A book club may seem like no big deal, but for men trying to better themselves in a place they may never leave, it's something close to a godsend. The discussion bobs and weaves as the group seeks to fathom Steinbeck's characters and their passions and how they live and die in a world that's quite different from Limon — and yet oddly familiar. They struggle to relate what they're reading, about disastrous choices and guilt and loss and the possibility of redemption, to their own experiences: Isn't everybody somebody's Lennie at some point? Aren't most people content to be followers rather than leaders? Don't people on the outside build their own prisons? It's just a book they're talking about, but along the way, each disputant learns a great deal about the other members of the group. And maybe a few uncomfortable truths about himself.

"I thought a book club was a woman's thing, but I showed up and was proven wrong on all my assumptions," says Ronald Kultgen, who's up for parole next year. "I started my sixteenth year this month, and books have been a constant companion of mine, yet this journey has opened my mind to the ideas of others."

"I really love the program," says Jacob Ind, one of the juvie lifers in the group, who recently turned 35 — meaning he's already spent more of his life behind bars than outside. "I can go have a conversation that isn't about cock and ass jokes, stories of getting high, or about why this guy or that guy is 'no good.' For those few hours, we can talk about deeper issues and the human condition. We can rise above the filth in here and be normal people for a while."

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The lack of prison programs for inmates serving long sentences has long been a concern of criminal-justice reform groups, including Denver's own Pendulum Foundation, which advocates on a national level for prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. In most state corrections systems, precious educational programs and vocational training and even substance-abuse counseling are primarily accorded to those inmates who are soon due for release, to better prepare them for life on the street.

While that makes sense to a point, critics contend that depriving lifers of any path to achievement beyond a GED makes them more isolated — and harder to manage.

"Pendulum has been fighting for years to get programs into the prisons, particularly for juvenile lifers," says Mary Ellen Johnson, the foundation's director. "They don't get the same opportunity for programs, treatment and services as those who have a parole date. We believe if these guys are educated — and they're hungry for education — they're not going to get into as much trouble."

Johnson has known Jacob Ind for almost two decades. She was on his defense team when he went on trial for the 1992 murders of his mother and stepfather, and she later wrote a book about the case. Despite testimony from his brother that fifteen-year-old Jacob had endured years of physical and sexual abuse from the couple, he was sentenced as an adult to life without parole ("The Killer and Mrs. Johnson," March 19, 1998). Since getting involved in Pendulum, Johnson has heard from many of the state's 51 juvie lifers about not having much in the way of programs.

Two years ago, Johnson was lamenting the situation at lunch with Karen Lausa. Lausa has worked as a court-appointed special advocate for neglected children in Jefferson County, as a volunteer at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, and as a Pendulum boardmember. But before that, she was a librarian in upstate New York, with considerable experience organizing book discussion groups. When Johnson described efforts to set up some kind of "distance learning program" and the hurdles involved in getting books and tests to the inmates, Lausa volunteered to go into a prison every couple of weeks and lead a discussion of great works of literature.

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5 comments
patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator topcommentereditor

I would like to publish some of these comments in the Letters to the Editor column in our print edition, ideally with your full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com.

Captaingrumpy
Captaingrumpy

Something else prisoners should not have. They should Re-Introduce the workshops to make items for charity etc.  Too much time on their hands does NOT help them. For the Low  security prisoners , get them out to clean up the highwaysshes and picking up rubbish.Real community service. Prison today is too much like a motel. They get three hot meals , which is more tham a lot of heroic veterans get.

sephsaverio
sephsaverio

Bravo, Alan! As usual, your articles are not only well written and informative of the hidden facts, but inspirational too. Keep 'em coming.

As a member of Colorado DOC and the Fed's clientele alumni, I attest to the transformational power of good Lliterature. It turned two and a half years of solitary confinement within an eight year sentence into a think tank of bliss for me. Of course, a whole lot of Burpees picked up the slack, but together, Fitness and Literature, repelled the symptoms of SHU Syndrome that cause unnecessary insanity and suicide. They still work like a charm now that I am free and functioning in a maddening paced world. 

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

CDOC is mostly interested in 'private' programs that generate money for people like Bill Owens, & that thief before him, Ritter . ANY & EVERYTHING D.O.C. adopts, MUST profit someone or it wouldn't be considered .

If the public only knew and understood the use & abuse of .56 cents per day labor . You'd be AMAZED where the MASSIVE profits are going . It's NOT back into the facilities as they would have everyone to believe . 

No one w/ any kind of clout has the balls to investigate AND prosecute prison officials & former Gov's . Trust,  the courts have their backs ! It's 'Shaw Shank' w/ better grammar  & modern day facilities .

Frank
Frank

We need more programs like this- ones that don't cost taxpayers a fortune and especially ones that encourage intellectual thought over religious preachings. 

 
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