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It was a simple idea, but getting Words Beyond Bars launched in the Colorado Department of Corrections took almost a year. The system hadn't seen anything like it before. Although all of the state-operated prisons have libraries, none have book clubs. "I think there should be a book discussion group in every prison in Colorado," Lausa says. "Not just a lending library, where some dullard in a blue uniform gives out 1969 issues of National Geographic. That's not library service."

The DOC does have its own core reading program, centered on teaching the precepts of Steven Covey's best-selling self-help manual, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (The Covey gospel has been embraced by so many penologists that there's even a spinoff tailored to convicts, The 7 Habits on the Inside.) And other nonprofits conduct prison programs that promote reading, but those programs are overwhelmingly religious in nature, as Lausa discovered when she took the mandatory training required of DOC volunteers. Out of dozens of people who attended her training session, she was the only one who wasn't representing a faith-based organization.

Selling a reading program to the DOC bureaucracy that wasn't centered on the Bible, the Koran or Covey was difficult. "I had to learn how prison administrators think," Lausa says. "They're concerned with controlling their population. It's always about their rules and regulations, and after a while, innovative people just walk away. But I wasn't willing to do that. I figured if I just walk away, they win."

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.

Lausa developed a PowerPoint presentation, citing studies indicating that "bibliotherapy," by promoting literacy and social skills and behavior changes, helps to reduce recidivism. That helped get the attention of the DOC brass under the new leadership of executive director Tom Clements, who's made a priority of keeping offenders from returning to the system.

"It's a very different environment than it was under [former director Ari] Zavaras," notes Johnson. "The parole board is letting more people out. I don't think they want a high recidivism rate — and this works."

Lausa also found allies among the leadership at Limon, a "close security" prison (between medium and maximum security) that houses close to a thousand inmates. Angel Medina, Limon's warden at the time, encouraged Lausa to bring her pilot program there. Medina saw the book club as filling a need among his high-risk population, some of whom might actually get out some day; even the juvenile lifers may see their sentences reduced in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last June that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional ("The Old Boys," November 29, 2012).

"Mr. Clements had really challenged us to expand our volunteer programs, and we wanted to get beyond faith-based programs," Medina says. "These are some of our most dangerous and violent offenders, and here was an opportunity to offer a bit more than we otherwise could."

Medina left Limon last summer to become the warden at the Fremont Correctional Facility. His successor, Frances Falk, selected the prisoners who would participate. Initially, the thinking had been to target problem inmates who seemed headed for the hole, but staffing concerns and other considerations prompted Falk to select a diverse group from the prison's Incentive Living Program — inmates who've earned privileges by demonstrating good behavior. It didn't matter, she says, if the volunteers chosen for Words Beyond Bars were serving life sentences or might some day be released.

"Whether they're going to be released or not, this is their home," Falk says. "These are men who have demonstrated positive behavior, who want to participate, and can benefit from an opportunity to get together for honest, open discussion in a safe environment. It improves their quality of life while they are here."

Once she was given the green light, Lausa found herself in an unexpected quandary about the curriculum. There was little funding available to buy books — a state library fund chipped in some start-up money, but most of the books were funded by a grant from Pendulum and out of Lausa's own pocket — and officials advised her to expect a middle-school reading level or less. She researched what prison book groups in other states were reading and was advised to include plenty of titles about inner-city life and the struggles of African-American working-class families in particular.

She threw out her proposed book list after the first session. The group ripped apart the inaugural assignment, Cooked, a memoir by Jeff Henderson about his journey from cocaine dealer to prison dishwasher to top chef. Lausa thought the group would find Henderson's story inspiring; instead, several prisoners were skeptical of his account and suggested he was still hustling his readers. Lausa decided she was doing the group a disservice by not bringing more challenging books to them, on subjects far removed from their immediate experience.

"The authorities gave me every impression that the reading level and intelligence of these guys was way lower than it is," she says. "As soon as I heard them talk about Cooked, I thought, 'Not only can they read, but they read well.' It made me realize that trying to fit the titles to someone's background is baloney. It's insulting. There's no reason an incarcerated African-American can't enjoy Les Misérables as much as anyone else. Literature is for everyone."

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5 comments
patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

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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