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So over the past five months, Lausa's group has toured post-Napoleonic France with Victor Hugo and the rice paddies of Vietnam with Tim O'Brien. They've argued over the dark future presented in Lois Lowry's dystopian young-adult novel The Giver and compared their own lot to life in a Soviet labor camp as described by Solzhenitsyn. Lausa encourages the men to keep journals, recording their reactions to what they are reading, but receives back mostly just quotes from the texts. While they're eager to discuss what they think of the books and the ideas they raise, none of them want to commit their thoughts to writing, for fear that they would be used against them by prison authorities.

Other snags have developed. When it comes time to discuss Steinbeck, four of the twelve members of the group are missing. Two have health problems. The other two have chosen not to attend because of personal issues with Mr. Steinbeck or the Words Beyond Bars project.

One of the dropouts has a problem with the copious use of the word "nigger" in Of Mice and Men. Lausa listens impassively as Eric James conveys the missing inmate's objections. "For any book to be considered a classic, for people to say that's okay, it's not," he says.

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.

Ind responds that the N-word is used profligately in prison, too, even by white guys rapping along with Tupac. "Should the book reflect historical realities?" he asks.

James looks at him and somberly shakes his head. "You're book-smart," he says, "but you don't have the experience we have."

Lausa is unruffled. In a group almost equally divided among whites, blacks and Hispanics, the topic of race is never far away; O'Brien's The Things They Carried had prompted a heated discussion of affirmative action, among other subjects. "I'm sad this book offended [the inmate] and he felt he had to leave the group," she says. "But I don't censor books."

The other absentee has an entirely different reason for calling it quits. He wrote Lausa a letter explaining that, while he appreciated what the group was trying to accomplish, he'd spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement, at the state supermax and elsewhere, and was having trouble speaking his mind.

"For some odd reason this program has had the ability to get men to open up and express themselves who otherwise wouldn't, due to trust issues and many years of constructing walls around their thoughts and feelings," he wrote. "It sounds outlandish, but it's custom that a man's currency can be measured by his silence.... I feel someone more receptive and willing to express [himself] will be better suited for this program."

Lausa wrote back, urging the inmate to rethink his decision and stressing that his contribution to the group was more valuable than he realized. At the next meeting, the man was back, talking animatedly about Les Misérables and holding his own.

***********

Once upon a time — okay, it was during the Gulf War — Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper Seth Brady Tucker decided that what he really wanted to do with his life was read books and write poetry and fiction.

"I started writing poetry in a foxhole in the middle of nowhere," Tucker recalls. "It was really terrible, awful, self-indulgent poetry. But if there was a moment of transition, that would probably be it for me. Literature saved my life in the Persian Gulf — my spiritual life, anyway."

Now a prize-winning poet who teaches at the University of Colorado and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Tucker is a great believer in the transformative power of good writing. So when Lausa asked him to be the guest speaker at the launch of the Words Beyond Bars Project, he quickly accepted.

"I was going to give them this spiel about how education can be their salvation, but I had no idea what the day-to-day life of these prisoners is like," he says. "I suspect I learned a lot more talking to those guys afterward than they did from my speech."

Lausa invited Tucker to lead the discussion of The Things They Carried. It was an electric session; Tucker hadn't anticipated finding so much common ground with society's pariahs, talking about a war that ended before some of them were even born. The prisoners seemed to identify, at some primal level, with the battle-scarred soldiers in O'Brien's interconnected stories, most of them drafted into a conflict they barely understood; it was, perhaps, a bit like being in a gang, with its camaraderie and posturing and the sense of being a conscript. ("Whether it's true or not, they believe they were drafted into their life of crime," Tucker notes.) They also dug Tucker's story of being born in a foxhole; many felt that they, too, had been forged by violent episodes in their families or in the streets.

Tucker left the session with tears in his eyes, astonished that he'd been able to relate so strongly to the prisoners' own stories. "I feel for the victims of the crimes these guys have committed," he says. "But you see this unwillingness to fold, even if this is it for them, the end of the road — and I find that pretty admirable. I've been through tough scenarios in my life, but I wonder how they do it. If they can find the enthusiasm and energy to still have hope in such a situation, then maybe I haven't given hope enough credit in my own life."

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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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