Lausa suggests that literary discussion gives the inmates a safe way of reflecting on their own follies and strengths, under the guise of analyzing a character's actions or motives. It's also an opportunity for individual thought and expression in an environment that encourages regimented groupthink. That's no small gift, as becomes abundantly clear when the group tackles Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Denisovich is an average Ivan caught in the vicious gears of a totalitarian system. He's not a criminal; he's not even the deserter he's accused of being. But he has no time to question the cosmic injustice of it all. He's too busy scrambling for food and shelter in his harsh labor camp, bribing the right guards, ingratiating himself with the right people, working his ass off and standing in lines. It all reminds Erik Jensen, the third juvenile lifer in the group, of the way inmates at Limon vie for a place in line on the rare occasion when doughnuts are available. People become intensely focused on the doughnuts.

"Most people on the street make more decisions in one hour of the morning than we make all day," he says. "It's easy to start letting others make your decisions for you."

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.

"Men need a pattern in their lives," James says. "They want to follow, not to lead."

"Real leadership is hard to find," Jensen agrees.

Talking about books has made Jensen and a few others comfortable enough to share some of their own poetry and sketches with Lausa. Tucker has seen some of their writing, too. The underlying subject matter can be compelling, but the efforts are, for the most part, like a lot of prison writing — oddly flat and unstructured, journal-like, with no sense of being intended for a particular audience. It's a voice in the darkness, talking to itself.

"I try to explain to them how audience works," Tucker says. "You can't write stories about yourself if you can't teach an audience to care."

The group will have one more opportunity to consider the demands of audience when it meets next week to discuss the final book in the pilot program, A Place to Stand, Jimmy Santiago Baca's unsparing memoir about overcoming his own illiteracy in a prison. Then Lausa will conduct a post-program assessment, crunching numbers and assembling data that's expected to confirm what already seems anecdotally evident — that the Words Beyond Bars program can meet its modest goals of promoting better reading and discussion skills, and possibly contribute to positive changes in attitudes and behavior as well.

As things were winding down, Ind offered his own appraisal of the program in a long, thoughtful letter. Despite the tendency of convicts to stray into "war stories" about prison life or their criminal careers, he was generally thrilled by the caliber of discussion, he writes: "We missed some real opportunities to talk about guilt, the harm we caused others, and fear...[but] positive experiences like this go a long way toward mutual understanding and respect. The system is defying our expectations by allowing this program, and it appears that we are defying theirs by getting along respectfully."

Warden Falk is already looking forward to launching a second group this spring. "From what I've seen, I believe this makes a difference in these men's lives," she says.

Lausa has also had discussions with officials at the Denver women's prison and the Youthful Offender System in Pueblo about starting similar book groups. But first she wants to prepare a graduation party for the Limon group's last meeting, featuring a forbidden treat, something so coveted by inmates that considerable paperwork is required to obtain authorization to bring it into a Colorado prison.

"I want to bring doughnuts," she says. "If I win this doughnut thing, that's going to be a major victory."

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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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