The lifers book club: Of mice and men, hopes and regrets at the Limon prison
The prisoners report to the officer at the desk, then head into a room awash in sunlight in the visitation area of the Limon Correctional Facility. They murmur soft greetings to each other, squint into the brightness streaming through the windows, quickly choose their seats. For men without prospects, they seem oddly expectant.
And why not? On this day they have been granted a reprieve from an endless routine of tedium and tension. For the next two hours, at least, they are somewhere else. Not in their cells at a high-security prison — although the cells are never far away — but in books.
Today's book is Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, the story of Lennie and George, two guys knocked about by the Great Depression, scraping by on migrant work and dreaming about having their own farm. Less than 30,000 words but packed with disturbing scenes of abuse, social injustice and murder, the 1937 novel is a staple of middle- and high-school English classes — yet still considered sufficiently offensive and even dangerous in some quarters to make librarians' lists of the most challenged books of all time.
Karen Lausa, developer of the Words Beyond Bars project, gets the discussion rolling by asking the men if they know where the title Of Mice and Men comes from. They shake their heads.
The title, like a lot of good book titles, is a story in itself. Steinbeck was going to call his grim, violent fable Something That Happened. He changed his mind, though, after reading the Robert Burns poem "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough." One phrase — "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley" — seemed to hint at the chaotic impulses and tragic consequences he was exploring.
Lausa explains about the Burns poem and the adage it spawned, about the best-laid plans of mice and men often going awry. The men snicker; some flash quick smiles of recognition. Every one of them is serving a long sentence for a terrible crime. They wouldn't be here if their plans hadn't gone seriously wrong many years ago.
Lorenzo Alexander, who was just telling Lausa that he was late to the meeting because a guard in his unit couldn't find his name on the list of prisoners signed up for the book club, knows the concept all too well. "I was counting on coming here," he says, "until 'the best-laid plans of mice and men' happened to me."
The plans hatched by George and Lennie are just as fragile, others point out. This idea of buying land and raising rabbits that dimwitted Lennie can pet — is it a real goal or just a pipe dream? Are these dudes any more in tune with reality than the fools who strut around the yard at Limon talking about all the great things they're going to do when they get out, only to land back inside in a matter of weeks?
Lennie, everyone agrees, totally buys into the dream. George is more complicated. Some studies of the book suggest that George is a hero, taking care of his mentally impaired friend as best he can, right up to the shocking ending. But few men in this room believe in the concept of altruism; to them, George's motives are highly suspect. They see George as a manipulator, exploiting Lennie's strength and childlike trust for his own ends.
"There's a whole lot of Lennies in here," declares Eric James, who's serving 72 years for racketeering, forgery, theft and other charges. "I've used the Lennies to get what I want."
The Lennies are any inmates — slow-witted, mentally ill, frightened or just desperate to belong — who can be intimidated, cajoled, ordered or tricked into doing someone else's bidding. Everyone in the room knows a Lennie or two, by reputation if not direct experience. In the hands of the truly unscrupulous, a Lennie can become a "torpedo," directed to attack another inmate. If the Lennie gets caught and sent to the hole, well, that's one less liability on your crew.
Raymond Johnson, a former gangbanger, recalls a scam his friends used to run on Lennies who didn't know any better than to order a new pair of Reeboks as soon as they arrived at Limon. Two mean-looking SOBs would show up at the Lennie's house and take his shoes away. Johnson would step in, glowering and spitting menace, and make the bad men give the 'Boks back. Then he'd extract thirty bucks from the grateful Lennie for his services — and split it with his two buddies.
It worked just fine until Johnson got busted for his trouble, which made him wonder who was the biggest sucker in the game. "When I first came here, I was so gangbanged out, I'd do whatever my homie told me to do," he says. "I was an idiot. I was a Lennie."
If you knew nothing about these men but their rap sheets, you might suppose they are all Lennies, savage brutes who need to be locked away forever — or maybe even put down, like a sick beast or Steinbeck's Lennie, with a bullet to the brain. Most of the men in the book club are convicted murderers, serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Three were involved in homicides as juveniles, including Johnson; in 1995, when he was sixteen, he and another gangbanger killed a sleeping three-year-old named Casson Xavier Evans during a drive-by in northeast Denver.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
"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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