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."