The literary discussion gives the floor to former prisoners

The tough-guy mentality that dominates politics today is an alarming backlash against the criminal justice and prison reform movement. It’s now fashionable for politicians to proclaim, just lock them up and bury the key.

Yet numerous studies show that incarceration is costly and ineffective. Prison hardens criminals, and most will return to society with few skills and no hope, and succumb to the evils that drove them out: poverty, violence, isolation.

“People need to understand that the vast majority of the prison population will be released at some point,” says Ken Berry, corporate social responsibility manager and voluntarily specialist at Winston & Strawnlaw.

In his past life, Berry served time for a crime he didn’t commit. He is now Chairman of the Board of Reading Between the Lines, a literature discussion program that gives voice to recently and formerly incarcerated women and men.

The nonprofit was launched in 2013 at halfway houses on Chicago’s West Side.

In group sessions, participants read and unpack great literature—poems, essays, speeches, and short stories—and share their thoughts and ideas.

Lively discussions open doors and open minds, allowing participants to “read between the lines”.

“And in the process, we’re helping them hear their voices,” Joan Shapiro said during a recent Zoom session to promote the program.

Shapiro, a former bank executive, is the founder and executive director of the reading program.

“We support them as they hear their voices, feel validated, and recognize that they have intellectual chops, that they have the ability to exchange ideas, points of different views,” she explained.

The ability to listen, express opinions and exchange ideas improves their communication skills, cultivates confidence and nurtures self-esteem.

When Arnetha Lofton was released from prison, she was skeptical and “tired of the programs,” she said in a video produced by Reading Between the Lines.

“For me, I create my own destiny. I started to like him a lot because he teaches me to communicate. But above all, use my mind,” she added. “Think.”

Participants read and discuss a repertoire of powerful works by literary giants like Maya Angelou, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Franz Kafka, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes.

Maybe for the first time.

According to a 2015 analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute, only 31% of prisoners in Illinois have graduated from high school. Another 19% have GED degrees, but that correlates with a lower annual income than high school graduates will earn, the researchers wrote.

While African Americans made up less than 15% of the state’s population, they made up nearly 60% of the prison population.

“We really have to be concerned about what kind of men and women we release back into society,” Berry said during the Zoom session. “A lot of people talk about public safety. But, you know, if you incarcerate someone for 10 or 20 years, and you know, when they have an education level of eighth grade or less, and they get out of prison the same way 10 or 20 years later, all you’ve done is warehouse that person. You’ve done them a disservice. You’ve also done our community a disservice.

This should concern all of us. “Their options will be very limited, and they could come back and victimize you, or me, or some of our loved ones.”

“We tell people that Reading between the lines will NOT guarantee you a job,” Shapiro says in the video. “But we remind them that if they really benefit from acquiring some of these basic tools and skills, they’re probably more likely to stay in that job.”

It may be the only program of its kind in the country, she said.

Reading Between the Lines serves 600 attendees a year, at four Chicago locations, four times a week, year-round. It is expected to expand.

That could be a way out and stay away. For more information, visit readingbetweenthelines.org.

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish

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