Aspen Ideas: Helping prison inmates turn the page through poetry

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
A group of volunteers gathered at the Mountain Chalet on Tuesday to workshop poems from prison inmates in a program run by the nonprofit On the Same Page United.
Courtesy photo |

Learn more about the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop and On the Same Page United at

Stacks of poems were piled on tables at the Mountain Chalet on Tuesday afternoon, the verses passed around among a group of writers and volunteers who scribbled feedback in the margins.

At first glance it may have seemed like a standard poetry workshop. Only the poets weren’t there — they’re inmates in prisons around the U.S.

One inmate named DeCario wrote a celebratory poem about the joy of writing itself, titled “Pen Fiend.” Another named Gerald wrote a mournful rhyme of apology to the grandmother who raised him, apologizing for letting her down and leaving her alone, hoping to redeem himself when he gets out. A pastoral poem captured the view from a cell window. Another explored the forgotten lives of unvisited graves in a cemetery.

The poems will make their way from Aspen, back to the inmates, with handwritten commentary from the workshop hosted by On the Same Page United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

“It’s not really a comment on a poem,” Tara Libert, the program’s executive director and co-founder, told the Aspen group. “It’s a message saying, ‘We believe in your journey of change.’”

On the Same Page is an offshoot of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which runs a program with juvenile inmates in Washington’s jails. Last year, Libert and co-founder Kelli Taylor won the Aspen Ideas Award — a $25,000 grant that allowed them to launch On the Same Page in communities and prisons across the U.S. The nonprofit returned to Ideas Fest this week to report on their year of expanded programming.

Free Minds was born 20 years ago, when Taylor — then a television producer — received a letter from a death-row inmate named Glen Charles McGinnis. He’d been convicted of a murder he committed at age 17. Through their correspondence, Taylor and McGinnis started a book club — reading the same titles and discussing them in letters until McGinnis was executed in Texas in 2000.

Through that experience Taylor saw writing, reading and the validation of intellectual exchange with people on the outside as a key tool for giving prisoners a chance to succeed after release. Five years ago, Free Minds began bringing stacks of inmate poems to events across the city, where volunteers gathered to read and respond in writing directly on the pages.

“What we didn’t anticipate was the effect it would have on the volunteers and the way it would change the whole conversation about incarceration,” Taylor said.

For prisoner poets, receiving validation from the outside can be a lifeline to society.

“They had done harm to the community, they’d gone away to prison and they didn’t feel a part of the community anymore,” Libert said. “But when they got the comments from all different kinds of people, it helped them feel more connected, that they were not so shunned and isolated.”

The crowd at the Mountain Chalet included members of the Aspen Poets’ Society and a group from Denver that runs writing workshops in Colorado correctional facilities as well as a Massachusetts prosecutor and criminal justice reform advocates in town for the Ideas Fest.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, the acclaimed poet who emerged from prison to write the memoir “A Question of Freedom” and the recent collection “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” was among the group writing feedback to the inmate poets. It also included Betts’ childhood friend Marcus Bullock. After release from prison in 2004, Bullock founded Flikshop, a free app that enables incarcerated people to receive mail and postcards from the outside, and Flikshop School of Business, which teaches life skills and entrepreneurship to incarcerated youth.

The Aspen Institute announced this week that Bullock and Betts won the 2016 Aspen Ideas Award, which will help fund a program bringing them and others who have found success after prison back into correctional facilities as mentors.

“We can go back into prison and tell stories of success between ourselves and other friends that have come home from prison and become successful authors, educators, lawyers, bartenders, business owners,” Bullock said. “We’re going back into prison and we’re going to tell our stories.”

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