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  • Chris Cotton

Free Writers

It sounds like a strange name for a group of inmates who have to scramble to get on a list to attend a weekly one hour class to write. But, as you'll learn, it fits for reasons which matter a great deal even if they are not evident to those on the outside. Our people write, using prompts given to them, for five minutes. They don't have the prompts ahead of time, so the topic is new and the words spontaneous. There are only a few rules, but they are not to be broken:

  1. Everyone writes, including the instructor.

  2. Everyone is encouraged to read what they write aloud to the class, but no one is forced to share.

  3. Nothing is off limits. Nothing.

  4. What's shared in Free Writers is not to be used back in the block to bully or attack.

  5. At the conclusion of someone reading their "write" everyone will clap.

These are the rules of the class itself and it's edifying to see our participants follow them to a "T". They hold one another accountable and hold the instructor's feet to the fire too. This was a revelation to LITE leadership that has proven to be true across our class offerings - that our rules will be honored and respected. Then there are the rules of the jail in particular and being incarcerated in general. These rules are where "Free Writers" takes on a new connotation. There is nothing free inside - from basic needs (commissary accounts pad the bottom line of private corporations) to communication with loved ones on the outside to time; it's all accounted for and comes at a high cost. We knew writing to be transformative and wanted to ensure pens and composition books did not become one of the costs making life inside more difficult.


Our volunteers and donors have ensured there are pens to use in the class. These must be returned at the conclusion of each class as they are contraband in the block. But for the hour our writers are with us, they can use a real pen. And each participant gets his or her own composition book to keep. They're encouraged to write outside the class and keep all these writes in the book. If one of our people fills a book, we give them another no questions asked. The only requirement is being registered for the class and participating.


What we have observed is eye opening; eye popping even. People sharing their feelings who never did before. People understanding themselves, their strengths and weaknesses for the first time. People forgiving themselves and others for past, and current, wrongs. People taking responsibility for decisions and actions. People planning and writing down goals and dreaming big. Men and women realizing it's never too late to start making good decisions.


Here are this week's prompts...




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