Prison literacy program ‘Freedom Reads’ offers inmate expression outlet

In front of a group of about 70 women, Professor Randall Horst read from his own book of poetry.

The title of the book, #289-128, is his inmate number from his time in prison. The poems all reflected his experience with the criminal justice system and a life spent in the gray walls of a cell.

"Since incarceration, writing was a thing that sort of saved me," said Horton, who earned a PhD after his release and now teaches at a college in Connecticut.

His audience nodded and applauded in appreciation for his words. They’re all inmates of the women’s prison in Shakopee.

"I love literature, I love reading, I love learning," said inmate Ciashia Lee. "It’s taught me a lot

This was an audience who understand the relief brought by literature.

"Well, I mean I’ve been reading my whole life," said fellow inmate Heather Horst. "Books have been huge to me, but then when I came in here I read them a little bit differently."

Professor Horton’s visit was part of a non-profit initiative called "Freedom Reads," who brings authors and artists and actors into prisons across the country.  So far this year, they’ve made more than 50 stops.

"Well it’s important because I understand the population that I’m going to talk to, totally," said Horton. "I understand it because I was one of the people that people came inside to do something for and I remember the impact it had on me."

But this tour is also part of a literary first: they’re collecting votes for the first ever major book prize entirely selected by those incarcerated.

The six-state, 12-prison tour began in April.

In Minnesota, votes were collected in Faribault and in Shakopee. The prize will be announced in June.

Freedom Reads also has another major mission – it’s working to get small libraries into every single cell block of every single prison in America.

"I think that’s what makes us different is we bring our libraries directly into a housing unit," said Steven Pankhurst, who joined the staff of Freedom Reads after just shy of 30 years in prison himself.

"These libraries contain 500 books or a curated collection… So, they’re the same 500 in every housing unit. We’re in over 300 housing units nationwide right now," he says.

Measurements were taken in Shakopee to build custom libraries to add here, too.

"I think for us reading is kind of a way of life in here," said Heather Horst. "I mean I walk and read a book because I don’t want to get involved in anything bad. I want to stay on my track. Books kind of help us do that."