The Common Good

Lessons From Behind Bars

In 2010, Hope House DC received a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. to support participation in the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read project. Hope House placed about 100 copies of Earnest J. Gaines' classic A Lesson Before Dying in two prisons that have high concentrations of District of Columbia inmates.

Prison cellphoto © 2007 Aapo Haapanen | more info (via: Wylio)

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After reading the book, I led inmates through a two-day writing workshops at each facility, as their Humanities Scholar. During this time, participants worked with the study guide materials provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as creating unique writing exercises. You can read more about my experience in Dispatch from Prison: How Strong is Hope?

Using A Lesson Before Dying as a springboard, workshop participants documented their own lessons as essays, which are curated and published on a new website, Lessons From Behind Bars. The writings give powerful voice to the unique legacies that many individuals otherwise silenced by incarceration wish to leave for their children and communities. They have been a catalyst to expand this project to include incarcerated voices from around the country.

This project hopes to help bring home the voices and experiences of residents who have been removed from our neighborhoods and communities, and to keep us mindful of the many ways incarceration affects each and every one of us. For example, James Malone writes:

If I knew that my death was days away, beyond my control, I would pray for a peaceful death, knowing that I have fulfilled my duties on Earth. I would cherish each moment knowing that my existence in this world was not in vain.

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