Literature discussion gives voice to the formerly incarcerated

In Reading Between the Lines group sessions, participants read and dissect great literature — poems, essays, speeches and short stories — and share their reflections and ideas.

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The non-profit Reading Between the Lines was launched in 2013 at halfway houses on Chicago’s West Side. 

The non-profit Reading Between the Lines was launched in 2013 at halfway houses on Chicago’s West Side.

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The tough-on-crime mentality dominating today’s politics is an alarming backlash against the criminal justice and prison reform movement. It’s now fashionable for politicians to proclaim “just lock ’em up and bury the key.”

Yet many studies show incarceration is costly and ineffective. Prison hardens the criminal, and most will return to society with few skills and no hope, and succumb to the ills that sent them away — poverty, violence, isolation.

“People need to understand that the vast majority of the prison population will be released at some point,” says Ken Berry, a corporate social responsibility and pro bono specialist at the Winston & Strawn law firm.

In his past life, Berry did prison time for a crime he did not commit. He now serves as board chair of Reading Between the Lines, a literature discussion program that gives voice to recently and formerly incarcerated women and men.

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The non-profit was launched in 2013 at halfway houses on Chicago’s West Side.

In the group sessions, participants read and dissect great literature — poems, essays, speeches and short stories — and share their reflections and ideas.

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

“And in the process, we are helping them hear their voice,” Joan Shapiro said at a recent Zoom session to promote the program.

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

“We’re accompanying them as they hear their voice, as they feel validated and recognize that they have intellectual chops, that they have the capacity to exchange ideas, different points of view,” she explained.

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

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

“For me, I create my own destiny. I started liking it a lot because it teaches me how to communicate. But most of all, use my mind,” she added. “Think.”

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

Perhaps, for the first time.

Just 31% of Illinois prisoners earned a high school degree, according to a 2015 analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute. Another 19% have GED diplomas, but this correlates with less 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 represented nearly 60% of the prison population.

“We need to really be concerned about the type of men and women that we are releasing back into society,” Berry said at the Zoom session. “Many people talk about public safety. But you know, if you incarcerate somebody for 10 years or 20 years, and you know, when they have an educational level of eighth grade or less, and they leave prison the same way 10 or 20 years later, all you’ve done is warehouse that person. You’ve done that person a disservice. You’ve also done our community a disservice.”

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That should matter to all of us. “Their options will be very limited, and they may come back and victimize you, or I 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 do remind them that if they really take advantage of building some of these core tools and skills, that they’re probably more likely to keep that job.”

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

Reading Between the Lines serves 600 participants annually at four Chicago locations, four times a week, year-round. There are plans to expand.

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

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish

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