In Jail, Writing in Short Bursts as Therapy and Performance Art
Before handing pencil and paper to a group of inmates who attended one of his recent writing workshops in jail, Nate Johnson shared three things about his past.
He is a recovering alcoholic.
He has battled depression and anxiety for much of his life.
“And I used to be a prosecutor,” Mr. Johnson disclosed, adding a quick caveat. “I didn’t like that kind of work, and I didn’t do it for very long.”
Then came instructions for free writing, a technique Mr. Johnson brings to jails in the Minneapolis area some 40 times per month, tapping into what he has come to see as an extraordinary pool of literary talent brimming with insights about the criminal justice system.
Immediately after hearing a simple prompt, inmates were told to write furiously, without interruption, for five minutes. The prose didn’t have to make sense. It needn’t be good. The only goal was to turn the sequence of thoughts generated by each prompt into a string of sentences without stopping to think.
The first of three prompts was “patience.” Then came “hard times.” And finally, “this city.”
After each burst of writing, the inmates took turns reading their compositions out loud. Some spoke sheepishly, barely above a murmur. Others, like Aaron Schnagl, delivered their work with theatrical flair.
“Patience — sometimes I think we’re patients of the system, like good genes and good luck maybe missed us,” Mr. Schnagl, 39, read. “Home of the brave, where you’re born a slave, and your own country treats you like an infidel.”
Rapturous applause followed each reading. Some were whimsical. Several took jabs at the bleakness of their ward, where dozens of men breathe the same musty air and get only hints of sunlight through tiny frosted windows.
Recent workshops were attended by inmates awaiting trial on a range of charges that included sex offenses, drug crimes and acts of violence. Given the setting at a county jail rather than a prison where inmates often serve sentences for years or decades, those taking the class were still well connected to the world outside and anxious about their fate in the courts.
There were multiple allusions to racism, commentary about the ways crime gets punished in America and reflections on how poverty and privilege dictate life trajectories.
“When it’s over, they’re left with this document they’ve produced, this piece of art, this confessional,” Mr. Johnson said. “It works the way having a good cry works.”
Over the course of a life with more stumbles than triumphs, Mr. Johnson, 44, has experienced a fair amount of heartache. Which is how he came to see writing in short bursts as a therapeutic intervention, a means to take a hard look within and make peace with a turbulent mind.
He was born and raised in small towns in southwestern Minnesota, where his outlook was shaped by conservative relatives and hours spent listening to right-wing talk radio. At the urging of an uncle who was a Republican congressman, Mr. Johnson studied political science and later enrolled in law school at the University of Iowa.
During those years, he was crippled by depression and a nagging sense of dread, Mr. Johnson said, which drove him to drink heavily and led him to graduate near the bottom of his law school class in 2005.
After law school, Mr. Johnson worked on a failed Republican gubernatorial campaign in Oregon, which made him realize politics was not his thing. Seeking adventure and a sense of purpose, in 2006 he joined the Navy but was injured two years later while training for a deployment to Afghanistan, which prevented him from going. That effectively ended his military career.
Mr. Johnson stopped drinking in late 2011 after joining Alcoholics Anonymous. After four failed attempts,he passed the bar exam in 2014. Four years later, he took a job as prosecutor in Waseca, a small town south of Minneapolis, thinking the position might allow him to steer other people with substance abuse and mental health issues to treatment rather than prison. He found the work soul-crushing and quit after just six months.
Shortly afterward, he attended a workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he got his first taste of free writing. It was taught as a tool to overcome writer’s block and to quickly knock out a rough draft. But Mr. Johnson found himself free writing frequently in his spare time, finding in the practice peace, clarity and inspiration.
The idea of turning free writing into a career came to him in 2019 while visiting a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous in jail. Seeking to lift the friend’s spirits, Mr. Johnson guided him through a prompt-based writing session, which became a habit to break the tedium of days behind bars.
In the fall of 2019, Mr. Johnson approached the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the largest jail in the state, and asked if he could teach free writing to inmates. Sheriff Dawanna S. Witt loved the idea. Having watched a brother go to prison, she had long felt jails and prisons needed to do more to help inmates overcome trauma and turn their lives around.
“Not everybody who does horrific things are monsters,” said Sheriff Witt, the first woman and Black person to serve in the role. “We should be thinking about how we can save people from going deeper down that hole.”
After the classes became popular in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, Mr. Johnson founded a nonprofit organization called FreeWriters and trained a handful of instructors. They run workshops in jails in neighboring Ramsey and Anoka Counties.
Tyrone Stanifer, a regular at Mr. Johnson’s classes, credited free writing with building camaraderie among inmates. During a recent class, he wrote about the pain of losing his mother while he was incarcerated, which prompted an outpouring of support from other inmates. He has come to see writing as the only form of therapy available to him, Mr. Stanifer, 36, said.
“I just let whatever goes through my mind go on the paper,” he said. “That’s where the magic happens.”
During a recent workshop in the Hennepin County women’s jail, Desiree Thin Elk, 42, teared up while reading a dispatch about things she missed on the outside. She yearned to hear church bells, she said, to explore parks with her husband, and to eat ice cream from Dairy Queen. What she wouldn’t do for a “large Blizzard or a banana split,” she wrote.
Kortney Roe, 34, wrote about people who sleep in parks at night “fighting internal demons that stem from some kind of hurt in the past.” She continued: “Wish I could be a mentor or something to help them talk and show them some love, and that this, too, shall pass.”
Since 2019, Mr. Johnson has heard and read tens of thousands of dispatches from inmates. He has come to view this ever-expanding literary collection as an indictment of the criminal justice system. Too often, he said, the nation’s understaffed and underfunded jails drive people deeper into despair, making recidivism more likely.
Several prisons have writing programs that have generated critically acclaimed work and provided intimate glimpses into life behind bars in the United States, which has the largest population of incarcerated people in the world. But few jails, which tend to be transient, have programs like Free Writers.
Mr. Johnson said he is under no illusions that free writing will fix systemic problems in the criminal justice system. But he is confident it can alleviate suffering and has the potential to change perceptions about people charged with crimes.
“There are so many people in jail who are of above-average intelligence and even brilliant,” he said. “I wish we could stop thinking of these folks as a cancer on the body politic and recognize they can be an asset.”
Ernesto Londoño is a national correspondent based in the Midwest who keeps a close eye on drug use and counternarcotics policy in the United States. More about Ernesto Londoño
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