CNCounty News

Writing program in Minnesota county jails provides catharsis

Hennepin County inmates listen as a FreeWriters participant shares his writing with them.

FreeWriters, an organization that runs prompt-based, five-minute writing exercises out of Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka county jails, is working to creatively engage inmates in a way that makes them feel heard. 

Due to budget constraints and their transient nature, county jails usually don’t have the same breadth of programming that prisons do. While the average length of stay in jails across the country is 25 days, some people are in county jails for years waiting for sentencing, leaving them with limited resources.

The concept of freewriting was developed in the 1970s by Peter Elbow to encourage people to write without overthinking and increase “idea flow.” Nate Johnson, a former prosecutor and the founder of FreeWriters, first learned about the technique through a writing course at the Loft Literary Center, an arts organization in Hennepin County, and found that it helped him manage his anxiety and depression. 

“When we read them out loud, I was amazed at how total strangers were making each other laugh and cry,” Johnson said. “I just thought the whole thing was so cathartic, both the writing and the performing.” 

Johnson introduced the writing exercise to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsee Joe, who was an inmate in Hennepin County Jail at the time, after visiting him. Learning about Joe’s day-to-day and the lack of creative programming in the county jail made Johnson imagine ways he could “stay sane” in the same situation, particularly in a way that would keep him on track to resume therapy and the A.A. 12-step program upon release, and freewriting came to mind, he said.

Ideally, pre-trial county jails “should be hospitals more than prisons, because these people are presumed innocent and are, almost by definition, poor otherwise they would bail out,” he noted.

Across the country, seven million people get sent to jail each year; of those, about 60% cannot afford bail, according to The Bail Project.

But instead of being “mental health and addiction treatment facilities,” Johnson said, jails are often “windowless, fluorescently lit rooms with warring factions and untreated mental illness. 

“We are making people crazy who have not even yet completely given themselves over to organized crime,” he said. “We’re sending them that way and wasting money doing it.”

When Joe quickly took to freewriting, Johnson said he realized that it was something that could potentially benefit all of the county jail inmates, so he contacted the Hennepin County’s Sheriff’s Office to propose him coming in and teaching freewriting to interested inmates as part of the Helping Others by Providing Education (HOPE) initiative, which also includes recovery services, workforce training and faith-based programs. 

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Adam Hernke, the HOPE program coordinator at the jail, said the flexible structure of freewriting is what makes it an ideal program for the county jail, where most average an 11-day stay.

“You don’t have to build upon it from a lesson plan,” Hernke said. “There are many organizations that want to do a 12-step program or ‘Thank you for attending, next week, we’re going to build upon that.’ … In freewriting, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been through this 16 times or never, the process is the same.”

There was some skepticism around what could be gained from the program at first, but residents have since specifically asked when FreeWriters is coming back to the county jail because they enjoy it so much, Hernke said. What started as four sessions a week with Johnson as the only instructor has grown into a 12-teacher operation with 10 classes a week in three county jails. 

“When we first said ‘FreeWriters,’ everyone immediately said, ‘I’m not a writer; I don’t write,’” Hernke said. “Well, you don’t have to be a ‘writer’ to write … When that first person reads out loud, other people can see what it’s doing for them, and you can physically see that emotional release of, ‘OK, look what I just did, look what I accomplished. I see what they’re doing — I want that.’” A key element to the program is that the teacher also writes, which reduces tension and creates a more communal feel, Johnson said. The first prompt Johnson gave to his class was “The blood in my veins…”

“This old man read the most moving prose poem about patriotism and God and racism and slavery and family in Africa,” Johnson said. “When he was done the whole room erupted in applause and then everybody else’s hand went up — they wanted to read.”

Johnson’s goals for the organization are for freewriting to be offered in every metro county jail by 2030 and to create a model in which FreeWriters participants become instructors, post-incarceration, he said. At least one in four people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year, a disproportionate number of whom live below the poverty line and struggle with mental illness and/or substance use disorder, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In an effort to disrupt what Johnson refers to as the “poverty incarceration cycle,” the organization has contracted with four former FreeWriters students to teach, help with transportation and perform advocacy work. 

Lawrence Peterson, a FreeWriters instructor, said he’s always loved poetry and reconnected with writing during his six-year prison sentence. He learned about freewriting after he was released and said part of what drew him to it was its short timeframe.  

“Freewriting doesn’t put pressure on you, but it makes you lock in really quick,” Peterson said. 

“If I just gave you a prompt, some people might write for 15 or 30 minutes, but if I say ‘five minutes,’ it puts a little pressure on you to dig deep and think really fast. I look at it like it’s a shot clock in a basketball game.”

Having the shared experience of incarceration has been beneficial in making participants feel comfortable and building a sense of trust, Peterson said. 

“Introducing ourselves really breaks the ice like, ‘Hey, my name is Lawrence, I just got off of parole.’ So, their guard’s down, they’re like ‘OK, he’s one of us,’” Peterson said. “When I write, I write pretty deep and I’m pretty vulnerable. It’s usually about something I’m going through, or something I’ve been through. So I just try to be open with them, to let them know that they can be open here and everything stays here.”

Peterson doesn’t teach freewriting at the county jails, but leads sessions intended for formerly incarcerated individuals every Wednesday at the workforce and community development nonprofit EMERGE Minnesota and every other Thursday at a local church. He’s been teaching and helping with transportation to and from the classes for around five months.

“It’s basically like a safety zone for these guys,” Peterson said. “Some of these guys are in a halfway house or just coming out of prison. They’re in environments where they really can’t be free like that, so when they come to freewriting, they get to be free again. I’m just there to be a beacon of light and show people that you got a second chance in life and you can do whatever you want.”

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