Taking the “Big Read” to the “Big House”

Earnest J. Gaines
Earnest J. Gaines

I’m really honored and excited to be the humanities scholar for Hope House D.C‘s “Big Read” project at two Maryland prisons in early May.  The two-day writing workshops–one at a federal prison and one at a state maximum-security prison–will focus on Earnest J. Gaines’ wonderful novel A Lesson Before Dying.

I corresponded with Gaines several years ago for an interview with him published in Sojourners magazine (“A Lesson for Living” by Dale W. Brown) and have always admired his work, particularly The Autobiography Miss Jane Pitman.  Workshop participants will work toward writing their own lessons before dying – particularly the lessons they want to pass on to their children. Then they’ll submit their work for publication on a Web site created by Hope House D.C. I hope that through these writing workshops, I can in a small way help “proclaim release to the captives” and hear that liberating shout for myself as well.

Here’s a little more about the “Lessons From Behind Bars” project:

Hope House D.C.’s “Lessons From Behind Bars” project is a humanities-based writing project aimed at providing a cultural and educational snapshot of values, beliefs and behaviors shared by Washington, D.C., prisoners, an increasing segment of our community.  As a result of the closing of Lorton Prison in the late 1990s, thousands of Washington, D.C., residents are now incarcerated hundreds of miles away from our city.  In the past decade few things have had a greater impact on District families than this.

Many District of Columbia inmates do not have consistent communication with their family members.  With limited communication, these inmates do not have an opportunity to share their experiences, not even with family members. The sharing of communication allows us to better understand one another and provides an oral history that can be shared from generation to generation. Consequently, a project of this magnitude is extremely important in order to bring the shared experiences of these inmates back to Washington, D.C.  It is imperative that the community have an opportunity to understand the cultural, emotional and social impact the closure of Lorton had on us as well as the role high rates of incarceration has played on our city.

Washington, D.C., leads the nation in rates of incarceration. The act of incarceration and the effects of the isolation create a unique cultural experience for the inmates, their loved ones and the community at-large.  The primary purpose of this project is to capture, catalogue and publicly share the experiences, viewpoints and perspectives of this unique and often-overlooked component of our community.  Although, prisoners are out-of-sight, their experiences should not be out-of-mind.  While, many may frown upon these members of our communities, they are in fact products of our city.

This project will once again bring the voices of our exiled citizens home.  To fully understand how the closure of Lorton has affected our city and the fabric of our community, we must continue to hear these voices.  Hope House DC plans to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read project.  We will place about 100 copies of the Earnest J. Gaines book “A Lesson Before Dying” in two prisons with high concentrations of District of Columbia inmates.

Hope House DC has worked with fathers in 15 prisons for more than a decade, and has a track record of providing excellent and thoughtful programs for fathers in prison.  This project is intended to benefit the residents of Washington, D.C., by spotlighting a civic and social occurrence that has greatly impacted our city over the past thirty years.  Since the 1980s, Washington, D.C., has witnessed an increase in rates of incarceration. This has affected thousands of Washington, D.C., residents and families. All of this was exacerbated with the closure of Lorton.  This project will bring back to Washington, D.C., the voices and experiences of residents who have been removed from their neighborhoods and communities. This project will impact the city by helping us to understand how incarceration affects each and every one of us.

Find out more about Hope House here.

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