Imagine you had to spend days, weeks or months in a windowless jail cell waiting for your day in court. You'd get no time outdoors, no educational classes and few sources of mental stimulation. The FreeWriters program is designed to change that by offering people in jail an opportunity for creative expression and emotional release — a rarity in Minnesota jails, said founder Nate Johnson. The writing flows quickly, in short bursts. Participants don't discuss adjectives or metaphors; their writing is not evaluated or critiqued. FreeWriters offers incarcerated people a stress outlet, and maybe even inspires them to contemplate a future outside of cells.
Q. How did you get interested in freewriting in the first place, and where did you get the idea to try it in jails?
A. Before I founded FreeWriters, I worked as a prosecutor in southern Minnesota. I also mentored a highly gifted young man named Joe. I learned that Joe was on probation and that he'd had an extremely traumatic childhood. Joe and I bonded quickly and remain in contact. Back in Minneapolis, I took a writing workshop at the Loft Literary Center, where I learned about freewriting. I thought it was a great tool for self-reflection and stress relief. Meanwhile, Joe violated probation and got 60 days in jail. I visited him and found he'd have no outdoor time, no windows, and no classroom programming besides Bible lessons and 12-step meetings. I taught him freewriting to help him stay sane. He wrote during difficult moments in his cell, and he said it helped. Eventually I asked if others in jail would like it, too. Joe said yes, so I began leading freewriting groups in the downtown Minneapolis jail. The classes were an instant hit. Since fall of 2019, FreeWriters has held classes for more than 1,000 inmates who have written and performed more than 3,000 pieces of writing.
Q. How are jails different from prisons, and how do those differences affect the structure of FreeWriters?
A. The average jail stay is less than a month, which makes it nearly impossible to hold semester-long writing classes like they do in prisons. FreeWriters is able to do a lot of good in county jails because our writers often benefit from a single class.
Q. What are the objectives of the FreeWriters program, and how might they differ from typical prison writing programs?
A. We're not trying to teach anyone how to construct the perfect sentence or narrative. We just want to provide a respectful setting where people can tell their own stories, let off steam, and be heard. I guess it's like literary yoga. In Hennepin County, everyone in jail is "pre-trial," meaning they haven't had their day in court. Many are impressionable young adults, so we meet them at a vulnerable time in their lives — before they've resigned themselves to lives in and out of lockup. If FreeWriters classes can relieve tension and promote self-esteem for these folks, research suggests they'll make better decisions on the outside.
Q. How does a typical session go? What kinds of prompts do you give and how long do participants write?
A. We typically do three 5-minute writing exercises per class, which means participants will spontaneously compose — and afterwards read aloud — three pieces of writing. The prompts can be about whatever — "who I am," "where I'm from," "five years ago," etc. We don't care what they write; we only ask that they keep writing the whole time. When you don't stop and think too long about what you're writing, the writing is more sincere and participants have said you feel more "mentally free" while you're doing it.
Q. How do participants react when reading their own writing or listening to what others wrote?
A. Usually during at least one of our five classes a week, something like the following happens: An inmate dares to write and share something vulnerable. Maybe they've lost custody of their kids, they're scared of relapsing when they get out, they're scared to death of the years they're about to spend in prison. While they present, often through tears, they grab and hold the attention of their peers, and heads begin nodding. Then the reader concludes, wondering whether they just made themselves a target for ridicule. Then comes the wave of applause, usually followed by words of sympathy and encouragement. Finally, we see the writer sit up in their chair with a sense of peace from being heard, validated and comforted. It feels like we're seeing profound emotional healing happen in real-time.
Q. Have you seen evidence that FreeWriters has affected the lives of participants — either between sessions or after they get out of jail?
A. Here's what some inmate-writers have said about the benefits of FreeWriters: "Coming to freewriting class helped my mental health and it's my first time in class." "I feel much better and clear-headed." "This class is like therapy and I really need that right now." "Thank you for getting me outta the unit — I got the opportunity to gain insight and express it vocally. I also got a chance to get to know my fellows." So far, some 15 former participants have connected with us upon release about continuing to meet and write.