Seated in a classroom connected to their cell block at the Hennepin County jail, 15 inmates are scribbling in silence as part of a freewriting workshop.
Instructor Nate Johnson gives them a prompt — in this case the year 2010 — before starting a 5-minute timer and telling them to write whatever comes to mind.
Some produce heavy stories of sadness, addiction and loss. Others craft lighthearted rhymes and observations. Then members of this class, which was held Sept. 19, take turns reading out loud.
"You mean 2010 the year, or just the number? I was 13 years younger, and over a decade less smarter," Mufausah Stanifer reads. A few other inmates chuckle.
Johnson, 44, is the executive director of FreeWriters, a nonprofit that offers writing workshops in Minnesota jails, a creative outlet meant to help inmates with their mental health. It's currently offered in Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties.
Across Minnesota and the country, corrections programs are helping incarcerated people hone writing skills and, in a few cases, help get their work published. Locally, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, another nonprofit, offers writing classes in all adult prisons.
Inmates in Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities also are participating in a recent, ramped-up effort that encourages them to write apology letters to victims and their families.
Johnson said he got the idea for FreeWriters while visiting a friend in jail, seeing the freewriting exercise as a way his friend could mentally shift away from the confined space and musty air of incarceration. Johnson said he's found therapeutic benefits in freewriting, which encourages a stream-of-consciousness style.
In interviews with two of the incarcerated men, they said the exercise helped ease their stress and open up to others.
"It was kind of vulnerable, and it felt a little raw," said Anthony Ferguson, 46.
For the 2010 prompt, Ferguson wrote about his struggles with meth, which he was introduced to that year. He said writing about his current situation felt like motivation to get his life back on track and reconnect with his five kids.
"To put it on paper and actually read it and see it from my own eyes, stuff like this does help," he said.
Barsee Karr Barley, 38, who immigrated to the United States from Liberia six years ago, said hearing some of the more personal stories was sobering.
"It made me realize there are people who are hurting more than me," said Barley, who was in jail for the first time.
As Stanifer read on from his piece about 2010, he got to how it was the year his son was born. He mentioned that child's mother died recently.
"She was and is still my best friend," Stanifer read from his writing. "I miss her dearly — still haven't had the chance to mourn her or my mother. Every night I dream of them and I wake up sobbing."
At the start of the class, Johnson explains he is a recovering alcoholic who has dealt with anxiety and mental health issues, and that he has found his own benefits from freewriting. He grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota. He was briefly a prosecutor but hated the work.
Following the first prompt, Johnson goes through two more: "fast food" and "where I'm from."
The inmates aren't required to read, but all of them do. At one point Johnson asks if he should end the workshop because it ran late. Everyone encourages him to continue.
"Otherwise we'll be locked in our cells," Stanifer said.
Johnson encourages participants to consider training that would set them up to be paid freewriting instructors following their incarceration.
He also wants to help transform the jail system to better treat inmates with underlying drug or mental health issues.
"If what it really is, is a place for people with untreated mental illness and addiction, who come from poverty and neglect, then we should treat it like a health care facility," Johnson said.
After the program ends, the inmates walk back to cells with small, frosted windows.
Freewriting is one of the courses highlighted online for Hennepin County's HOPE program, which stands for Helping Others by Providing Education.
The webpage lists a variety of education and training options for incarcerated people. In a video, Sheriff Dawanna Witt explains that the courses are an important way that inmates can avoid entering a cycle of "generational incarceration."
In Minnesota's prisons, where inmates typically stay much longer periods, officials have been working to revamp the process for inmates who want to write letters of apology to their victims.
Chris Godsey, a restorative justice specialist for the Department of Corrections, was hired in 2022 with the specific task of shaping the process for working with inmates on apology letters.
He was tasked with writing a new style guide for the letters, and hosting workshops that cover topics such as remorse and accountability.
The guide advises inmates to write letters that come from the heart and in a way that stays true to who they are. After working out the drafts with staff, letters are accepted to the DOC's letter bank.
Godsey said he's moved by those he works with who don't have a writing background but want to write such a letter.
"The moving experiences I have are when I get drafts from people who, according to my inner ear and my eye, aren't comfortable writers — but they're there, sitting down trying to handwrite this thing or type it out," Godsey said.
Victims only receive an apology letter if they fill out a request form, which is available on the DOC's website.
Because those in prison often have longer sentences there than those in jail, programs such as the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop offer more traditional writing classes that last over a longer period.
Mike Alberti, executive director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, said it's been shown anecdotally through the group's own work and from other studies that incarcerated people benefit from artistic opportunities.
"They show that arts education and that kind of creativity, self-expression, pro-social programming, have enormous benefits on quality of life and even on recidivism," Alberti said.