Voices From Inside and Out

On May 11th, I was lucky enough to participate in a reading event featuring an array of writers who have been touched in some way by the criminal justice system. Organized by New York Metro Prison librarians Sarah Ball and Sara Medlicott, as well as New York Writers Coalition workshop leader Patrick Mathieu, the event took place at the Fortune Society’s Castle Gardens location. The evening swelled with the voices of those who were still behind bars, their writing read aloud in their absence by volunteers. Work was also shared by the formerly incarcerated; writers who have worked in prison; as well as a lawyer who works to reform our criminal laws.

To hear all of these perspectives in one evening was powerful, and illuminated an often neglected and silenced segment of our population that has grown at an alarming rate in the last few decades. As a paralegal working on criminal law reform with the ACLU, I spend a great deal of my day thinking about the myriad problems and issues that swirl around our country’s troubled criminal justice system. But examining these problems from the sanitized and removed bubble of my office is a wholly different experience than hearing the stories of those directly impacted by the system, in their own words. While I am continually astounded by the statistics that define the epidemic of mass incarceration in America, the reading at the Fortune Society shook me in a way that numbers never will.

In the heat of that packed room on May 11th, the applause, gasps, and cheers from the audience I sat with made it evident that I was not alone in my response to the stories that were shared. We heard harrowing poetry and prose from the darkest corners of New York’s prisons and jails, and essays that charted the path from release back to new life in our communities. These narratives stuck with me, and I suspect those who joined me that night were similarly moved. I look forward to the next criminal justice reading event this team is beginning to organize, and sharing it with the crowd it will undoubtedly draw.

Special thanks to Patrick Mathieu for creating the composite image of readers from this event.