Prison Literacy Project in Northeast Ohio
Prison Literacy Project in Northeast Ohio

The UU Congregation of Greater Canton (UUCGC), though fewer in members, has had an important compassion and justice presence in their community. A few years ago they started a project to collect books for incarcerated individuals at the Stark County Jail, which got a lot of community response and participation.  A note of gratitude from the jail staff read, “ We can't THANK YOU enough! The inmates are so grateful to have books to read to help pass their time and it keeps them out of other things, lol. I greatly appreciate your generous donation and thank you for keeping us in mind, truly : )”

This past year, they were invited to participate in the ID13 Prison Literacy Project by hosting a public reading of poetry by incarcerated individuals at the Lake Erie Correctional Institute in Northeast Ohio. This put them into contact with lifelong UU, Dr. Christopher Dum, co-founder of ID13 partnering with Halle Neiderman.  Dum is currently a member of the nearby UU Church of Kent.

The project started out as a prisoner-created writing and reading workshop, but there weren’t the internal resources or expertise to keep that project going. The prison librarian reached out to Kent State University’s English Department, and in July of 2016 graduate student Halle Neiderman and Professor Dum developed the ID13 Prison Literacy Project.

The project’s home page states “We are Human. We Write.” It’s mission is to provide the human right to expression, to reduce the stigma of “excons,” and to provide a sense of connection to the worls outside the bars. It also gives incarcerated individuals the opportunity to see themselves as writers making meaning, and sharing their words with the outside world. Some of the poems are shared on the ID13 website in the form of Chapbooks and individual pieces.

But the most transformative part of the project is the public readings of the poems by students from the NEOMFA consortium. By embodying the words of the poems’ authors, they provide a kind of connection and Creative Interchange that make the words and experiences come alive, while the authors know that they are having an impact without being physically present.

UUCGC hosted one of these public readings in January as a fundraiser/collection for another local organization supporting an after-incarceration program for men, which was transformative for both congregation members and members of the community. UUCGC also donated hard cover books to the Lake Erie Correctional Institute library.

From the flyer advertising the event: The designation ID13 reflects two realities of the prison system. Prisoners are identified by their ID numbers, being stripped of their name in the routines of institutional life. “13” refers to the constitutional amendment with abolished slavery except as a punishment for crime. This devious caveat continues to justify subhuman conditions in both work and life for prisoners in the U.S.

A more detailed description of the program can be found in the article How A Prison Writing Group Is Helping Inmates Find Their Voice in the Cleveland Magazine.

For more information contact cer@uua.org.

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