A few years ago, the book selection at Oregon State Penitentiary, overflowing with self-help books and religious propaganda, had, not surprisingly, left much to be desired. But now, the prison library has a cabinet filled with almost 80 books — many of which were donated by local bookstore Tsunami Books — dedicated to the prison’s Writer’s Group.
The Writers Group is open exclusively to “Lifers,” those serving life sentences for aggravated murder. In an environment designed to strip humans of their individuality, Lauren Kessler, an award winning author and former University of Oregon journalism professor, has attempted to nurture a semblance of individuality through the practice she knows best: storytelling. She documents her experiences working within the prison in her latest book “A Grip of Time: When Prison Is Your Life.”
In 2015, Kessler “muscled her way” into the unpredictable yet maximum-security environment of OSP. The immersion reporter uses her award-winning experience in nonfiction narrative to guide the men through their own writing.
Kessler’s goal for this project was clear: “To learn about this hidden world. So that we all could. I could teach these men to craft stories. They could educate me about prison life. I needed to know — I thought we all needed to know — who these people were that we put away, far away from us, in a country that puts more people in prison than any other country on earth.”
At first, Kessler was practically begging for continuity from the prison staff so that the group could meet regularly — but in the penal system, where even the most miniscule progress should be considered a victory, Kessler was resilient. She received full clearance after several years, allowing the group to meet twice a month. Currently, they spend two and a half hours reflecting on open-ended prompts, varying from “dreams” and “hope” to “food” and “a week in the life,” that exercise the member’s personal writing styles. While some tend to stay guarded and keep their drafts light-hearted, others bare their vulnerability from the get-go.
“I know that writing can’t cure everything,” Kessler writes, “but I also know it is possible to tell a story about what is happening in your life as a way to examine, and then move forward ... I know it is possible to write your way through a crisis.”
Kessler tells these men's stories as individuals, on a personal level. Each chapter is dedicated to a new prompt, and it quickly becomes evident how powerful their voices are. Kessler tackles the conflicting ideas of rehabilitation and punishment, welcoming readers into her own moral debates. Interspersed throughout is insight into the impenetrable history of incarceration, either through hard-hitting external research or through the experiences of the members who have lived their entire lives behind bars.
Fully aware of the heinous crimes that have been committed, Kessler writes about the men with compassion and profound respect. Through this, she individualizes them and helps them regain a sense of dignity, all the while unveiling discourse about the “hidden world” of incarceration that can be so easily shied away from.
The group members have won a smattering of awards for their writing — including first and second place awards in the Pen American Prison Writing Contest — a contest open only to inmates. One member was the first inmate ever to win the Oregon Literary Fellowship.
“I will continue to do this for as long as the prison lets me and as long as the guys show up,” promised Kessler on Thursday at her book launch at Eugene Public Library. One of her former group members, who was recently granted parole, was in the audience at the event. If his emphatic cheers in response to her promise are indicative of anything, Kessler likely won’t need to worry about attendance for the OSP Writer’s Group any time soon.