Damayanti Desai
credit: Damayanti Desai

Tucked away at the back of the neighborhood restaurant Petworth Citizen, a diverse cross-section of DC gathered on Monday, April 21, 2014. The air was charged with energy and the aroma of evening snacks as people of many ages and backgrounds shifted their drinks from one hand to the other as they exchanged handshakes and smiles. Others in the room were more insular, with necks craned over books like The New Jim Crow, as the room swelled around them with more and more bodies.

By 7 PM, the space was packed. All attention was focused on eight individuals seated in a semicircle of chairs near a wall of books. “Welcome to Books Behind Bars,” began Sam Jewler, lead activist of the DC Jail Library Coalition (DCJLC) and co-organizer of the event, and the room relaxed into attentive silence.

In November, 2013, Jewler, a writer, activist and DC native, had just finished collaborating on a successful campaign to secure paid sick days for restaurant workers. Newly assured of the power of citizens to change city government, he watched a hearing online about living conditions and attempted suicides at DC Jail, and resolved to take action. Thus began the months-long campaign that grew into the DCJLC, which recently was granted approximately $200,000 of the mayor’s budget to install a library in the DC Jail, in partnership with DC Public Libraries. Over the course of theproject it became clear to the DCJLC team that the number of interested and knowledgeable restorative justice activists in DC was large, and largely unknown to many outside that world. Books Behind Bars was created in an effort to bring together a visible and collaborative community of incarceration- and arts-focused activists.

Monday’s event consisted of a panel presentation, Q&A, and opportunity to network and mingle with others interested in incarceration-related service and activism. Selected speakers represented different aspects of creative and impactful restorative justice work with communities in D.C., Maryland and on a national scale. Each panelist shared their background, described their work, and outlined opportunities for others to get involved.

Gary Durant was a 17-year-old high school athlete coveted by college scouts when he was tried and incarcerated as an adult. To the more than 40 attentive listeners gathered in the Reading Room, Durant explained the isolation and abandonment he felt during his two years spent in solitary confinement. “Reading is what got me through,” he explained. Durant, who said that before being incarcerated he could not read or write well, worked with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop (a non-profit group that promotes literacy and creative writing in prisons) to develop his skills. He closed his speech by reading an original poem, “Prisoner Society,” that appeared to captivate the audience.

Also on the panel was Glennor Shirley, former head librarian for Maryland prisons and renowned prison literacy activist. Shirley provided statistics about incarceration in America. Of inmates who use educational facilities while in prison, only 16% return for a second offense, she explained. Of the inmates who do not have access to these facilities, the recidivism rate jumps to 60-70%. She detailed the types of books inmates could benefit from and provided insight into the demands and requirements of prison librarian positions. Afterwards, DCPL officials in attendance confirmed they would be working with her to develop the DC Jail Library.

The other panelists featured were Sherman Justice, Free Minds Outreach Coordinator, Meaghan O’Connor, Assistant Director of Programs and Partnerships at DCPL, Mark Strandquist, the artist and creator of Windows from Prison, Stacy Litner of Washington Lawyers Committee and Books to Prisons, Alison Ganem, a volunteer poetry teacher at DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility, and Sam Jewler. Although unique in their approaches, all eight panelists were united in purpose, touching on common themes of literacy, education and creative outlets for expression as important means to combat isolation, aggression and recidivism in prison populations.

Audience members then had the opportunity to ask questions and share their comments and insights with the panelists. One woman suggested that a library in DC jail should include books and resources in many languages, and the panelists made a note of the comment in order to follow up. The panel concluded with encouraging words from Jewler, who assured the audience they had power to change city government simply by finding like-minded people, getting organized, and taking action.

“I was really inspired by the high turnout and excitement in the room tonight,” Jewler said. “People want to know what’s next. It might be ‘ban the box,’* because people who have paid their dues in prison still have too much trouble getting jobs, or figuring out how to crowd source oversight of the police, because racial arrest disparities are still huge in DC.”

Hours later, groups of event attendees could be found still seated in the booths of Petworth Citizen, sharing food with new friends and collaborators, and discussing possible projects to positively impact restorative justice in the D.C. area.

For opportunities to get involved with restorative justice activism in DC, check out any and all of the following organizations and initiatives represented at the Books Behind Bars panel:

Free Minds – freemindsbookclub.org

Windows from Prison – windowsfromprison.com

Books to Prisons – dcbookstoprisoners.org

DC Library Association – dcla.org

Knowledge Commons DC –knowledgecommonsdc.org

* “ban the box” refers to an ordinance trending nationally that removes the criminal conviction checkbox from job applications in an effort to prevent discrimination against ex-offenders in the search for employment