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MN Inmates 'Free Writers' Program Yields Justice System Insights

Before handing pencil and paper to a group of inmates who attended a writing workshop in jail, Nate Johnson said he is a recovering alcoholic, he has battled depression and anxiety for much of his life, “And I used to be a prosecutor,” Johnson disclosed, adding, I didn’t like that kind of work, and I didn’t do it for very long.” Then came instructions for free writing, a technique Johnson brings to jails in the Minneapolis area some 40 times per month, tapping into what he sees as an extraordinary pool of literary talent brimming with insights about the criminal justice system, reports the New York Times. Inmates were told to write furiously, without interruption, for five minutes. The prose didn’t have to make sense. It needn’t be good. The only goal was to turn the sequence of thoughts generated by each prompt into a string of sentences without stopping to think.

The first of three prompts was “patience.” Then came “hard times.” And finally, “this city.”


After each burst of writing, the inmates took turns reading their compositions out loud. Some spoke sheepishly, barely above a murmur. Others, like Aaron Schnagl, delivered their work with theatrical flair.

“Patience — sometimes I think we’re patients of the system, like good genes and good luck maybe missed us,” said Schnagl, 39. “Home of the brave, where you’re born a slave, and your own country treats you like an infidel.” Since 2019, Johnson has heard and read tens of thousands of dispatches from inmates. He has come to view this ever-expanding literary collection as an indictment of the criminal justice system. Too often, he said, understaffed and underfunded jails drive people deeper into despair, making recidivism more likely. Several prisons have writing programs that have generated critically acclaimed work and provided intimate glimpses into life behind bars. Few jails, which tend to be transient, have programs like Free Writers. Johnson is under no illusions that free writing will fix systemic problems in the criminal justice system. He is confident it can alleviate suffering and has the potential to change perceptions about people charged with crimes. “There are so many people in jail who are of above-average intelligence and even brilliant,” he said. “I wish we could stop thinking of these folks as a cancer on the body politic and recognize they can be an asset.”

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