‘Freedom begins with a book’: incarcerated people to judge new US literary award | Books

‘Freedom begins with a book’: incarcerated people to judge new US literary award | Books

John J Lennon writes for the Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Yorker and Esquire. He’s also serving a life sentence in prison.

Each day, he wakes up and sits on the stool bolted to his cell floor. Usually, the morning hours are when he gets the most clarity with his work, so he’ll begin on poetry reviews, articles or edits. By the afternoon, Lennon is free to read. Michel Houellebecq and Emmanuel Carrère are some of his favorites.

They’ve joined a mounting pile of authors on the radiator beside his bunk. Others, like Milton, take longer. He doesn’t dislike them; they’re just more painful to navigate. “The themes of Paradise Lost act as a foil,” Lennon said over the phone from Sullivan correctional facility in New York. “Books can be an easier way into having deeper conversations about the man I murdered and why I want mercy.”

This month, Lennon joined hundreds of other incarcerated people in a new initiative intended to inspire dialogue about important books in prisons across the US.

Freedom Reads, the National Book Foundation and the Center for Justice Innovation launched the Inside literary prize, the first major US book award to be judged exclusively by incarcerated people. The winner will be announced in June 2024.

“Through the reading and judging of leading American literary works, the competition will provide a national platform for incarcerated individuals to meaningfully participate in our shared national cultural conversation,” Reginald Dwayne Betts, the Freedom Reads founder and CEO, said in a press release.

“Freedom begins with a book.”

Lennon was involved with the earlier planning stages of the award, and now a jury of 300 people serving sentences across six states will have a say in who wins the prize. They’ll judge the works of four national book award winners and finalists: Tess Gunty, Jamil Jan Kochai, Roger Reeves and Imani Perry.

“The award just tells us, hey, we can add meaning, it shows us that our word can count too,” Lennon said.

“On some level, we need that connection with the things we get from books even more than people do on the outside.”

Over the next few months, 25 judges will be provided copies of the four books, each covering a range of subjects or themes. Freedom Reads will also give every facility’s library an extra set for general circulation, enabling other prisoners and correctional staff to be involved with the initiative.

woman holds book and smiles
Imani Perry attends the 73rd national book awards last year. Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The four books put forward were chosen by a selection committee, including Lennon, of incarcerated readers, writers, and librarians. People serving sentences were involved from the offset and will have the opportunity to participate in live discussions, voting and literary readings before the result is announced in June.

“There’s not many conversations happening here, and there is a real disconnect,” Lennon said.

“That’s why it’s so important that organizations like Freedom Reads are coming in and putting libraries in our living quarters. We’re all starving to learn and be better in prison.”

Imani Perry, one of the authors shortlisted for the award, told the Guardian she loved the idea for the prize and was honored her work could be considered.

“As a critic, I’ve been deeply impacted by prison writing. Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, for example, were foundational to my intellectual development,” she said.

Throughout her early years, Perry’s father was an organizer against mass incarceration, and she spent time learning from the ideas and experiences of the people he was supporting.

“I’m glad that the literary establishment is recognizing the people inside,” she added. “They have a great deal of critical insight and wisdom about literature.”

While no initiative like this has previously existed in the US, France introduced a similar book prize last year. In December, the government sponsored the Goncourt des détenus (the detainees’ Goncourt), a version of the country’s highest literary honor.

The award was judged by a panel of 500 incarcerated people from 31 facilities nationwide. The author Sarah Jollien-Fardel won for her novel Sa Préférée (His Favorite), from a list of 15 finalists.

Gunty’s book The Rabbit Hutch follows a group of characters from a low-income housing project as their lives finally coincide one summer. It was her debut novel, which she began at 23 and spent five years writing.

Gunty opposes mass incarceration and feels it is essential that disenfranchised voices are given platforms to participate in cultural discussions.

More pertinently, however, she’s delighted that the other authors and their works made the final list.

“When I think about Perry’s nonfiction or Reeves’ poetry, the one thing they all have in common is they investigate the entire spectrum of human experience,” Gunty said.

“Those books can ask intimate questions. It’s genuinely brilliant to think that someone who is disenfranchised or who had their freedoms taken away will get to encounter the works of the other three writers.”

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