In my last post, I promised I would talk more about The Beat Without letter project, a recent Beat Within program which I’ve been learning about over the past week. The Beat Without is a program designed to reach out to incarcerated adults and provide them with a space to both express themselves and to speak directly to the youth we serve. Prisoners send us poems, stories, essays, and artwork, and if their work is meaningful and appropriate, it gets published in the magazine alongside the writing from the weekly youth workshops. Letters come from all over the country and can discuss any topic.
When we receive a letter, the first thing we do is read it and determine if the writer wants to be published in the magazine or just wants a subscription. If they have included writing to be considered for publication, we review it and decide whether or not it’s appropriate for the magazine. If so, we type it up, edit it, and include it in the next issue. We also write up a small bio about the author, including their name, where they’re from, and where they’re incarcerated. Anyone who’s published in the magazine gets a free copy of that issue, so once it’s printed, we pack up an issue and send it to them.
I’ve actually spend the past year transcribing and responding to letters from prisoners for a different nonprofit, so The Beat Without feels very familiar to me. Every letter is different, but many of them convey the same messages: don’t give in to peer pressure; stay away from drugs and alcohol; treat yourself and the people around you with respect. Many of the writers are serving life sentences, and most of them have been in and out of prison since adolescence. The advice they impart to the youth reading the magazine, then, is extremely relevant. The youth we work with are at a very critical stage in their lives where they have the option to either turn their lives around or continue heading down the same path. It’s not too late for them to change, and it means a lot for them to hear that from someone who understands what they’re going through.
Reading these letters means quite a bit to me as well. I know all the statistics about the penal system in the United States, but it’s a very different experience to actually connect with the people who are living and dying within that system. It’s amazing to see how honest they are with us and with themselves, how much they regret their crimes, and how hard they’re working to turn their lives around. Many of them have turned to religion and adopted nonviolent lifestyles. Many are seeking help for addictions to drugs or alcohol. All of them are trying to educate themselves in some way, even those who know they will never be released. It’s incredible to see people who have grown up with nothing—no education, no family, no place to call home—so motivated to change themselves and their situation. In many ways, their stories have all become a part of my story, and every time I start to feel discouraged about penal reform, all I have to do is remember their voices, and my passion comes flooding right back.