Inside Literary Prize Tour Leg Two: North Dakota State Penitentiary, MCF-Faribault, and MCF-Shakopee

By Steven Parkhurst, Communications Manager at Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads Communications Manager Steven Parkhurst takes a selfie with the sign outside of Minnesota Correctional Facility - Shakopee.
Freedom Reads Communications Manager Steven Parkhurst outside of Minnesota Correctional Facility - Shakopee.

Taven, young by any measure whether Inside or out, sat preoccupied in the corner of the library turned poetry stage turned polling station at North Dakota State Penitentiary (NDSP). He was scheduled for a parole hearing on the day Freedom Reads arrived to bring acclaimed poet Roger Bonair-Agard and a handful of Inside Literary Prize ballots to vote on books. I gave him a knowing handshake. I, too, needed a distraction on the day I went up before the parole board that granted me freedom after serving seven days short of 30 years on the Inside. He reminded me of the 17-year-old version of myself who cared less about books and more about surviving the rest of my life in a place that looked like anything but a library. He showed up for our event though, the way Freedom Reads shows up for people incarcerated, and the way I now have shown up to 25 prisons since being released just 17 months ago. I gave him a ton of credit.

Another man in the crowd at the NDSP event introducing himself as “Jones,” who came into the joint at 17 and now looked in his 40s, challenged the wordsmithing poet, “Create a three-word poem to describe yourself right now.” Roger gave a lengthy pause for thought. His answer, a blend of apprehension and optimism — ”Grateful and cautious.” Jones gave a nod of respect. He too showed up, despite the weight of an insurmountable sentence on his back, which truly encapsulates his resilience amid uncertainty.

Three prisons in four days brought us next to MCF-Shakopee and MCF-Faribault in Minnesota.

“Today I get to vote!” said Frenchy, at Minnesota’s only women’s prison, MCF-Shakopee. She wasn’t allowed to vote for any elected official before the Inside Literary Prize, having only been 17 at the time of her arrest and confinement. She sat in a circle of over 25 women at Shakopee who had shown up as judges for the day to select the book they felt deserved the honor of the first time Inside Literary Prize.

“I get to be the judge this time!” said a defiant Cote, who sat quietly through the discussion though gave the loudest reason why she showed up to read all four of the nominated books and now vote for a winner.

The poet joining Freedom Reads at Shakopee, Randall Horton, Professor of English at the University of New Haven, bursted with hope and empowerment as he introduced himself as “the only tenured professor in America with seven felonies.” He shows up for folks in prisons around the country with the audacity to dream while carrying the Scarlett Letters of “formerly incarcerated.” An inspiration to men and women serving time.

At MCF-Faribault, the kinetic energy of poet Douglas Kearney's verses echoed through the corridors. He never served a day on the Inside but could “move on the yard,” as I like to say. Meaning, Doug’s vibe of respect, kindness, and humility instantly ingratiated him to the crowd of men in attendance.

Leaving these prisons, not entering, is the hardest part for me. I had just met over 200 men and women who are making sure they get seen and heard because they, too, show up. My heart hurts because I know the feeling of a good hug or handshake then staying while others are going. We are writing these stories about ourselves now though. And in the words of Roger Bonair-Agard, I am “grateful and cautious” to do this work around the country, speaking about how freedom really does begin with a book.