Words No Bars Can Hold, Literacy Learning in Prison by Deborah Appleman, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

“This is the creative life – what Oscar Wilde called the long lovely suicide. If prison is a trapdoor at rock bottom, then writing is the mortar in between the brick you must pry in order to dig your way out.” Chris, Inmate. Excerpt from his essay entitled, “A Certain Kind.”

Words No Bars Can Hold - Literacy Learning in Prison - Deborah Appleman

I must admit that I felt a bit nervous when asked to review this compelling work of non-fiction by Deborah Appleman, Ph.D. Other than the technical healthcare texts in college, my reading had been limited to mostly [by choice] fiction. Yet, since becoming a writer, my choices have greatly expanded. Dr. Appleman opened my eyes to what lay beyond the written word of fictionalized characters and places. In this compelling work, the author brings to life the stark reality of what lies behind cement and barbed-wire walls.

 “Destruction begets destruction and prison kills your spirit; but creativity can resuscitate the soul.” Chris, Inmate

Appleman’s Words No Bars Can Hold, tells the stark reality of her experiences teaching college-level literacy classes within a maximum-security prison to men, where many are serving life sentences. There is no candy-coating of her experiences. She explains the harsh reality between racial, cultural, social, and educational disparities within prison walls. This book induces the reader to open their mind and expand their knowledge of the dehumanizing life of the incarcerated.  Please, do not misunderstand me, I am a firm believer that if someone commits a crime, they must be held accountable for their actions. I will admit though, that under these circumstances, it is so easy to make assumptions and fall into society’s expectation of dehumanizing the criminal. Yet, Dr. Appleman, through her work and the words of the inmates she teaches, will have you thinking otherwise. In her book, Appleman reflects on what [literacy] education and creative writing provide the inmates by [their] self-reflection, self-identification, the opportunity to voice themselves, and what led them to an incarcerated life.

“I am a man with hopes and dreams, regrets, and aspirations. I have a soul, a mind, and yes, a heart, even if society doesn’t believe me.” Zeke, Inmate

My first [personal] exposure to an incarcerated person, Theresa, was over twenty-five years ago. Yet I can still remember her to this day. At the time, I worked in a large inner-city tertiary medical facility providing care to women with high-risk pregnancies. My job and that of my co-worker was to monitor uterine and fetal activity using state-of-the-art technology. The morning Theresa and I first met was like any other. Going to the waiting room, I called out her name. Two armed officers stood, then Theresa. I introduced myself and told her what I would be doing for her and her baby that morning. That day, she never made eye contact with me. In my naivete’ I couldn’t help but stare at her orange jumpsuit and shackles that accentuated her protruding abdomen. After many tri-weekly visits, at her last, Theresa thanked me. For what, I asked. “For treating me like a human being.”

“Everyone’s better than the worst they’ve ever done.” Willie X Lloyd formerly incarcerated student.

Incarceration and education have opposing goals. Education is to liberate, where incarceration is to constrain. Still, Dr. Appleman has proven through her work that these two can successfully be combined in releasing the incarcerated mind. In this book, she gives insight into the interests, needs, and abilities of her students. Reading their poignant stories and poems captured within this book will have you believe that many of these are awarded authors, highly educated persons, and well-read men, not inmates behind bars.

“How do I come into this classroom as a free thinker when I’m not a free man?” Doppler, Inmate.
The men she teaches use some form of writing to tell of their pain, sorrow, regrets, and hopes. The world needs to hear their stories, and Ms. Appleman tells it so expressively. Most importantly, she tells us what her carceral students want to portray to the world through their literary works, by avoiding their mistakes, helping others make different choices, and take nontoxic paths. Their literary works create an identity worth reading and remembering.

Dr. Appleman brings up some very thought-provoking issues that won’t be easily resolved. For some, [prison] is a broken system with a revolving door. Writing is not for everyone, as Dr. Appleman aptly points out. Still, I can’t help but think that if there had been such a program for my patient, Theresa at the time of her incarceration, would the avenue of literary education have provided her some sense of self-worth and directed her on a different, societally approved path.

I believe that Words No Bars Can Hold should be required reading for every educator from administrators to counselors to teachers and, importantly, parents.  Starting [sadly] in grade school with the hopes of getting to young minds early, giving them a reason to remain out of the prison system.

“I will leave here in a pine box. I want you to reach out to those high school kids while there is still time.” Inmate.

Prison literacy programs like those taught by Dr. Appleman opens a world of expressive freedom for the incarcerated through the written word. Take the time to read, absorb, and pass on this thought changing book by respected educator and author, Deborah Appleman.


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