Barz Behind Bars: Improving Prison Literacy Rates through Creative Program

By Benjamin Frandsen


MCFARLAND, CA — In 2022, Dr. Brandt Choate, the California Director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs, appeared on the CDCR Unlocked Podcast and publicly affirmed the 38 percent literacy gap trendline, a theory that 38 percent of the Golden State’s prison inmates are functionally illiterate. He called it a “public safety” issue and announced a Project Literacy initiative for 2025, declaring that the 38 percent cohort was most at risk to recidivate, “if we send them home that way.”


An incarcerated citizen who wants to be known only by “Ghost” noted that “according to Dr. Choate’s logic, improving literacy reduces that public safety risk, right? So, if we develop nontraditional programming that bridges the literacy gap via a creative writing mentorship, we effectively pilot our own proof of concept.”


Ghost’s cellmate, Mundo, sent me a message saying, “We listened to Dr. Choate’s podcast appearance intently, and we thought we heard a temperate, conscientious, and visionary dude speaking about responsible ways to use government tools to help us. We felt that. We want to believe him, because a lot of great things are happening in California’s carceral settings, but we didn’t necessarily see that translating to real action where we live, so we decided to act in our own interest, and be the change agents we are in need of.”


The program, which is called Barz Behind Bars (B³), has created a bold and visionary blueprint for those in prison to gain literacy through rap and poetry. It intends to use peer-mentor-facilitated poetry workshop encounters to prompt critical reading, discussions, and creative writing assignments based on selections sourced from the Freedom Library, installed by Reginald Dwayne Betts’s nonprofit, Freedom Reads. 


“Imprint Dos,” a fellow workshop facilitator, lyricist, and musician, told me via videocall, “We are using Dwayne’s Felon, Randall Horton’s {#289-128}, and PEN America’s The Sentences That Create Us, in combination within our workshops. We give participants that carceral reality content via Horton, the post-carceral reflections of Betts, and a writing style primer from PEN America’s The Sentences That Create Us.


Having this type of quality material allows incarcerated writers to go back to their cell with the work, enabling them to really drill down on the content. 


Logging onto @barzbehindbars_ via Instagram, one will find posts from literary and musical creators with Pulitzer Prizes, multiple American Book Awards, and multiple Grammy nominations. Each of them has publicly proclaimed public support for the synergy between the carceral mission of Freedom Reads, and the localized resident creator activism of the Barz facilitators. 


It’s a stunning array of topflight academics, poets, authors, and songwriters, having achieved the recognition of excellence in their respective disciplines, supporting a homegrown carceral state community of creators working to erect an ecosystem of transformative literary arts development, using words and media. 


Recently, Mundo and Ghost had creative works of art, poetry, and interview journalism accepted by the Incarcerated Writers Initiative (IWI) at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and selected for print publishing within Columbia’s literary magazine, the IWI’s Exchange, a pedagogical project administered by the Columbia MFA program within Artist/Teachers program at Columbia University School of the Arts’ Writing Program. 


Ghost told me, “We urge our minders here at Valley State Prison to really embrace our responsible use of media tools that stem from books. We’re nobody special, but if our work is good enough for the Ivy League’s MFA faculty to publish, in multiple content categories of art, poetry, and interview, I’d suggest to authorities we’ve earned the opportunity to publish an in-house literary arts digital magazine.” 


Betts writes that “Freedom begins with a book,” while Horton asks readers if poetry can “save a life?” Ghost, Mundo, and the B³ facilitators at Valley State, believe it can.

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