Cal State Los Angeles is the home of WordsUncaged, a program organized and managed by faculty and students in the Department of Communication. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article about the program and Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy who developed the program after visiting the California State Prison in Lancaster while volunteering with Paws for Life, an outreach program that teaches inmates how to care for dogs. He began a writing therapy program at the prison and was inspired to help men there who yearned for education.
Later Prof. Roy was encouraged by Cal State administration to launch a B.A. program in communication for men who had earned an associate degree. In 2016, with funding from the non-profit Opportunity Institute and the Mellon Foundation, the program was selected by the Obama administration to receive Second Chance Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students.
I was intrigued by the story in the Times and reached out to Prof. Roy to ask if he would allow me to interview him for our newsletter THE READER to share his experiences and insight about helping those serving prison sentences. Below are excerpts from my interview with Prof. Roy.
THE READER – Professor Roy, we began the Prison Library Project (PLP) in 1985 with a few volunteers who collected books from people in the community. They read letters from prisoners, and responded, sometimes with a letter and sometimes with a book, using a corner of a building that housed our local bi-weekly community newspaper. Thirty-five years later, the Claremont Forum offers a Sunday farmers and artisans market, a used bookshop and gallery, and a variety of community events in addition to managing the PLP. What inspired you to organize such a program? Can you describe the evolution of WordsUncaged?
Prof. Roy – WordsUncaged was inspired by the men at Lancaster Prison, whom I first met as a board member of Karma Rescue when we started a prison dog program in 2013. I saw all these incredible human beings, who had been thrown away and forgotten by society and left to die in prison: articulate, thoughtful men, who had changed their lives and had a lot to offer the world; lights of transformation with a rare wisdom earned the hard way. At this time, I began a weekly writing workshop with them at the prison and this eventually became WordsUncaged. The goal was to create a platform for the public to experience these men as I did—via the only means we had available to us—their words and artistic voices. The foundational idea has always been that if we could help incarcerated men and women become visible and legible to people, then our current system of mass incarceration—based as it is on fear and invisibility—would become intolerable.
THE READER – How is the administration of WordsUncaged organized? Do you have a Board of Directors? A paid staff? Are students involved in WordsUncaged? How are their talents utilized?
Prof. Roy – We are not a traditional non-profit: we do not have an executive director or paid employees, although we do have a board of directors. We operate more as a collective that acts WITH incarcerated men and women, rather than for them. Our structure is horizontal, rather than vertical and students are a very big part of what we do. Students work as editors and collaborators with incarcerated artists and writers, exchanging ideas and feedback via written correspondence that I ferry back and forth. They also use social media to promote legislative change and help produce events and exhibits.
Perhaps even more important than all this, however, is that they provide supportive networks for our members when they get out of prison and help with re-entry through numerous small acts, like helping with technology, for example. Above all they are tremendous assets simply by being the wonderful, kind human beings they are. For example, one former student, Taylor, who first began working with WordsUncaged eight years ago as a student of mine, is driving up to LA this week to meet her old writer partner, Duncan. When Taylor was a student writing to Duncan and collaborating on poetry together for our fist WordsUncaged book, Duncan was a serving Life-Without-Parole sentence. Recently, however, he was granted a commutation by the Governor and is currently working with WordsUncaged and thriving on the outside. On hearing of his release, Taylor is driving to LA to meet Duncan — all these years after their collaboration in WordsUncaged.
These sorts of authentic, lasting relations are priceless and a real honor for me to watch unfold. Examples such as this are innumerable in WordsUncaged. No amount of data or recidivism statistics, that dominate re-entry discussions, can capture these sorts of human relationships, which I consider to be the heart of what we do at WordsUncaged.
THE READER – The Claremont Forum is no longer a few big-hearted individuals in a small space in the Courier Building. The PLP currently receives over 500 requests per months for reading materials, and we are currently sending three to four hundred books each month to incarcerated adults at absolutely no cost to them. Without the cash and book donations we receive from our supporters, we could not do what we do at this level. How is your project funded?
Prof. Roy – We are pretty much self-funded. We do a lot with very little money.
THE READER – The United States is not only the country with the highest incarceration rate worldwide, but it is also home to the largest number of prisoners. Roughly 2.12 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. in 2020. Do you sometime wonder if organizations such as the Prison Library Project and WordsUncaged are making a difference in these statistics? What message do you have for our supporters tremember men and women in prison who are hopeful about their future?
Prof. Roy – Mmmm….yes, I know… it can seem overwhelming, but often change is non-linear and we can’t always see how acts of resistance can change a system. All we can do is keep plugging away and work with others doing the same.
You are correct. In the US today, there are over 2 million people in prison. How we got here is a story told by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ava Duvernay’s 13. But how we get out of here is a lesser told story, because it has yet to be fully written. It is a story quietly being whispered in California prisons and on the streets of Los Angeles by incarcerated, and formerly incarcerated, men and women imagining themselves to be the solutions to the problems that they have been told they are the cause: gangs, drugs, violence, poverty. It is the story of how writing, art and dance can remake lives and restore communities through a collective reimagining of a world without prisons; It is a story that finds creativity, love and freedom in unexpected bodies, spaces, places, and practices, both in performance and the everyday.
THE READER – At the Claremont Forum we do not make judgements about how and why an individual ended up serving a prison sentence. We see a need and, although we always need and welcome the help of our community, it is such a small thing to send donated books to prisoners. Now that you have first-hand experience with men and women whose lives you may be changing, what are your words of encouragement for us and our volunteers?
Prof. Roy – Try to imagine the world through the eyes of a human being who is incarcerated. These small acts of kindness can let a person know that they are not forgotten and cared for. Don’t underestimate the effect this can have on a human being, who is cut off from the outside world.
THE READER – Thank you very much for your time, Professor Roy, and thanks to you and your students for the work being done through WordsUncaged.
To learn more about WordsUncaged visit wordsuncaged.org