Inside Literary Prize Tour kicks off: A unique literary recognition judged by incarcerated individuals

April 2, 2024 Robert Abruzzese, Courthouse Editor
In this May 20, 2010 photo, a youth is seen in a mirror in the library at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Ethan Allen School Thursday, May 20, 2010, in Wales, Wis. States across the country are shutting down dozens of youth prisons like Ethan Allen School.
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The Inside Literary Prize, an initiative in the literary world where incarcerated individuals serve as the judges for a major U.S. book prize, embarked on its inaugural tour on Monday. Organized by Freedom Reads in collaboration with the National Book Foundation and the Center for Justice Innovation, the tour will visit 12 prisons across six states over the next eight weeks, featuring literary performances and readings by prominent writers and poets.

Among the distinguished participants are Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Roger Bonair-Agard, Natalie Diaz, Douglas Kearney and Reginald Dwayne Betts, an award-winning poet, writer and the founder and CEO of Freedom Reads. 

The initiative is part of a concerted effort to provide access to literature for people behind bars and to engage them in a nationwide conversation about books.

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“I like the way I put it to the folks inside when I made the video orientation for our hundreds of Inside Literary Prize judges,” said Betts. “What you have to remember is that your voice matters, your opinion matters, and that all of these writers that wanted to win this prize and didn’t, and the ones that will ultimately win, are excited and encouraged and happy to have you reading their work and talking about it.”

The prize, set to be awarded in June 2024, has attracted attention with its unique panel of judges and hundreds of incarcerated men and women. They will decide among four finalist titles, including “The Rabbit Hutch” by Tess Gunty, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories” by Jamil Jan Kochai, “South to America” by Imani Perry and “Best Barbarian” by Roger Reeves. These titles were shortlisted from the winners and finalists of the 2022 National Book Awards by a selection committee of incarcerated readers, writers, and librarians from Departments of Corrections.

Freedom Reads has already facilitated the distribution of the shortlisted books to the incarcerated judges, along with orientation sessions to guide their reading and deliberation. 

Courtney Bryan, executive director of the Center for Justice Innovation, remarked on the power of literature to connect humanity and foster deep, meaningful conversations among incarcerated book lovers.

“The Inside Literary Prize connects our shared humanity through the transformative power of literature,” said Bryan. “We are so proud to join with our partners to bring this tour to prisons across the country and share deep, meaningful conversations with hundreds of incarcerated book lovers.”

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