University Hills volunteer recognized for her work in prisons

Words Beyond Bars gives incarcerated men and women the opportunity to read and discuss books

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At one of its first book group meetings, 12 people wait eagerly as votes for books are tallied. Before the meeting ends, they will learn which books the group will read and discuss over the next four months. The books provide an outlet — the discussions are aimed to help the group grow — and the settings of the books provide freedom, at least temporarily, from prison life.

The nonprofit program is called Words Beyond Bars, started by Karen Lausa eight years ago when the former librarian was looking for a change, a way to connect her love of books to activism in the prison system.

“The program has gotten stronger and better and more transformative with every book we read,” Lausa, 48, said. “Through books, through reading, they (inmates) imagine a different possibility.”

Two inmates who have participated in the program nominated Lausa for the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award, which she received in February. The Minoru Yasui Community Award is run by The Denver Foundation and recognizes volunteers working with nonprofits throughout Colorado.

The inmates from Sterling, Colorado wrote in their nomination about how the book group impacted their lives, and even the way they looked at the world. The two men’s names were withheld for privacy reasons.

“I have been challenged so many times in my preconceptions. I’ve been forced to look deeply into myself and my biases, things I’d been taught growing up and to abandon so many incomplete or erroneous views,” one of the inmates wrote in the nomination. “I’ve also developed the ability to understand others who are different from me, whether from personal history or culture. This is because Karen’s groups provide a civil space where we can freely express ourselves while exploring very emotional and controversial things.”

The other inmate wrote how Books Beyond Bars has helped him find himself.

“I’ve been enjoying books I wouldn’t normally pick. I can definitely say that Words Beyond Bars is helping redefine me in many positive useful ways,” he wrote. “Ms. Lausa has encouraged me to become more than just a reader — she has empowered me to BE an avid inquisitive analyst of all that I read, see, speak and hear.”

Every two weeks, Lausa or one of her five volunteers head to six prisons throughout Colorado. In that two-week time frame, the group at that prison has read one book. Lausa and her volunteers then lead a discussion.

Most recently, Lausa’s group read “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover. The book proved to be a challenge for Lausa. Words Beyond Bars reads books in paperback since they are cheaper to get. But “Educated” has only been released in the United States in hardback. Luckily, Lausa was able to find paperback copies on Amazon from the United Kingdom.

“When I really believe that a book is going to be a huge impact on readers, I’ll do anything to get it to them,” she said.

To say that Lausa, a University Hills resident, loves books is an understatement.

At any given time, she’s reading about three novels. She also has what she calls a “bizarre hobby” of religiously reading book reviews. Lausa listens to podcasts about books and has websites she frequently checks for new ones. She uses this skill to help pick a selection of books for the prison groups.

Not every book the groups have read was a success. In fact, her first choice for her first foray into a prison, at Limon Correctional Facility in eastern Colorado, didn’t work well.

“Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove,” was written by Jeff Henderson, who went from drug dealing to prison, and then to chef at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. She found that the readers were not interested in reading about people who had been in prison.

“They blew me away with their assessment,” she said. “They’ve taught me more than I could teach them, that’s for sure.”

The success of Words Beyond Bars largely depends on the support of programs and education teams within the prisons, along with the buy-in from the staff, who select participants from the inmates, Lausa said. Words Beyond Bars works with both men and women.

Now that Words Beyond Bars has been established in six Colorado prisons, Lausa said the program is hoping to expand to California. She has begun working with Leslie Schwawrtz, author of “The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time,” about the books she read while serving a 90-day prison sentence in Los Angeles. Schwartz will be leading the Words Beyond Bars program in California.

Although Lausa has left the public library world, and many of her friends are starting to retire, she said she’s not finished working yet.

“I’m just getting started,” she said. “I’m fueled by momentum and ideas and I’m not even close to hanging up my book shoes.”

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