Bringing literary freedom to those behind bars: The USC PEP Readers’ Circle
- Literature written in prison has a robust history — some of the most influential pieces of writing, such as Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, were penned behind bars.
- USC PEP Readers’ Circle, founded by USC Dornsife alumna Keziah Poole ’21, gives incarcerated people access to typing, editing and proofreading service they wouldn’t normally receive.
- Trojan students and faculty help with hundreds of submissions from prisoners, including poetry, personal essays and sci-fi novels.
Literature written in prison has a surprisingly robust history. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail might be the first work that springs to mind, but did you know that John Bunyan began his Christian classic The Pilgrim’s Progress while serving time in a county prison three centuries earlier?
French writer Jean Genet handwrote his first novel while imprisoned near Paris in the 1940s, and more recently, Nico Walker typed up his acclaimed debut book, Cherry, on a prison typewriter in Kentucky.
Writing behind bars is an uphill battle, however. Many residents don’t have access to computers, internet access is severely rationed and there’s little chance of reaching an editor while serving out a sentence.
A new initiative started by USC Dornsife Letters, Arts and Sciences alumna Keziah Poole ’21 is helping to fill this gap. The USC PEP Readers’ Circle, hosted by the USC Dornsife Prison Education Project (PEP), matches prisoners and those recently released from prison with volunteer USC faculty members and students, who provide assistance with writing projects. Help ranges from typing up handwritten work to copyediting to providing feedback on manuscripts.
“We have a lot of participants saying, ‘My family is proud of me for the first time, now that I’m able to produce this writing,’” says Poole. “We’ve also had people who have been published as a result of our assistance.”
Poole is currently an American Council of Learned Societies Leading Edge Fellow at the Petey Greene Program in Washington, D.C., where she helps with their College Bridge program in the D.C. jail while continuing her work with The Readers’ Circle.
Writing help for those behind bars
The Readers’ Circle sprang from Poole’s time teaching classes through USC PEP, while completing her PhD in comparative literature at USC Dornsife. PEP arranges for USC faculty to teach classes inside prisons, with undergraduate students providing classroom assistance.
In the spring of 2021, Poole taught a creative writing class at Amity House in Los Angeles, which helps formerly incarcerated men navigate reentry into society following their release from prison, and she spent the summer teaching at the Halawa Correctional Facility in Hawaii. Many of her students were eager to continue receiving help with their writing after her classes had wrapped up.
Poole discussed her dilemma with Nik De Dominic, associate professor (teaching) of writing, and Kate Levin, assistant professor (teaching) of writing, both co-directors of USC PEP. With their help, Poole launched The Readers’ Circle in February 2022.
Prisoners mail in their writing, along with requests for services, to The Readers’ Circle office. Student workers scan and anonymize submissions, then Poole sends out a call to volunteers to see who might be interested in lending a hand. Requested tasks include typing up handwritten writing, proofreading, copyediting and general feedback. The completed documents are then printed and returned.
So far, submissions have ranged widely, from poetry to sci-fi novels to personal essays. One group of volunteers recently hosted a live read of a submission, gathering collective feedback.
Abhiraj Giritharan, a law, history, and culture major, is the student director overseeing submissions to the program. He first met Poole when he was a teaching assistant for one of her classes, then stuck around to help her launch The Readers’ Circle.
The experience has aligned well with his career goals, he says, as he’s hoping to work with criminal defendants as a lawyer.
“But, working at The Readers’ Circle is also invaluable to my role as a citizen,” adds Giritharan. “People in America are generally unaware of the reality of incarceration. The Readers’ Circle gives our volunteers direct access to the perspectives of incarcerated people via the creative works they make in the complex conditions of a prison cell.”
This unique experience is available to other undergraduates, as well. PEP partners with the USC Writing Program in a community engagement course, where participation in The Readers’ Circle is one of the class requirements.
Awareness of The Reader’s Circle goes national
The program has grown steadily since its launch, especially after PEP hosted a writing competition for incarcerated individuals in 2022 that brought in over 600 submissions. Each of those entrants received a flier advertising The Readers’ Circle services, which spread the word to people in custody across the United States.
The Readers’ Circle leaders are now working on adding a Spanish-language component to the program to help the many incarcerated individuals for whom Spanish is their primary language.
For prisoners who are in solitary confinement, under sanctions or in remote areas without programming, mail correspondence with The Readers’ Circle is their only lifeline to the outside world. For others, it’s helping them advocate for prison reform.
“Many of the pieces I’ve edited aim to share what being incarcerated is like in hopes of changing the system, whether that’s through sharing nonfiction stories or sending letters and propositions to those in power. By offering feedback, we can help polish writing before it reaches a larger audience,” says The Readers’ Circle volunteer Rachel Robson, who graduated in 2022 from USC Dornsife with a bachelor’s degree in English and is now pursuing a Master of Arts in literary editing and publishing.
Perhaps most important, The Readers’ Circle has helped make these writers feel more human, an essential element for any successful rehabilitation program.
“Just knowing that there [are] organizations, universities and politicians willing to invest in me, then for sure I’m [going to] invest in myself. It’s boosting my confidence to pursue my goals, dreams and freedom,” wrote one participant.
If you are interested in volunteering with The Readers’ Circle, please sign-up here.