Lauren Kessler's latest book explores the journey from caged to free
Eugene author Lauren Kessler’s latest book is called Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home. It describes the reentry process for six different individuals. Kessler spoke with KLCC’s Rachael McDonald.
Rachael McDonald: It seems clear that this book was sort of a necessary project after your previous book, A Grip in Time. Can you talk about how this came about?
Lauren Kessler: Well, it was yes, it was necessary. When I found out that 95% of people who spend time in prison get out. I realized that we not only had a crisis of incarceration, we had a crisis of reentry. And this is about reentry.
McDonald: And just to touch on A Grip in Time. Can you remind us what that book focused on?
Kessler: A Grip in Time was about the life that one makes for oneself when that life is spent entirely in prison. So, the other connection between those two books is when you spend 20 or 30 or 35 years in prison and then you are freed, what kind of person are you and did you have to become in order to survive in prison? And is that kind of person, what are the challenges in being free after you have been incarcerated?
McDonald: And so, in your new book, Free, you share stories of people who are in this challenging transition. How? I know you can't go into your whole method, but, you know, how did you connect with these people and how did you how were you able to tell their stories?
Kessler: Well, so much of this is about trust. They have to trust me with their stories. And that, that doesn't happen overnight. And particularly it doesn't happen overnight with people who have learned, and this this is they have correctly learned, not to trust people. So it was a process. Two of the people in the book I knew before, because they were part of A Grip of Time and they also helped me reach out to other folks. So I had kind of that credibility with them.
McDonald: Your book is told with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you describe how harrowing it was for Sterling Cuneo, who was in the Oregon State prison during the worst of the outbreaks there. Can you share a little bit of what he told you?
Kessler: Well, I think that, whether people were paying attention to this news as it happened or whether we were also concerned with our own health, but prisons, not just here in Oregon, but across the country, were hotbeds of disease. More disease happened, more death happened, more serious disease happened in prisons than in the general population outside. There were lockdowns. When you're in a prison, social distancing is an absurd concept. And you have the prison employees, the guards, coming in and out in three different shifts from their own families and communities into the environment. So it is just, it's an impossible situation. And, in general, we that is, the United States, didn't react very quickly with testing and with vaccinations. So that was that was also in there. The other thing about being sick in prison is that in order to isolate, you actually were put in literal isolation as in the punishment isolation cell. And so people didn't want that to happen. And so oftentimes they were sick all by themselves and didn't want to out themselves as being sick.
McDonald: We're speaking with writer Lauren Kessler about her latest book, Free. So so in this book, you do profiles six different people who come out of prison and they each have a different story. Can you talk a little bit about the range of experiences and people?
Kessler: Yeah, since six seem to be the maximum amount that a reader could focus on I didn't I didn't want to do more than that. So they are two women and four men. And that mix was because there are so many more men incarcerated than women. I would would have liked to do 50/50. But that didn't seem fair to the demographics of the racial mix is white, black, brown. And the age mix in terms of when they got out at an age ranged from 30 to 60. When they went in is another story. There were a couple of people who went into prison for crimes they committed when they were teenagers and sometimes young teenagers like 14 or 16. And that transition then back to the free world is even more striking than it would be for somebody else. And you would think at first, well, you know what meets them? They've never gone on the Internet. They don't know what “to Google” means. They've never held a device in their hands that does everything. And that is important and significant. But I'll tell you, as I continue to be part of these people's lives, what was far more significant was the internal work that people had to do without generally any help of relearning how to be a functioning human, a functioning feeling human in the free world. Because what they had learned and what kept them surviving in prison was a different set of life skills than what you need out here. So the transition of finding housing, finding a job, getting set with your health benefits, all those, you know, going to the DMV, meeting your parole officer, this huge checklist. But there is not really a checklist for the internal work. And that, I think, is the most significant and and most important.
McDonald: What would you like people to get from this book in terms of how they see? The prison system and and how we how we punish people for crimes.
Kessler: I think that. I mean, that is a very good and important question. And I, I do think that when people do harmful, bad things, they need to be accountable for it, and restorative justice, and that work is very important. And I guess imprisonment is part of punishing people. But if you create an environment for people in prison that is toxic and violent and distrustful, and then you let them out and then you expect them overnight to be wonderful citizens, you're making your communities unsafe and you're doing a tremendous disservice to people who have actually spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to make themselves into better people so that they can function. So I think we need to look at reentry is tough, but it's tougher when you come from a horrible environment. And so we're creating we have created these toxic, violent environments. And people have to learn how to remain sane and safe. And then the door opens and they're out.
McDonald: Lauren Kessler is the author of Free: two Years, Six Lives and the Long Journey Home. Lauren, and one of the people in the book, Sterling Cuneo, will be at Tsunami Books in Eugene Thursday (5/19) evening at 7:00. Lauren will also read at First United Methodist Church in Eugene on Sunday, May 22nd at 11:30 a.m.
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