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Former prosecutor teaches writing to help jail inmates choose better paths

Four days a week, Nate Johnson teaches freewriting at the Hennepin County Jail.

MINNEAPOLIS — As the inmates at the Hennepin County Jail can attest, it is difficult to erase one's past.

So, instead, this story begins at the pointed end of their pencils.

“Here we go, fellas,” the soft-spoken instructor said to the men dressed in jail-orange attire seated at tables in front of him.     

Nate Johnson gives the signal, and the men start writing. The room is quiet, but for the sound of pencil lead sprinting across paper.

“I founded FreeWriters just over two years ago,” Johnson said of his nonprofit organization.  

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE
Nate Johnson instructs a group of Hennepin County Jail inmates in freewriting.

Four times a week, he is here behind the jail’s locked doors, teaching freewriting to the men and women who occupy the Hennepin County Jail.

“What I’m hoping happens in some of these classes is that they can say something or write something that wakes something up in them,” Johnson said.

Freewriting is writing without rules. No concern about grammar or spelling. The only requirement is to keep writing.

Johnson uses a prompt, such as, “If you ask me...,” to signal the start of each five-minute writing burst.

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE
Hennepin County Jail inmates check in with Nate Johnson for a freewriting class.

Inmates are then given the option of reading their short essays to the class. Most take the opportunity.

“If you ask me how I grew up, I'd say I was spoiled. I had all the toys in the world,” Stephanie Clark read to the other woman in her group. “But if you ask me about my son I may cry. I miss him a lot right now,” she continued.

The group responds with supportive applause.

“This will be my third class here,” Clark said after class. “Writing helped me get out of my deep depression I was in when everything I am here for happened.”

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE
A Hennepin County Jail inmate participates in a freewriting class.

Johnson is an unlikely teacher of inmates.

“I was a prosecutor,” he says. “I was a prosecuting attorney in southern Minnesota."

The University of Iowa Law School graduate worked for eight months as assistant Waseca County attorney.

“I could see right away, this isn't for me,” Johnson says. “I was on the wrong side of things. I really tend to have compassion for people who have screwed up.”

Johnson says a freewriting class at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis helped him navigate the path that’s kept him sober.   

He shared the technique with a friend who was spending time behind bars.

“And, so, I said, ‘Joe, do you think the other guys in here would like this?’ And he said, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and that's when the idea for FreeWriters was born.”

Jaz Roberts holds his paper in front of his face, reading his newly written words to the other men in his freewriting group.

“Sometimes the man I see on the inside, is not the same as the man I allow to be seen on the outside,” he read.

Roberts says freewriting is healing.

“If I don't get it out, I'm not going to ever heal from it. So, when I'm able to let it out on the paper, it allows me let go of some of the baggage that I'm carrying.”

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE
Jaz Roberts reads his essay during a freewriting class at the Hennepin County Jail.

Hennepin County Sgt. Adam Hernke, the jail’s program coordinator, says everyone wins when inmates are in a better place emotionally.

“Helping them, what does that do?” Hernke asked rhetorically. “It helps our staff.”

Based on the success of the program, Johnson was named the 2021 Volunteer of the Year by the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association.

While no data exists to track inmates who’ve been exposed to freewriting, Johnson has gathered enough anecdotal evidence to be convinced of the program’s impact.

“If we don't treat them, if we don't give them a chance to express themselves and to heal emotionally, it's going to be worse for all of us,” he said. “Because most of these guys are getting out.” 

Credit: Devin Krinke, KARE
Sgt. Adam Hernke, program coordinator for the Hennepin County Jail, says freewriting is beneficial to both inmates and the jail staff.

Xavier Johnson reads his essay to the other men seated around him.

“If you ask me, I would erase my DOC number, get a master’s degree in art, so my lyrics never fail. If you ask me, I would turn the clock the other way,” he read.

At the end of the day, the inmates will still be locked up. 

But for their hour in the classroom, writing is freedom.

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