Bleak Walls, Bright Minds: In Their Own Words


Note: Travis W. of Iowa State Penitentiary wrote a chapter of this book. He is a member of one of the American Humanist Association’s first prison chapters and has previously written an Inside the Walls column for the AHA’s Humanist magazine. His chapter of this book provides a secular perspective.

Bleak Walls, Bright Minds: In Their Own Words is a collection of written works by twenty-seven people who are each serving a sentence of Life without Parole in Iowa prisons. They have committed some of the most serious offenses under Iowa law and have spent years in confinement trying to make some kind of sense of their sentences. They have grappled with questions about what they have done and how to move forward from it. They are proud to explain how they have educated themselves, mentored each other, or discovered a passion for a talent or a cause.

Some challenge the concept of justice as it applies to their cases. Some work to stay connected to family. Each story is different, but they have in common the likelihood that the writers will never live a life outside of prison. Iowa’s constitution grants the governor the power to commute a life sentence but in recent history, this power has rarely been used. The author reviews Iowa’s commutation record and discusses ways in which judicial thinking has changed toward life without parole. She then offers the reader the opportunity to hear about life behind bars from people who live there.

As a behavioral therapist, author Sue Hutchins has always been interested in helping families. About 20 years ago she began working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Las Cruces, NM, to assist inmates returning to their families.  When she retired and moved to Iowa, Sue joined or was involved in the creation of several non-profits supporting incarcerated individuals, their families, and prison reform. She is co-chair and one of the founding members at the Iowa Justice Action Network, board member and current co-vice president at Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE of Iowa), and founder at Living Beyond the Bars. These organizations work to help families affected by Iowa’s prison system and they connected concerned families with Sue in a project that resulted in this book.

Bleak Walls, Bright Minds may provoke the reader to more closely scrutinize our prison system. Theoretically, community safety is achieved by incarcerating offenders. The system professes a goal of rehabilitation and offers inmates education and programs toward that goal. The system also judges the success of rehabilitation and, when successful, guides the transition back to life outside the prison so that parolees do not reoffend, their lives are successful, and the public remains safe. In such a system, the book asks, what can possibly be the value of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole? Why is the investment made in an inmate squandered by not completing the cycle? Why can’t any prisoner petition for review if certain criteria are met?

Stories in this book tell of personal struggles, of lessons learned and changes made, of remorse and reform. Not everyone in prison makes such changes but, when they do, shouldn’t they become eligible for parole?

You will probably not read Bleak Walls, Bright Minds for pleasure; you will read it for perspective. This book is an important look at a world unfamiliar to most of us and about which we have gotten much of our information from works of fiction. We are trained, in a sense, to expect danger and drama from prisoners so we tend to think incarceration is a sensible option. This book is non-fiction. These writers are real people. They write about how they have tried to create lives of purpose. So much of prison reform focuses on the parole process and the successful transition out of prison, but these writers will not benefit from that kind of reform. They get no parole; they are in prison for life. They want to tell you why that needs to change.