During his prosecutorial career in southern Minnesota, Nate Johnson mentored “a highly gifted young man named Joe,” who was serving a probationary sentence after “an extremely traumatic childhood.” While sitting down for an interview with the Star Tribune, Johnson said Joe eventually violated the terms of his probation in the fall of 2019, serving a sixty-day jail sentence with nothing but Bible lessons and twelve-step meetings to accompany him. Drawing from his experience with a workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Johnson taught Joe the art of free-writing “to help him stay sane;” this would evolve into the prison writing program “FreeWriters,” which encourages participants to complete three five-minute writing exercises per class.
If you’ve ever jaywalked or loitered in the United States, you’ve broken the law – that’s why Johnson’s efforts are so commendable in a country with the largest prison population in the world, where more citizens are incarcerated per capita than any military dictatorship. More than one inmate-writer claims FreeWriters positively impacted their mental health. “Thank you for getting me outta the unit,” one is quoted as saying.